5 Trends to Know for Super Bowl LIV
On Sunday, the Kansas City Chiefs will face off against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 54. It is expected to be one of the better Super Bowl matchups in recent memory due to the strengths of each team.
Kansas City has had one of the most explosive offenses over the past couple of seasons, while San Francisco's defense was one of the best in the league this year. Additionally, the 49ers' rushing attack has proven to be lethal in an age where running the ball has become a sin to some in the analytics community. We'll also get to see two savvy coaches attempting to redeem themselves from their past Super Bowl blunders.
As with any Super Bowl, the chance for glory is on the line. Some of the following trends, however, may signal what could be contributing factors in deciding who wins Sunday's game.
Dual Threat Quarterbacks
Today's NFL is moving towards having more and more quarterbacks with the ability to run the ball on their own. Unfortunately, facing these types of quarterbacks hasn't gone well for San Francisco, relative to how their defense normally performed this year. As the chart below shows, the 49ers defense was significantly worse against teams that featured a dual-threat quarterback in Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson.
|Win-Loss||QBR||Points Allowed Per Game||Pass Yards Per Game||Rushing Yards Per Game||Defense EPA|
While Mahomes has never really been considered a running quarterback, he's shown over the last several games just how dangerous he can be using his legs. Prior to Week 17, Mahomes had run the ball at least seven times only twice in his career. He has now run the ball at least seven times in three straight games for just over 40 yards per game.
Mahomes' legs have also given him the ability to extend plays and avoid sacks. Per Andy Holloway, no quarterback was better at avoiding sacks against the blitz than Patrick Mahomes, who was sacked on just 2 of 109 pass attempts when facing the blitz in 2019. Which brings me to the next trend...
This year, the 49ers front four -- featuring Nick Bosa and Dee Ford -- has been one of the best positional groups in all of football. They were so well known because of their ability to pressure the quarterback on 28 percent of plays, the second-best rate in the NFL. But what's made the defense so deadly is that they haven't had to blitz that much in order to create that pressure.
San Francisco only blitzed on 20.9 percent of plays, which was the fourth-lowest rate in the NFL. That gave them a positive 7.8 percent difference between their pressure rate and blitz rate, which was the second-best mark in the league. Per Matt Bowen, San Francisco's blitz rate more than doubles from first and second down (14.2 percent) to third down (29.3 percent).
As mentioned earlier, Mahomes has been great at evading blitzes and has even taken a sack on a smaller percentage of plays against the blitz (1.6 percent sack rate) than against a normal pass rush (3.7 percent sack rate). He also takes advantage of a less-crowded secondary when teams send five or more pass rushers - Mahomes has only thrown one interception when facing that much pressure.
Per @NextGenStats 16 of Patrick Mahomes 17 INT since 2018 have come vs 4 or fewer pass rushers. Mahomes INT pct is 3.5 when those 4 rushers get pressure and 1.2 when they do not.
The 49ers are getting pressure rushing 4 on 33.5 pct of dropbacks with Dee Ford on the field in 2019 pic.twitter.com/yT8XdBsu69
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2020
How and when the 49ers use the blitz will be a fascinating chess match within the game to watch, and could be a deciding factor in Sunday's matchup.
You wouldn't typically equate a run-heavy offense with being explosive, but the 49ers were the second-highest scoring team in football this year at 30.2 points per game. The Chiefs weren't far behind them, though, at 29.8 points per game. But how and when these points come could play a big role in which team comes out on top.
Notably, Kansas City got off to a slow start in each of their first two playoff games this season, falling behind by double-digits in the first half of each of those games. The Chiefs have been able to overcome their slow starts, though, with over 40 percent of their points coming in the second quarter this season. In fact, the Chiefs posted at least 23 points in the second quarter on three separate occasions this year.
All that to say, if the Chiefs fall down early, there's no way they can be counted out. Even in obvious passing situations, the Chiefs are the most efficient team passing the ball. They boast a 49.5 percent success rate and 0.33 expected points added (EPA) per play in those situations -- both are best in the league. So even if the 49ers force the Chiefs to throw the ball early on, you know Andy Reid won't have any issues with Mahomes airing it out.
San Francisco's scoring has come fairly evenly across the four quarters, so there's no certainty that they have the ability to maintain a lead throughout the game. If the 49ers get out to an early lead, they'll be able to run the ball down the Chiefs' throat, and will happily do so. Opening up the run game would certainly give San Francisco even more opportunities to take advantage of one of Kansas City's biggest weaknesses.
Ground and Pound
If the 49ers are able to get into the aforementioned scenario of having a lead early, they'll surely feature their deadly rushing attack as often as possible. San Francisco has been one of the NFL's most productive rushing teams this year, averaging 154 rushing yards per game (including the playoffs).
Despite being productive on the ground, San Francisco's adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points per play of 0.01 was ranked 16th in the league. That said, there's one particular aspect of San Francisco's running game that many expect them to exploit: rushing outside of their tackles.
Per Sharp Football Stats, the 49ers have a success rate over 60 percent on runs to the outside and average 5.4 yards per carry on those plays. Furthermore, San Francisco had 21 plays of at least 10 yards rushing when going to the outside. Meanwhile, running to the outside is the kryptonite of Kansas City's defense.
Overall, the Chiefs have allowed 100 yards rushing in 10 of their 18 games this season, twice allowing over 200 yards, so no matter where San Francisco runs the ball, they'll likely have success. Fortunately for Kansas City, their rush defense has improved as of late. Since Week 13, the Chiefs' run defense DVOA has been -2.8 percent (17th in the league), up from 5.6 percent (31st) the 11 weeks prior to their bye.
I'm sure Steve Spagnuolo has spent countless hours trying to figure out the 49ers rushing attack, but even two weeks may not be enough time.
A major indicator of how close this game is expected to be is the fact that FanDuel Sportsbook currently has Kansas City as 1.5-point favorites. This would be the fourth time that the Super Bowl spread is under two points, the last time coming when the Seattle Seahawks were one-point favorites over the New England Patriots. Outside of that game, the favorite won (and covered) each time when the spread was so tight. The public thinks the favorite will cover yet again with 72 percent of the money and 71 percent of the bets being placed on Kansas City, according to OddsFire.
As far as the game total, the majority of people expect this year's game to be an offensive explosion, a big turnaround from last year's 16-point snooze fest. According to OddsFire, 70 percent of the bets and 73 percent of the money is coming in on the over. The 54.5 point over/under is the fifth-highest total of the last 20 Super Bowls, and the seventh time the line has been set above 50 points. However, the only time the over hit in one of those six games, it required overtime and the greatest comeback in history to push it past the line.
Finally, for a little bit of fun, I also took a look at which colored teams fared the best in the Super Bowl. In the past 20 Super Bowls, the team wearing white won just over two-thirds of the time. This bodes well for the 49ers, who will be sporting their traditional road uniforms of white jerseys and gold pants. Not to mention, San Francisco is 2-0 in Super Bowl appearances when wearing white.