MIAMI -- Kyle Shanahan's offense cuts gashes like an obsidian blade, opening holes that rip apart defenses. The San Francisco 49ers coach doesn't let the wounds heal, repeatedly hammering adversaries over and over and over, until the opponents are spent.
The Niners famously attempted just eight passes in the NFC Championship Game, pummeling Green Bay on the ground 42 times for 285 yards in the blowout. In two playoffs tilts, San Francisco averaged 235.5 rush yards per game, most in a single postseason in the Super Bowl era (minimum two games). Jimmy Garoppolo has only thrown the ball 27 times in those two bouts, fourth-fewest in postseason history for a Super Bowl team.
It's not that the 49ers can't pass, it's that they haven't needed to try much lately. Shanahan is a good baker. When he finds a recipe that works, he doesn't get cute on a whim.
Kansas City defenders harped all week about not getting caught up in the 49ers' elaborate pre-snap motions.
"You've got to focus. You don't let the eye candy fool you," defensive end Frank Clark said. "Eye candy will fool you sometimes. You've got to keep the eyes, your vision at a minimum when you're preparing for a team like this."
Shanahan has increased his shift/motion rate each year as a play-caller, using at least one man in motion a whopping 78.6 percent of plays in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. Motion is essential to the Niners' run game. San Francisco generated 5.3 yards per rush (fourth-highest in NFL) on runs with motion, compared to just 3.4 on runs without motion (lowest per rush).
The eye candy has given the Chiefs trouble this season, as they've allowed 5.2 yards per rush on motion plays (fifth-highest).
"There are a few teams that operate like that, they just so happen to be the team that does it, you know, obviously, the best," Clark said. "You've got Baltimore, you've got other teams like Tennessee, who we played last week, and this team. Other teams outside the conference like the Rams, who use a lot of motion and stuff, motion over 85 percent of the time, before a snap and stuff like that. This team motions 90 percent of the time before snaps. Even moving the tight end, moving a wide receiver across formations. But it's all based off of, if you know where the motion falls, if you know where it ends, you know where the fullback goes, you know which running back is in the game, you will understand which play is coming."
Even if Clark's motion estimates are a tad off, you get the gist: San Francisco dominates teams by getting defenses to look one way, then blasting them into oblivion off the ball.
The motions don't only allow the 49ers to distract defenses, they set up blockers with better leverage points to seal off lanes.
"It's extremely stressful, especially for guys like me who like to ID formations, and I like to get a bead on certain keys. They make it tough," Mathieu said. "I think that's why they do what they do. Kyle Shanahan, he's got a great program that he's running over there, and he's really smart. You can tell he was raised by a football coach. He has great ways of getting leverage on a defense. And the biggest thing is the constant communication that's required when you're playing against them. There are so many guys moving back and forth and think all those things play to their advantage. They've got a lot of speed on that team, so all they really need is one hole, one crease, to get one edge and it's an effective play for them."
Every Chiefs defender NFL.com spoke to this week preached about not getting caught up in the motions and sticking to their gaps.
"It makes you go back and study all your alignments," linebacker Anthony Hitchens said. "It gets guys moving, gets the eyes in the wrong spot. Some of it is just eye candy, having you looking one way to run the other. (We have to) just playing team ball, having multiple guys at the ball. Everyone doing their responsibilities and buying in. It's football at the end of the day. So, we need to set the edge and all the other guys need to run inside out and make tackles. They do a lot of misdirection runs and things like that, but we've had, I feel like, forever to prepare, so we should be ready to go."
"Majority of the time 44 will take you to the ball, so when in doubt go at 44," the linebacker said.
The brilliance of Shanahan's system is that when teams key on a movable chess piece like Juszczyk, he throws a wrinkle that uses the fullback as a decoy to muddle up that defensive plan.
"The guys setting the edge got to make sure they have good eyes and stay on the outside and don't be peeking inside, because even if you peek for a little bit and try to come inside, guys got great enough speed at the last second to bounce it and outrun you to the edge," linebacker Reggie Ragland said. "So we just have to do a great job setting the edge and everybody getting lined up and just doing their job, first and foremost."
"We had a couple things, the toss play hurt us," Hitchems said of the defense's weaknesses over the course of the season. "And it's good our players know what hurt us, so we can expect it. Toss plays, perimeter plays early on ... like edge runs, sending guys back, swaps, seal plays. But I feel like we corrected that as the year went on, so we just got to continue doing that."
The Chiefs' defense became stouter down the stretch, as banged-up players became healthy and the defense gelled.
In the first 10 games of the 2019 campaign, K.C. allowed 148.1 rush yards per game, 5.1 yards per carry, 12 rushing TDs, and five 100-yard rushers. In their last eight games, including playoffs, Steve Spagnuolo's D has given up 93.6 yards rushing per game, 4.4 YPC, 1 rush TD, and a single 100-yard rusher (Josh Jacobs, 104 in Week 13).
In the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs held the NFL's leading rusher, Derrick Henry, to 69 yards and 3.6 yards per attempt. The Super Bowl, however, brings a different beast in speedsters Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman (dealing with an injured shoulder) and Matt Breida. The 49ers became the first team to have three RBs with 600-plus rush yards each in a season (including playoffs) in the last 40 seasons.
"It's totally different (than slowing Henry)," Ragland said. "Derrick is all about coming downhill and bouncing it. These guys here, they got all the speed in the world to bounce and outrun to the edge. We've got to do a great job of setting the edge and guys have to do a great job of filling the holes and gaps."
"When they break the huddle that won't be the final formation," Mathieu said. "Sometimes they motion two, three times in one formation. They've got a lot of guys that can be interchangeable. Deebo Samuel can play outside, inside. Emmanuel Sanders can do the same thing. The fullback, he can line up in the slot, he can play tight end. (Tight end George) Kittle can do the same thing. They do a lot of window dressing. They've got a good thing going on right now."
It's the job of Mathieu & Co. to slow that good thing and ground a potent run game to a halt on the biggest stage. To do so, they can't fall for Shanahan's eye candy.