We are now just a week away from a mouthwatering Super Bowl in Miami, as we see two incredibly prominent offensive playcallers pit their wits against each other in the biggest game of them all. Andy Reid is widely regarded as the best offensive tactician of his generation and has his high powered offence purring under the leadership of reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes. Kyle Shanahan may well be the first in line to take the torch from Reid, leading his San Francisco 49ers to dominant wins over the Vikings and Packers behind a running game that is reminiscent of his father Mike’s scheme.
So, who are the men coaching on the other side of the ball who will no doubt have a huge deciding factor on the result of this game?
Steve Spagnuolo was a largely underwhelming hire during the offseason, tasked with creating a defensive unit worthy of complementing one of the very best offences in the league. ‘Spags’ famously has a lot of Super Bowl pedigree, leading a Giants defence to a spectacular upset win over the previously perfect Patriots in 2007. In a game defined by Eli Manning, David Tyree and the “helmet catch”, it is often forgotten that Spagnuolo’s defence held Tom Brady and the Patriots to just 14 points and a modest 274 total yards of offence.
The Chiefs defence was their downfall last season, imploding down the stretch as their secondary was repeatedly torched in big games. Spagnuolo has overseen big improvements as the season has progressed. After a slow start to the season where his unit ranked 27th in yards allowed, 19th in points allowed and 30th against the run after six weeks, the Chiefs D improved to 17th, 7th and 26th, respectively, by the end of the season. Over the last five regular season games the Chiefs yielded only 10 points per game.
It is also important to point out that after poor starts to both postseason games, the defence stepped up and refused to cave, a crippling flaw that they have been guilty of in previous years. A fine representation of their turnaround so far is the job the Chiefs D did in stopping Derrick Henry.
In his two postseason starts prior, Henry had become the first rusher in history with back-to-back games of 180 yards on the ground. The Chiefs stymied him and allowed him only 69 yards on 16 carries. It is however worth mentioning that the 49ers running game is far more versatile than the traditional power-running game used by the Titans. Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida each possess unique skill sets and represent incredibly tough match up challenges for the Chiefs. Look for Spagnuolo to utilise the skills of star safety Tyrann Mathieu, who has arguably been the best defensive player in the league over the last six weeks of the season and possesses the football IQ needed to keep up with Shanahan’s constant use of motion and misdirection. Against the Titans, Spagnuolo and his unit adopted a swarming mindset and they will need disciplined performances from linemen Frank Clark, Emmanuel Ogbah and the impressive Chris Jones in maintaining their edge and gap assignments.
When faced with a Shanahan-led offence, Spags is only 1-5. But it can be argued that he’s never had the talent at his disposal that he does with these Chiefs.
After a run of relative anonymity followed a failed stint as head coach of the Rams, can Spags once again produce a gameplan to stop a high powered opponent? Given his history, you’d be brave to bet against him.
Robert Saleh is the man charged with the task of stopping a juggernaut Chiefs offence, as the defensive coordinator of the 49ers. Saleh has emerged as a budding coach this year, narrowly missing out on a head coaching gig that is surely in his future. His talent-rich unit posted mightily impressive numbers in the regular season, giving up 169.2ypg in the air and only 281.8ypg in total offence, stats that both rank first in the league.
In Nick Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Sheldon Day and Dee Ford, Saleh has an absolutely ferocious defensive line rotation, producing the very definition of an elite pass rush. That level of quality pass rush has enabled Saleh to adopt zone coverage for the large majority of the season, but that could be a tremendously risky plan against Mahomes.
Against zone defences this season, Mahomes posted an absolutely ludicrous QBR of 91.3, with a 71% completion rate at 9.4 yards per attempt. Playing zone against the most talented quarterback in the league who is incredibly mobile, accurate and blessed with arm strength may just be too much of a risk, even considering how good their pass rush is. Players that gifted will more often than not find gaps in a zone defence. If Saleh elects to play man coverage, look for him to use one of his impressive linebackers Fred Warner or Kwon Alexander to spy on Mahomes and also clog passing lanes in the middle of the field. It does however remain to be seen if Richard Sherman, who is no doubt a tremendous leader, can effectively play man against the fastest receiving corps in the NFL. Jimmy Ward has played well all year at safety and Saleh should be confident enough that he can play as a single high safety, covering deep as the corners play man.
If Saleh elects to stick with his favoured zone defence, he is asking a lot of his pass rush. The Chiefs offensive line has got stronger as the season has gone on and, according to NextGen Stats, have been the best in the league at holding blocks in the first 3 seconds of a pass play. It would be a big risk for Saleh to hope his linemen can hurry Mahomes fifty times and hope that will be enough.
What makes this Super Bowl so exciting is that the two battles of offence versus defence are so intriguing. We know the credentials of the offensive masterminds, but these two assistant coaches may very well be the guys that make the difference and win the Lombardi Trophy for their team.