One of the most jarring aspects of the San Francisco 49ers’ first-half struggles across their opening two playoff games was the lacklustre performance of the offense.
In each of the two first halves against both the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round and the Detroit Lions in the NFC Championship Game, the 49ers struggled to find the devastating offensive consistency that had defined a spectacular regular season. The 49ers managed only seven points in the first half of both of those games, but delivered a reminder of why they had the best offense in the league in the regular season as they punched their ticket to Super Bowl 58.
San Francisco scored 27 unanswered points in the second half of the NFC title game win over the Lions, recovering from a 24-7 half-time deficit in scarcely believable fashion.
That barrage was reflective of the 49ers’ offensive firepower that is the envy of the NFL, but in San Francisco’s Super Bowl 58 matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Niners’ high-powered attack will be matched up against one of the better defenses in the league this season, led by one of the finest play-callers on either side of the ball in the league in the form of Steve Spagnuolo.
Spagnuolo, the sage defensive mind who helped the 2007 New York Giants improbably upset the undefeated New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, remains on the Chiefs staff having helped them defeat the Niners in Super Bowl 54, and Kansas City’s defensive coordinator will be determined to ensure his gameplan shackles an offense few in the 2023 season have been able to contain.
To do so, Spagnuolo is likely to send pressure, having long since been renowned as of the most aggressive defensive coordinators in the NFL. The Chiefs had the seventh-highest pressure rate in the league in the regular season but, with Spagnuolo also favoring disguised pass coverage looks, there is a lot for Brock Purdy to figure out as he looks to outduel Patrick Mahomes in the biggest game of his fledgling career.
“You know, Spags does a good job of calling plays and pressures when you least expect it and try to get the offense caught off the guard,” Purdy said earlier this week.
“That’s the challenge, it’s going to come down to the heat of the battle, being ready for it and making the right decisions when they come.”
As much as there is obviously significant pressure on Purdy’s shoulders, there is similarly substantial onus on those on the offensive line tasked with protecting him, not least a center in Jake Brendel charged with calling the protections the 49ers hope will keep Purdy clean against Spagnuolo’s blitz-heavy approach.
And for Brendel, a former undrafted free agent who has risen to the rank of starter at one of the most important positions on the offense, the secret in preparing for a coordinator as unpredictable as Spagnuolo is all in the details.
“You really got to be ready for everything,” said Brendel. “You can watch as much film as you want, but they’re always gonna bring something like something new that you haven’t seen, and you’ve just got to be able to adapt on the fly and on the run and when they do do something that you’ve seen before on film you’ve got to make sure you pick that up because there’s really no there’s no excuse, especially coming into the Super Bowl, having an entire season to watch of film, there’s no excuse for you to not have the stuff that’s on film down to a science.”
The 49ers are blessed with a group of offensive weapons that is arguably the most versatile in the NFL, with their interchangeability and success in manipulating defenses one of the primary reasons why Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 draft, has found such incredible success so early in his career.
Yet, as All-Pro tight end George Kittle explained, the Chiefs possess a group of secondary defenders well-equipped to deal with the challenges the 49ers present
“They run very unique coverages that not a lot of other teams run. And then there are four guys plus their linebackers. If you watch the tape, one thing that they’re doing at a very high level is communicating,” Kittle said.
“And so we’re a team that we have guys in motion, and then they’ll run back the other way. There’s all these motions and try to get guys that they have to bump gaps with all those motions and run fits and stuff like that. And they just do such a good job of communicating, they never get missed, like they always are in the right place the right time, no matter how many motions you do, and they know exactly how to run their defense.
“And that’s one of the most impressive things because I think our team our offense is very difficult to run against if you’re not used to something like that. And like you see that for a lot of like a lot of our big plays our one guy took the wrong step because one of the motions were able to dig that guy out instead of him hitting the C gap and then oh oh here’s Christian McCaffrey, one on one versus a safety and so like, they do a very good job of communicating. I think that’s gonna be one of the biggest difficulties for us.”
The strength the Chiefs’ secondary has in communicating and switching assignments would appear to give them an edge and allow Kansas City to stay aggressive in getting after Purdy and unsettling him to the point where barrages akin to the 27-point second-half deluge against Detroit are beyond the Niners.
But no NFL offense has done a better job of punishing over ambitious defenses, with Purdy averaging a league-high 10.6 yards per attempt against the blitz. If Brendel and a 49er offensive line that, outside of All-Pro Trent Williams, has been consistently maligned, can find an answer to what Spagnuolo throws in its direction, San Francisco’s attack will be in an excellent position to consign the the inconsistencies of the previous weeks of the postseason to history.