Let’s talk about a key matchup when San Francisco and Kansas City go at it Sunday in Super Bowl 58.
The Chiefs defense is feared for its ability to use blitzes to disrupt quarterbacks. During the regular season Kansas City ranked second in the NFL in pressure percentage (27.8%), quarterback hits (125), and sacks (57). The consistent pass-rush heat was a huge factor in KC ranking eighth in the league with an opponent passer rating of 83.8.
But the 49er offense has done a good job of exploiting blitzes. Brock Purdy is a poised quarterback. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has one of the smartest offensive minds in the game. In Super Bowl 58, San Francisco’s coach-QB will play some football backgammon against Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. And the outcome of Spags and his blitzers vs. Shanahan-Purdy should have considerable impact in determining the winner.
Here are the numbers that matter:
1. This season Purdy is the NFL’s best quarterback against the blitz. When opponents rush five guys, he’s completed 68.2 percent of his passes, has thrown on-target balls at a rate of 74.8 percent, and burned defenses for 10 touchdowns with only one interception. His 131.0 passer rating when blitzed was No. 1 in the league.
2. At times Spags will go exotic and send more than five pass rushers to pursue the quarterback. That hasn’t bothered Purdy; when facing six or more more invaders he has five touchdown passes, one interception, and on-target percentage of 84.2%, and a 123.1 passer rating.
3. When the Chiefs go with a blitz they have an overall success rate of 67 percent that ranks fifth in the NFL. Their blitz success rate jumps to 71 percent on third downs. And when opponents don’t produce a good gain on first down, Spagnuolo likes to strike with a blitz on second down. And the shotgun formation doesn’t strengthen the protection. When the Chiefs blitz a shotgun look, their success rate is 75 percent – fourth best in the league. And using motion doesn’t help negate the blitz. The Men of Spags will harass your quarterback anyway.
4. Spagnuolo has used five or more pass-rushers this season on 208 opponent passing attempts this season, the fourth-highest total in the NFL. In those scenarios opposing quarterbacks have eight touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 76.2 passer rating.
5. The Niners led the NFL in yards per play when blitzed (8.7). Purdy had the league’s best numbers in yards per passing attempt (10.5) in blitz encounters. But Kansas City was among the league leaders in yards per play yielded (5.9) when blitzing.
In the AFC Championship Game, the Kansas City defense tormented Baltimore quarterback Lamar Jackson with a variety of blitzes that emerged from disguised looks.
As CBS Sports noted, Jackson was 8 of 18 passing vs. the blitz, and missed five of six throws when the Chiefs assigned six blitzers on the play. And Jackson hit on only 3 for 10 passes for 21 yards when Spags dispatched a defensive back on the blitz.
Among the many challenges for the 49ers is having to decipher Spagnuolo’s intentions from down to down. He uses deception to confuse the quarterback in the pre-snap read. Those poor QBs think they know what to expect but often guess wrong. That’s the problem: trying to understand where the pressure will come from. For example, Spags turned a defensive back loose to blitz on 108 plays this season, third-most in the league.
Shanahan and Purdy are highly intelligent, and Spagnuolo knows it. But he’s also the best in the business at inventing blitzes. That’s why we can expect to see him design a new batch of blitzes that aren’t on video. If so, there’s nothing for Purdy to study in advance; not when Spagnuolo hasn’t used a particular blitz before.
The other Spags speciality is attacking formations in an unconventional way. He has a sharp eye for scoping out an opponent’s pass protection, identifies the vulnerable soft spots, and attacks them.
The 49ers may have the ideal talent to counter the blitz in running back Christian McCaffrey. He’s an excellent receiver. He shakes off defenders and makes them whiff on tackles. McCaffrey is a reason why Purdy led the NFL in yards per pass attempt (8.8) on screen passes this season. And when a defense blitzed and the 49ers hit them with a screen, Purdy averaged just under 10 yards per attempt.
On Sunday we’ll be treated to a strength vs. strength conflict. Both sides are exceptional at what they do when the blitz comes into play. Has Spags met his match in the 49ers? I can’t wait to find out.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my football columns are from Football Reference, Pro Football Focus and Sports Info Solutions.