Sunday’s Super Bowl matchup between Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers sees a matchup between two head coaches who are regarded amongst the most innovative and exciting offensive play callers in the league.
Both Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid have a reputation for putting together relentless, touchdown scoring juggernauts and their units on that side of ball share a heavy dose of blazing speed. The matchup in Miami could end up being something of a track meet with both head coaches’ penchant for getting the ball in the hands of speedsters Deebo Samuel and Matt Breida (for the Niners) or Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson (for the Chiefs).
Few would have pegged Shanahan’s Niners to be competing for the Lombardi at the start of the season and whilst Reid’s Chiefs would always be considered title contenders due to the presence of transcendent quarterback Patrick Mahomes, most analysts would have expected the defence to remain the franchise’s Achilles heel.
In fact, whilst both teams are renowned for their offensive prowess, they equally have their defensive units to thank for getting them to the big game.
San Francisco’s stoutness on defence has been well noted this year, earning defensive coordinator Robert Salah head coaching interviews with teams such as the Cleveland Browns. They ranked second in the league behind the Patriots, holding opponents to an average of 281.8 yards/game. Much of that production has been powered by an intimidating defensive line including first round picks DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa. That trio account for 55% of the Niners sacks this year, putting up 26.5 quarterback takedowns.
Importance of the pass rush
One can’t help but feel that the defensive line and pass rush will be one of the major key’s to victory in this game. Mahomes and the Kansas City offence looked discombobulated early in the AFC Championship Game against the Titans when Dean Pees’ offense got free runners through to the quarterback. The aforementioned Buckner, Armstead and Bosa, in addition to ex-Chief Dee Ford, will be tasked with knocking Reid and Mahomes’ passing game out of sync.
Remaining on the defensive side of the ball, the Chiefs themselves have quietly made significant progress in that regard this year. I was more than unimpressed with the hire of coordinator Steve Spagnuolo in the offseason, given the record of the ex-Giants coach. However, Kansas City actually has the 17th best defence in the league in terms of yards allowed per game. That might not sound impressive but its been enough of an improvement to mean Mahomes and Reid don’t need to put up 50 points every week in order to emerge with the win.
They’ll be looking to their own front seven to bottle up Shanahan’s revolving door of running backs, with defensive tackle Chris Jones bearing much of the weight of that responsibility, despite his postseason being marred by injury.
Reid, Shanahan built reputations on offence
It is on offence, however, that both head coaches have built their reputations, though with a very different focus. Shanahan is renowned for his running game which he’s rejuvenated at every franchise he’s stopped at whereas Reid is a leading example of how to run an explosive passing attack.
Both are examples of the modern NFL: Reid’s offence can rack up video game numbers (such as erasing a 24-point deficit versus the Texans in the divisional round) whereas Shanahan, for all his focus on the ground game, isn’t a throwback to the days of 3 yards and a cloud of dust. Instead he incorporates a range of formations, motions and jet sweeps involving multiple running backs throughout the course of a game.
Shanahan has squeezed dominant season long performances out of players like Alfred Morris (with Washington) and Devonta Freeman (with the Falcons) during his time in the league. His impact on those players’ performances has been as notable as the fact that they haven’t quite hit the same heights in their career since losing him as a coordinator. This year he’s worked his magic with former undrafted free agents Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, with the latter player in particular featuring as San Francisco’s lead back for a significant portion of the postseason.
Reid capable of magic
Reid is no stranger to creating magic out of very little. The Chiefs offence relies on Mahomes’ play and Reid’s offensive scheming utilising previously unheralded players to create offensive fireworks. Controversial receiver Hill has become renowned in the league for his play, due to Reid’s ability to scheme him open on go routes or get him the ball in space on running plays. It’s fair to question whether players like Robinson would be quite as productive on any other franchise’s roster. On top of that, tight end Travis Kelce has become a star in the league under Reid’s play calling.
Both Reid and Shanahan’s strengths on offence match up with what could be perceived as their opponent’s defensive vulnerabilities. The Chiefs, for instance, gave up an average of 128.2 rushing yards/game during the regular season, good for 7th worst in the league. Whilst the Niners defence has performed at an elite level this year, on paper it could be argued that it may be possible to expose the secondary with the speed of the Chiefs’ receiving corps.
Career-defining Super Bowl
Whoever emerges victorious on Sunday, the losing coach will feel the added weight of history on them. Reid will be seeking to shed the bridesmaid tag attached to his teams during his time in the NFL, and to put to bed those questions of his status as a modern NFL coaching great if he hasn’t won the Lombardi. His teams have made it to the playoffs 14 times in his 20-year coaching career, though ending with eventual defeat every time.
Shanahan himself will be looking to atone for the notorious defeat of the Atlanta Falcons, whom he was the offensive coordinator of, in Super Bowl LI when a 28-3 lead over the Patriots was erased in spectacular fashion.
One last statistic shows how close this game could be: San Francisco have only given up more than 30 points twice this season, against the Saints and the Rams. Both games ended in victory for the Niners. The Chiefs, on the other hand, have surpassed that number on offence six times this year. Either way, in Miami on Sunday, something will have to give.