Inside the Chiefs-49ers chess match that set up Kansas City to win the Super Bowl
LAS VEGAS — Two blitzes late in Super Bowl LVIII helped the Kansas City Chiefs cement their dynasty.
Before quarterback Patrick Mahomes could deliver his heroics in overtime, before receiver Mecole Hardman made the most significant touchdown reception of his five-year career and before coach Andy Reid could hoist his third Lombardi Trophy in five years, the Chiefs offense needed its defense to make critical, game-saving stops on third down.
Before each snap, Kyle Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers coach and offensive play caller, knew what to expect from Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo: a gash-or-be-gashed blitz.
The first pivotal snap came after the two-minute warning in the fourth quarter. The 49ers faced a third-and-5 play from the Chiefs’ 35-yard line. A conversion from quarterback Brock Purdy would’ve allowed the 49ers to maintain possession of the ball while keeping the clock moving, forcing the Chiefs to use their final two timeouts, before setting up a potential game-winning field goal for kicker Jake Moody as the final play of regulation. Correctly anticipating a blitz, Shanahan made a small concession: He had tight end George Kittle stay in the backfield as the 49ers’ sixth pass blocker.
Spagnuolo, though, countered with one of his favorite six-man blitzes. Cornerback Trent McDuffie, who lined up in the slot, appeared to be in a matchup with receiver Brandon Aiyuk before the ball was snapped.
“He called on the DBs in the second half,” McDuffie said of Spagnuolo. “He was like, ‘I’m going to play a lot more man (coverage).’ I’m so happy we responded.”
When Purdy dropped his eyes to receive the shotgun snap, McDuffie sprinted toward the quarterback, his body directly in the passing lane where Purdy wanted to throw a short pass to Aiyuk, who ran a slant route. The play marked the 16th time this season, including the postseason, when McDuffie generated unblocked pressure on the quarterback, five more than any other defensive back in the league, according to Next Gen Stats.
McDuffie got a hand on the pass, which fell incomplete.
McDUFFIE WITH THE BIG PLAY 😤 pic.twitter.com/l7m7lAfnT3
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) February 12, 2024
In the final three quarters of Sunday’s game, Spagnuolo’s unit held the 49ers offense to 12 points. Spagnuolo increased his blitzes, too, to better collapse the pocket. Six defenders hit Purdy. The Chiefs defense blitzed on 51.2 percent of Purdy’s dropbacks, their fourth-highest rate in a game since Spagnuolo joined the team in 2019.
“We were going to come out there with some fire,” safety Justin Reid said. “We didn’t have anyone playing hero ball. We just played tough, physical, fundamentally sound defense. And when you have 11 dawgs on the field doing that, good things tend to happen.”
The Chiefs generated a season-high nine unblocked pressures, all of which came on blitzes, according to Next Gen Stats.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job this entire year,” right guard Trey Smith said of his defensive teammates. “We have a lot of special players, the way they feed off each other’s energy. For example, someone’s going to rake the ball out, someone’s going to get a big stop and every time we needed the defense to come through in a big way, they always did this year. In my opinion, the defense absolutely balled out this last game.”
On 3rd & 5 with two minutes left in regulation, the Chiefs defense came out with 7 defensive backs on the field.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 12, 2024
With less than two minutes left in regulation, Mahomes led the Chiefs on a game-tying drive, going 64 yards before Harrison Butker kicked a 29-yard field goal to make it a 19-19 game.
Shanahan made an interesting decision when the 49ers won the coin toss before the start of overtime. He decided to have the 49ers take the ball first. The mission for the Chiefs defense was simple: Just don’t surrender a touchdown.
“We talked about it when we went to (a) TV break and they were on the 25, that whatever we do, we can’t let them score (a touchdown). If we can keep them to three, this game is won,” pass rusher Chris Jones said. “We were able to do that.”
Although Jones never sacked Purdy, he pressured him throughout the second half, hitting the quarterback twice and generating a team-high six pressures on 35 pass-rush snaps, three of which came in under 2.5 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats.
Spagnuolo broke his play-calling tendency for the Chiefs’ final defensive play, a third-and-5 snap from the 9-yard line. The Chiefs surprised Purdy with a Cover 0 blitz.
“They were just sticky across the board when they played man coverage,” Purdy said of the Chiefs’ secondary. “On third down, I have to execute better. For our defense to give us that many stops like they did, and then for us to not do anything with those opportunities, that’s what hurts me.”
— Sam Hoppen (@SamHoppen) February 12, 2024
Before the ball was snapped on third-and-5, Spagnuolo matched his best cornerbacks, McDuffie and L’Jarius Sneed, on Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel, the 49ers’ best receivers. Once again, Shanahan made another small concession: He had running back Christian McCaffrey motion, from right to left, across the formation before chip-blocking for Purdy.
The secondary — including McDuffie and safeties Mike Edwards and Chamarri Conner — covered the 49ers’ skill-position players well enough for two seconds, which was all the time Jones needed to hit Purdy, who threw an incompletion.
“Chris has been electric all year,” Sneed said. “I love playing with him. I love being his teammate. He’s such a great leader.”
After the game, on the field and during the celebration inside the home locker room, several players — Reid, Jones, Sneed, McDuffie and even rookie receiver Rashee Rice — shouted the four-word phrase that became the mantra of the Chiefs defense during the postseason: “In Spags we trust!”
Spagnuolo shared his perspective on what led him to call such a rare blitz inside the red zone, a call that helped the Chiefs become the NFL’s first repeat champion in two decades.
“We had that as a third-down call throughout the game and we couldn’t get it,” Spagnuolo said. “We had it called one time and I think they went offside, so you just tuck it in your back pocket. I figured, ‘Hey, it’s a critical time, so pull it out.’ The guys did a nice job.”
(Photo of Trent McDuffie and Brock Purdy: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)