That dearth of pass attempts against the Packers was no doubt influenced by the success of San Francisco’s rushing attack. The 49ers ran the ball 42 times for 285 yards Sunday night, with surprise star Raheem Mostert gashing Green Bay for a historic 220 yards and four touchdowns over 29 carries by himself. But relying too much on that successful running game against the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl might be a mistake.
Putting aside obvious catch-up situations and score-dictated decisions, the lowest percentage of passing plays called by a Super Bowl winner over the past 17 years has been 44 percent, when the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XL in the 2005 season. (This figure includes the first three quarters of Super Bowls when the scoring margin was within eight.)
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was awful in that game, completing 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. His 22.6 passer rating is still the lowest passer rating ever produced by a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Garoppolo is capable of much more than that, but he will need Coach Kyle Shanahan to give him a bigger slice of the pie to prove it.
San Francisco’s passing attack was solid during the regular season. Garoppolo completed 69.1 percent of his passes and produced a 102.0 passer rating, the eighth highest in the NFL. Football Outsiders ranked the 49ers as the eighth-best passing offense after factoring in strength of schedule. San Francisco scored six more points per game than expected on passing plays during the regular season after factoring in the down, distance and field position of each attempt, per data from TruMedia. The 49ers scored three fewer points per game than expected on rushing plays.
During the postseason, however, the 49ers have scored six more points than expected on running plays, which is unlikely to continue. Only the 2017 Philadelphia Eagles have exceeded that mark in a Super Bowl over the past 17 years.
Plus, Kansas City’s brain trust, from Coach Andy Reid to defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, have made some effective tweaks to their defense, and since Week 11, the Chiefs have one of the best defensive units in the NFL. Kansas City has allowed just 1.5 points per drive since then, the NFL’s fifth-best defensive efficiency in that span.
For proof, look at how the Chiefs defended Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship game. Henry pummeled Kansas City for 188 yards and two touchdowns in Week 10 but was held to 69 yards and a score in the title game after the Chiefs focused their efforts at the line of scrimmage and trusted their secondary in man coverage. But unlike Henry, the 49ers’ three primary running backs are built more for speed.
“If we give these guys certain creases or cutback lanes — all three of them are low 4.4s, low 4.3s [in the 40-yard dash] — they’re going to hit their heads in the goal post,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said, via the Kansas City Star. “So it’s going to be important once again for the secondary to get involved in the run game and kind of [identify] certain formations and really just to get to the ball. Effort, effort, effort.”
If the Chiefs are focused on having their secondary help out against the run, that should open up the passing game for Garoppolo. And he has both the skill and the weapons to take advantage.
The most fearsome of those weapons is tight end George Kittle. Kittle caught 85 of 86 catchable targets this season for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns. He earned the highest score of any player from Pro Football Focus graders (95 on a scale of 1 to 100), edging out Los Angeles Rams superstar defensive tackle Aaron Donald (93.7). Kittle also had the sixth-highest catch rate of any player with at least 100 total targets during the regular season, and his 3.1 yards gained per route run were the most in the league, including wideouts and running backs, according to PFF’s game charters.
He is also a nightmare matchup against man coverage. Here’s an example against the New Orleans Saints in December. The 49ers were faced with a fourth and two on their own 33-yard line, trailing the Saints by a point. Kittle recognizes Saints cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson is in man coverage and veers to the outside. He then breaks Gardner-Johnson’s tackle and dashes up the sideline, dragging safety Marcus Williams for nearly 15 yards, all while Williams is committing a face mask penalty, giving Kittle an extra 15 yards on top of his 39-yard catch. Three plays later, Robbie Gould hit a 30-yard game-winning field goal.
Garoppolo could also look to wideouts Deebo Samuel, Emmanuel Sanders and Kendrick Bourne. Samuel caught 62 of 90 targets for 890 yards and three touchdowns during the regular season and playoffs combined, producing a 123.7 passer rating for Garoppolo on those throws. Bourne and Garoppolo produced a 112.1 passer rating this season, playoffs included, with a sparkling 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Sanders and Bourne have also been able to move the chains. The two produced 52 first downs on their 72 total receptions for the 49ers (72 percent) this season, playoffs included. The league average for wideouts is 55 percent.
More importantly, all three receivers can operate out of the slot. The trio combined to catch 52 of 67 targets from the slot for 644 yards and five touchdowns during the regular season and playoffs. Mathieu has defended the slot admirably for the Chiefs, holding receivers to less than a yard per route run and allowing a passer rating of 68.6 in coverage, but teammate Kendall Fuller has been a disaster. Fuller is allowing 1.1 yards per route run and a 138.7 passer rating against. To put that in context, Ryan Tannehill led the league with a 117.5 passer rating this season.
What it all means is that a 49ers team that has won on the ground might now take to the air in the season’s final game.