Having an understanding of which defenses are being bludgeoned via the rush or pass should help us identify matchups that may be better than we think in Divisional Round DFS contests and other fantasy formats.
Not every game, of course, features a clearcut run or pass funnel defense. I’ve broken down this Sunday's Super Bowl matchup, with a close look at recent trends for the Kansas City and San Francisco defenses. My hope is to provide a basis on which you can make your DFS and prop bet decisions for this final game of the season.
49ers vs. Chiefs
Folks who have faithfully read this column since I launched it on NBC Sports in the fall — and I appreciate all of you funnel-loving freaks — know the 49ers have been the league’s most extreme pass funnel defense since Week 1.
You also know that’s not because the San Francisco rush defense has been particularly vicious, but because Niners opponents often have to drop any pretense of a balanced offense because Kyle Shanahan’s EPA Machine runs roughshod over them and forces them to drop back and fling it to have any hope of keeping pace and/or mounting a second half comeback.
49ers opponents had a 62 percent neutral pass rate during the regular season; only the Eagles saw a higher neutral pass rate against them. No team had a higher pass rate over expected posted against them than San Francisco. When teams fell behind the Niners, they went ultra pass heavy, throwing on a league-high 70 percent of their plays. The radically-balanced Lions in the NFC title game were 3 percent above their expected drop back rate against these Niners, well above their season long rate of -2 percent.
We’ve seen the Chiefs go from a nothing-funnel defense to a somewhat reliable run funnel over the past month and a half thanks to a leaky rush defense that has been exploited. In the team’s 20 games, opponents have posted a 56 percent neutral pass rate, the ninth lowest in the NFL. Teams seem not entirely eager to drop back and throw the ball into the teeth of a secondary allowing the league’s second lowest drop back EPA and third lowest passing success rate.
KC’s secondary, despite (somehow) only recording eight interceptions in the regular season, was a true shutdown unit. Only four teams in the regular season gave up a lower completion rate over expected than the Chiefs. And they’ve been better in three postseason affairs: KC playoff opponents have a -6.2 percent completion rate over expected, by far the lowest mark among all postseason teams. The Chiefs’ laughably bad interception luck and their elite coverage makes one think they might be due for a multi-interception game against Brock Purdy, who all season has Gotten Away With It like no one has ever Gotten Away With It.
The Chiefs seem more than willing to give up rushing production while suffocating opposing passing attacks. Only the Giants, Eagles, Panthers, and Seahawks allowed a higher rush EPA than KC in the regular season. They’ve given up the second highest rush EPA in the postseason. Only the lowly Giants defense had a lower stuff rate against the run in the regular season. Long story much shorter: The Chiefs can be had on the ground.
What it means for the Super Bowl: Kansas City, which has been over its expected drop back rate in 18 or 20 games this season (including the postseason), is a near-mortal lock to pass at a heavy clip against San Francisco unless game script gets very squirrely, very quickly.
Naturally, this means target volume for the only three guys getting looks from Patrick Mahomes in the playoffs. Travis Kelce, Rashee Rice, and Isiah Pacheco combined for a 70 percent target share in the AFC Championship against the Ravens. The week before against Buffalo, that combined rate was 55 percent. Against Miami in the Wild Card round, those three saw 68.7 percent of the team’s targets. Plenty of quick-hitting targets should be in store for Kelce, Rice, and Pacheco if the Joe Thuney-less Chiefs are intent on getting the ball out of Mahomes’ hands quickly and avoiding the 49ers’ pass rush.
While I expect Kyle Shanahan to establish the run as if players are wearing leather helmets and holding part-time jobs, Purdy is going to have to throw at least a little bit, and when he does, I expect him to relentlessly target the slot. KC on the season has allowed the NFL’s eighth highest target share to pass catchers running routes from the slot, and since Week 14 (excluding KC’s meaningless Week 18 game) they’ve given up the league’s second highest slot target share (38 percent). That should be a boon for George Kittle — who runs about 29 percent of his routes from the slot — and Deebo Samuel, whose slot rate sits at 33 percent.
It's going to be much tougher sledding for Brandon Aiyuk, who will see plenty of coverage from stud Kansas City CB L'Jarius Sneed. The Chiefs this season allowed a league-low 30.3 percent target share to outside wideouts, and Aiyuk lines up on the perimeter 76 percent of the time.
Every San Francisco receiver and tight end could see limited target volume, of course, if the 49ers enjoy some neutral or positive script and run Christian McCaffrey until the proverbial doors fall off.
CMC has 48 touches (and 37 carries) in the Niners’ two playoff games, in which they are 3 percent below their expected pass rate. It’s wildly difficult to overstate just how good the 49ers have been on first down rushing attempts: They are the NFL’s only team with a positive rush EPA on first downs, and that EPA is higher than the pass EPA of 26 teams. It’s utterly ludicrous, and confirms Kyle Shanahan is a cyborg sent from the past to re-establish the run in pro football.
For confirmation that the Niners will lean hard on the run against run-funnel defenses, look no further than their 2023 matchups against the run-funnel Cardinals. San Francisco’s drop back rate over expected in two games against the Cards was -10 percent and -2 percent, respectively. Facing the extreme run-funnel Browns defense in Week 6, the Niners were 3 percent below their expected drop back rate.
With no tomorrow, I fully expect Shanahan to unleash McCaffrey in the Super Bowl. With the right game flow, CMC could exceed 30 touches. Against a fledgling Kansas City rush defense, that could end with McCaffrey posting downright obscene yardage totals.