San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs Live streaming: Through the first two weeks of the 2018 season, it would be difficult to argue that anybody other than Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the NFL MVP. Mahomes has been electric, throwing 10 touchdown passes to lead the Chiefs to two victories, and he does not really look like he can be stopped right now.
On Sunday, Mahomes is in another high-profile matchup, his third in a row. After squaring off with Philip Rivers in Week 1 and Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2, Mahomes will go head to head with Jimmy Garoppolo, who was a popular offseason pick to be in the position Mahomes himself is in right now. Things haven’t exactly worked out the same way for Jimmy GQ just yet, but there’s plenty of time for him and his own top-notch offensive mastermind to get things in gear.
Which of these quarterbacks’ teams has the advantage, and why, on Sunday afternoon in Kansas City? Read on to find out.
Here’s what you need to know:
What: NFL, Week 3
When: Sunday, Sept. 23, 2018
Where: Arrowhead Stadium, Kansas City, Mo.
Time: 1 p.m. Eastern
Livestream: CLICK HERE
When the Chiefs have the ball
At this time last year, I used this exact space to write about the surprising Kansas City Chiefs offense, which had taken the league by storm by scoring 69 points and defeating the Patriots and Eagles — the two teams that would eventually meet in the Super Bowl — in the first two weeks of the season. The most shocking aspect of Kansas City’s early-season offensive explosion was that Alex Smith and company were breaking a ton of big plays. Through two weeks, the Chiefs had recorded eight plays of 20 yards or more. They did so on just 116 offensive snaps, giving them a big-play rate of 6.9 percent that, because of small sample sizes associated with two-game starts, ranked eighth in the NFL at the time but would have led the league overall from 2013 through 2016.
Here we are a year later and, well, the Chiefs have made last year’s scorching hot start look lukewarm. During the first two games of the 2018 season, the Chiefs have racked up 14 players of 20 yards or more. They’ve done so on only 109 offensive snaps, giving them a league-high big-play rate of 12.84 percent. The next-closest team is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 10.83 percent.
Much like they were this time a year ago, the Chiefs have been buoyed by absurdly good quarterback play, highlighted by some of the best downfield throwing performances in the league. But unlike Alex Smith, first-year starter Patrick Mahomes is actually known for his arm strength and ability to make plays downfield. It’s merely the degree of his success that is surprising, and not the kind.
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Mahomes’ 10 touchdown passes during the first two weeks of the season are an NFL record, and half of those touchdowns have come on passes that traveled at least 15 yards in the air. He’s 12 of 18 for an incredible 332 yards and five scores on such throws, good for a completely ridiculous 149.3 passer rating.
Mahomes has been dominant in just about every split imaginable, but a few important ones stick out in terms of highlighting how well Andy Reid’s play-calling has put him in position to succeed.
On throws to the middle of the field, according to data from Sports Info Solutions, Mahomes is 23 of 30 for 317 yards and seven scores. That means 30 of Mahomes’ 55 pass attempts have gone to the middle, now the most fruitful area of the field due to the dual evolution of defenses and NFL rules.
Because of the sheer amount of speed and athleticism the Chiefs sport at every skill position, teams have often resorted to playing zone against them, providing Mahomes with wider throwing lanes than if every individual receiver had an assigned cover man. Against zone coverages, he has completed 31 of 41 passes for 279 yards and eight touchdowns.
Using all that talent to spread the defense out as wide as possible has also been fruitful, and it should not be surprising that Mahomes has had incredible success working out of the empty formations he used so often at Texas Tech; he’s completed 13 of 17 passes for 187 yards and three touchdowns when the Chiefs split five receivers out wide.
Of course, the most productive passing down in the NFL is first down, largely because opposing teams often expect a run. Again, Mahomes has been brilliant passing the ball on first down plays, completed 18 of 26 tosses for 294 yards and two touchdowns. (That’s nearly half his throws, by the way.)
By contrast, he’s only attempted eight throws on third down, meaning he’s rarely ever been in position where he absolutely has to make a play to extend a drive. Again, this all points toward Reid putting his young quarterback in position to succeed. And succeed he has, by targeting a diverse array of pass-catchers whose skill sets both complement each other’s and augment Mahomes’ specific strengths.
Tyreek Hill is arguably the fastest player in football, and his speed has been used in all the right ways. Hill has taken two jet sweeps for big gains, but his other 14 targets have been so deep that he still ranks seventh in the entire league in average depth of target. Additionally, his 9.3 yards after catch per reception ranks fourth in the NFL, indicating that the Chiefs have done a good job getting him the ball in open space in order to allow him to do damage with his legs. Similarly, while Sammy Watkins had a quiet Week 1, he exploded in Week 2 and now ranks 14th in the NFL in yards per target and 12th in yards after catch per reception. Chris Conley has been targeted just three times, but one of those resulted in a touchdown and all of his looks have allowed him to get downfield and use his size and athleticism to take advantage of smaller, slower players. The Chiefs have also utilized tight end Travis Kelce in a variety of ways, getting him involved on short, medium, and long passes while isolating him against linebackers and safeties who generally stand no chance of covering him in open space due to his combination of size, strength, and agility.
Somewhat surprisingly, all of Kansas City’s passing success has not yet translated to loosening things up for the run game. Kareem Hunt is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry through two weeks and has yet to score on the ground, while last year at this time he was averaging 7.6 per carry and had three rushing scores. Some of Hunt’s lack of success seems to stem from the Chiefs not doing what they’ve been doing with Mahomes, i.e., putting him in position to succeed. Of his 34 carries thus far, only 11 of them have come with the Chiefs in 11 personnel, their most efficient alignment. He’s gained 64 yards on those 11 carries, an average of 5.8 per pop. His other 23 carries have gained just 60 yards combined, and that’s what’s dragging him down. If the Chiefs begin taking advantage of light boxes by having Hunt run out of 11 more often, he should see an uptick in efficiency. And if that happens … look out.
Against San Francisco on Sunday, it will be interesting to watch whether the Chiefs can continue breaking for big gains. The 49ers, despite having faced the third-most plays so far this season, have allowed just six plays of 20 yards or more this season. That’s fifth-fewest in the NFL. Despite the relative lack of big plays, the 49ers have actually allowed the eighth-most yards per drive of any defense in the league, meaning they have generally allowed teams to march down the field with short and intermediate gains. That’s not necessarily been Kansas City’s forte thus far this season, but that doesn’t mean they can’t do it against the Niners.
When the 49ers have the ball
For as good as the Kansas City offense has been this season, the defense has been nearly as bad. The Chiefs rank dead last in the NFL in yards allowed per drive (46.2), first downs allowed (66), and red-zone touchdown rate (100 percent); second to last in yards allowed per play (6.9) and sack rate (1.8 percent); third to last in defensive penalties (19); and fourth to last in opponent’s turnover rate (4.5 percent of drives have ended in turnovers). Their only saving grace has been that they’ve been quite good on third downs, but unfortunately they have forced fewer third downs than every team in the league save for the Titans.
All this, of course, provides the 49ers with an opportunity to tap into the immense offensive potential so many saw for them heading into this season but which they have yet to fully unleash.
Jimmy Garoppolo got off to a slow start to the season, completing just 45.5 percent of his passes against the Vikings in Week 1 while also throwing three interceptions. He settled down last week against the Lions, picking apart a defense that had also been victimized by Sam Darnold in the opener. Luckily for Garoppolo, Kansas City’s defense has been very friendly, and on a lot of the kinds of throws which Garoppolo and play-caller Kyle Shanahan want to use.
For example, the Chiefs have been destroyed by opposing tight ends, yielding 12 catches for 201 yards and a touchdown to opposing tight ends through two weeks. George Kittle has been Garoppolo’s top target so far this season with 13 looks, and the two nearly connected for two long touchdowns in Week 1 only to see Kittle drop one and Garoppolo miss the throw on the other. It would not be surprising to see Kittle manage to get free against a group of linebackers and safeties that has struggled badly in coverage — especially with All-Pro Eric Berry still out.
The Chiefs have also allowed wide receivers to catch more passes (44) than any other team in the league, while also yielding 414 yards and four touchdowns to those players. Garoppolo has been and still could be missing No. 1 wideout Marquise Goodwin, but perhaps he can use this game as an opportunity to get in better rhythm with Pierre Garcon (six catches, 78 yards), Dante Pettis (three catches, 96 yards), and Trent Taylor. If not, well, he’ll have plenty of opportunities to hit Matt Breida and/or Alfred Morris out of the backfield because — and this will shock you — the Chiefs have also struggled to cover running backs in the passing game. Opposing backs have caught 21 passes for 261 yards and a score thus far, and the 49ers surely have not gotten Breida as involved in the passing game as they would like considering his skill set.
Breida leads the NFL in rushing yards through two weeks, by the way. Much of his production came on a 66-yard touchdown scamper against the Lions last week, but even removing that run he is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. He’s been out-snapped and out-touched by Alfred Morris so far this season but given his dynamism it’s possible Shanahan keeps working him into the game more often. He has a chance to make a big splash against the Kansas City defense this week given the diverse ways in which he can puncture a defense, and a get-off like that could be a springboard type of game that propels him into a lead role. That would be much more of the Jerick McKinnon-style player the team envision as the running back next to Garoppolo this season, as opposed to Morris who is more of a one-cut-and-go runner that does not provide much value in the passing game.
The key for the 49ers will be avoiding turnovers, which they couldn’t do against the Vikings. Kansas City has forced very few turnovers so far in 2018 and has allowed teams to march up and down the field because of it. If Garoppolo simply takes what they give him and doesn’t force things too much, he can be very productive. The question of course, is whether that will be enough for the 49ers to keep up with Mahomes and the rest of the explosive Chiefs offense.
Pick: Chiefs 34, 49ers 27