Headed into Super Bowl 54 the spotlight was on the San Fransisco 49ers defense, as for most it was the topic of conversation all week long. For those who do not follow the Kansas City Chiefs, they gave the advantage defensively to the 49ers and some even believed that KC’s defense would not be up to the task, and even potentially cost the Chiefs the game. Those people have not watched this unit perform and grow through the season and did not realize the tremendous strides that Steve Spagnuolo’s unit has made over the course of 19 games. In two playoff games leading up to this point the defense had allowed some points early in the game but due to excellent adjustments they had only given up 14 points combined in the second half of both games. This time they would get the full firepower of one of the league’s most potent running attacks, as well as big shots from the budding weapon Deebo Samuel. However, like we have seen most of the season when the defense needed to step up they did, and they did in a big way.
The Chiefs defensive line played fantastic all night long, and it started on the first play of the game. SF tries to run outside zone with Kyle Juszczyk as a lead blocker from the fullback spot. George Kittle tries to reach Clark but Clark reads the play well and rips past Kittle go get back inside. Damien Wilson is chugging in hot to get to the gap but watches as Derrick Nnadi fights over a reach block from the guard to get into the backfield and get to Coleman for the loss. Winning plays on first down would be vital through the course of the game.
Kyle Shannahan didn’t waste time utilizing his best weapon in Deebo Samuel. They motion over Kittle and use some power action but Samuel is on the reverse. The action was enough to freeze the Chiefs LBs and draw them. Frank Clark actually sees this and tries to prevent Samuel from getting to the edge but there is just to much room in the middle. Tyrann Mathieu saves a touchdown but it’s a big rip into KC territory. To win the Super Bowl offenses need to create big plays and as I wrote in my preview on San Francisco’s offense would need to hit on big plays, and to do so they would need to use Samuel. He is their best weapon and early on it looked like they were going to keep trying to get him into space.
Reggie Ragland continued to thrive in his role as a stand up on the linebacker. The Chiefs interior D-line all pinch in to allow the backers to fill in. Ragland takes on the pulling guard and delivers a blow to him as Wilson comes down to fill. Ragland makes the tackle and limits the 49ers in short yardage. KC’s D-line came ready to play against the physical 49ers front.
I loved this play from Mike Pennel. SF is a screen heavy team on first down situations and they tried to get the playoff. Pennel reads the play perfectly and stops his rush up the field. He then gets between the offensive linemen designed to lead block for the screen for Mostert. Pennel blows the play up for a small gain as Terrell Suggs jumps in for the stop.
This play was interesting and would lead to some developments as the game would progress. Here Pennel has no chance for a sack but his effort to keep rushing puts some pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo. At the last second, he throws his hands up and while he doesn’t knock the pass down it seems to affect how accurately Garoppolo is allowed to pass. The ball was intended for Kittle but it brought up a fourth down that would lead to the SF field goal.
Chris Jones’s fingerprints were all over this game even though he was only credited with one tackle. Here SF uses some good motion to try to get Samuel open into space. However, as they try to open up the WR screen Jones comes running in with the linemen and gets to Samuel before the linemen are able to set up their blocks. He is not able to make the stop but Baushaud Breeland comes in for the TFL. Jones was ready to sell out and his recognition of the play was fantastic. The Chiefs limited SF on early downs, which was the key to success.
The Breeland interception was some of the best team defense of the day so I wanted to show off the wide view as well as the endzone. Below is the endzone clip. Jones fires off the ball and immediately grabs the guard’s outside hand and then rips his way into the pocket. Garoppolo avoids him but at the same time, Mike Pennel has split a double team between the LG and C, delivering a nice hit, forcing Garoppolo to awkwardly just throw the ball up.
The wide view is also awesome. There is not a soul open and it highlights how well the Chiefs covered Kittle. They have Sorensen play man on him and Wilson is ready to bracket if Kittle were to break over the middle or upfield. Excellent man coverage by the cornerbacks and Breeland reads the play perfectly and comes up with the big interception, just tapping both of his feet in bounds. The take away would lead to a KC field goal and give the Chiefs a 10-3 lead. However, the Defense would have to withstand a series of blows from San Francisco in the second and third quarters.
San Francisco would get their run game going and it would lead to them being able to get back into their play-action game. The Chiefs were looking to stop run early but as the 49ers fake the run Juszczyk just gets a step on Sorensen and is able to catch the angle route. A broken tackle later and he was in to tie the game. SF would continue their string of running play-action throughout the rest of the quarter.
On the third quarter’s opening drive, SF would drive down deep into KC’s side of the field. On third down, they try to go with a quick slant to Coleman who was lined up wide off of a pick play. Breeland avoids the pick man and while the ball is delivered to Coleman he quickly makes the stop to bring up fourth down. This would lead to an SF field goal giving them a slight edge on KC.
Garoppolo hooks up with Samuel again on play-action on a first down. KC would drop into a zone defense but Samuel has a deep incut that opens him up in the middle of the field. Sorensen is just a step late from his high safety spot. Ward had the boundary to cover in the zone and the middle was wide open. The drive would lead to a 49ers TD and a ten-point lead as the game would head into the fourth quarter.
With all the play-action passes KC’s commitment to the run would be tested. Down ten with eleven minutes to go, again the Chief’s ability to stop the run on early downs would help the defense as a whole.
Jones would record his only tackle of the day here as the Chiefs have to get into position to stop the run. When Kittle shifts the Chiefs walk up Wilson to the LOS and he and KPass crash down. Sorensen also comes into the box to crash, while Mathieu shifts to deep safety. Nnadi crashes into the center which affects his back block on the power. Jones beats the back block and wraps up Mostert for the gain of only one on first down.
The Chiefs would get the ball back but another late-game interception from Mahomes would once again put the Chiefs defense in a bind. Last year this would have been game over. This year the Chiefs stepped up more than we have seen in the past.
Chris Jones took a play that Pennel had tried to pull earlier to get his hands up to try to knock down the short to intermediate balls that Garoppolo thrives on. This sequence of play reminded me of a similar situation in last year’s Divisional Round vs Indianapolis. The Colts offense last year and this 49ers offense have many similarities, but a major one is that they both have solid interior offensive lines. Even for All Pro’s like Jones, getting consistent pressure when being double-teamed in slide protection all day is hard. But when you are 6ft6 with very long arms you can find ways to make an impact even without rushing. Jones swats the pass down as the pressure from a well-timed Corner and LB blitz forces Garoppolo to look to his quick game, where it appears Kittle was open. Big play to stop the clock. As well as spark KC’s epic comeback on offense, where the Chiefs would score ten unanswered. This would give the team a swagger and the defense would come out with an attitude to try to end the game. The blood was in the water.
With a four-point lead KC’s D would have to defend the field one more time to win the Lombardi Trophy. Wide pass rushes from Suggs and Clark make Garoppolo speed up his play. He locks in on Samuel who appears to be open off of a slant. Once again Chris Jones bats the low pass away. He read Garoppolo’s eyes all the way and was able to prevent the completion. Jones only had one tackle but he was the MVP of the defense on this day. He did everything in his power to make sure the Chiefs would win the game.
On a big fourth down Spags dialed up one of his best blitzes yet. Sorensen and Suggs take the outside on the left while Jones crashes back down to the inside. On the right, the Chiefs run a super loop T E stunt where KPass comes outside and Clark rushes back to the middle. Niemen also blitzes the outside. Jones slams into the center who was looking to block Clark, and this frees up Clark who jumps on Garoppolo to get the Chiefs off the field and set up the game sealing touchdown. Frank Clark once again comes up huge in a big moment of the game. His five playoff sacks lead all players this postseason as he showed he was worth every bit of the money KC paid him.
Clark almost gets a strip-sack in the final moment of an out of reach game. That almost gave hime two sacks and a forced fumble.
Clark is double covered by Staley and Kittle, but when Garoppolo steps up due to pressure from Jones, Clark is there and almost gets the ball. Garoppolo just gets it out but it was close. It would set up one of the most memorable plays in KC history.
Up eleven with just around a minute to go the Chiefs were still in attack mode. This time they would finish the game for good.
Garoppolo drops back but as seen in the endzone view below, Suggs, in what might have been his last pass rush ever, gets past Mike McGlinchy to speed up the throw. Garoppolo looks to throw it to his favorite deep target Samuel in the middle but the Chiefs are ready. Mathieu had the underneath coverage but Kendall Fuller was playing deep high safety. Fuller makes an excellent read on the ball and goes over Samuel for the interception. With the injury to Juan Thornhill in week 17, the Chiefs went deep safety by committee, running Fuller, Sorensen, and at times Armani Watts to roam the middle of the field. Fuller, who was acquired in the Alex Smith trade, etched his name into the history books with this sensational interception to close the door on a Super Bowl Championship.
With time comes change and no greater change was seen in the NFL than on the defensive side of the ball in Kansas City. Steve Spagnuolo and free-agent acquisitions in Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu helped change the culture and the way the unit played. Even when down by ten, with under ten minutes to go, they came out with the same swagger and attitude they had all season. They willed their way to winning. Chris Jones was phenomenal all game and was my defensive player of the game. If this was his last game in Kansas City then he went out with a bang.
Going forward Chiefs fans need to have a reason for optimism with this defense and some of it’s budding young stars. Another year in Spag’s system will only make them stronger as a unit. This is just the tip of the iceberg for how good this defense can be.