‘Out of their minds’: Chiefs Super Bowl-caliber defense vs. The 49ers play, as they have all season

For most of the past six seasons, the Kansas City Chiefs offense has been the headliner — not just for their team, but for the entire league. Since Patrick Mahomes took over at center, he, Andy Reid, Travis Kelce, and formerly Tyreek Hill, have simply destroyed opposing defenses, to the point that Kansas City’s own defense has largely been an afterthought. All the chiefs really needed from Steve Spagnolo’s unit was to not mess things up.

But after their most recent Super Bowl win — a 25-22 overtime classic come from behind — it’s remarkably clear that’s no longer the case. While Mahomes, Kelce and, finally, McCall Hardman had opportunities to deliver dramatic game-tying and game-winning drives at the end of regulation and overtime, Kansas City’s defense has been the better unit this season, and played its own game. A big role in defeating the San Francisco 49ers.

Kansas City finished second in the NFL in both yards and points allowed, seventh in FTN’s defensive DVOA and fifth in True Media’s version of EPA/Play. In the Super Bowl, they ran against a San Francisco offense that finished second in yards and third in points, as well as first in both DVOA and EPA/play.

The 49ers averaged a league-best 6.6 yards per play during the regular season. They limped to 5.3 per game in the Super Bowl. The Niners were the league’s fourth-best third-down offense this year, converting 47.5% of their chances. They went just 3 of 12 on Sunday — a 25.0% conversion rate. They were also the NFL’s best red-zone team this season, scoring touchdowns on 67.2% of their trips inside the 20-yard line. But they went just 1 of 2 on Sunday, with the Chiefs driving down and holding them to a field goal on the opening drive of overtime, setting the stage for Mahomes’ feat.

Throughout the season, the Chiefs resisted the passing game, and they mostly did the same against San Francisco. Brock Purdy completed 69.2% of his passes and led the NFL with an average of 9.6 yards per attempt during the regular season. He went just 23 of 38 (60.5%) and averaged just 6.7 yards per attempt against the Chiefs on Sunday night. Purdy led the NFL in explosive pass rate during the regular season, with nearly 15% of his passes gaining 20 or more yards. On Sunday night, that figure dropped below 10%. According to True Media, he averaged 9.8 yards per attempt when throwing down the middle of the field during the regular season. But the Chiefs held him to 8.5 per attempt on those throws in the Super Bowl.

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in rushing during the regular season, averaging 91.2 yards per game and 5.4 yards per attempt on the ground. Kansas City’s much-maligned run defense stepped up in a big way, and its 22 carries on Sunday night yielded just 80 yards — an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. Of the 53 players with at least 100 carries this season, only one player had an explosive advantage on a larger portion of his carries than McCaffrey. On Sunday night, he had zero explosive rushes.

All-Pro corner Trent McDuffie got his hands on the ball multiple times. So was safety Mike Edwards. L’Jarius Sneed tangled with Brandon Aiyuk all night and held him to just 3 catches for 49 yards. Ayuk, a second-team All-Pro, is averaging more than 89 yards per game this season. DeBo Samuel had just 3 catches for 33 yards on 11 targets. He averaged over 10 yards per target during the regular season, but was just 3.0 on Sunday. George Kittle was rarely targeted, and ended up with 2 grabs for just 4 yards. According to True Media, 49 pass-catchers averaged a league-best 6.6 yards per reception during the regular season. They were held to half a yard less than that in the Super Bowl.

Time and time again, Chris Jones broke the line of scrimmage and made sure Purdy couldn’t get the ball on time and on target. Kansas City hit Purdy 11 times on its 42 dropbacks. George Karlaftis, Mike Pennell and Leo Chanel combined for one of the biggest plays of the game to force and then recover the opening possession of the night. Nick Bolton was flying around the field, making an incredible 13 tackles. Rookie Felix Anudike-Uzoma filled in for the injured Charles Omenihu in the backfield.

After the game, from the podium, Reed said his defense played “out of their minds” Sunday night. In past years, with previous iterations of this defense, it may have been accurate. But this year, with this defense, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The group simply did what it had been doing all year — standard operating procedure. In the biggest game, in the biggest venues, Kansas City’s defense came through again and again, and it paid off the way it should have.

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