• Will Cuberos

Breaking it Down: Examining a Playcalling Breakdown in the Super Bowl

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

With 11:57 left in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 54, 49ers safety Tarvarius Moore caught Patrick Mahomes’ second interception of the game. For all intents and purposes the game should have been over, as the 49ers held a 10-point lead with one of the best rushing attacks in football.

But 11:57 later, Mahomes was holding the Lombardi trophy at midfield.

What went wrong?

Head coach Kyle Shanahan has been heavily criticized in the media over last five days because of his end-of--game play-calling. Why did he abandon the running game when all the team needed was to run out the clock? Didn’t he learn his lesson from his time as the offensive coordinator in Atlanta? While Shanahan could have been more committed to the run, the Chiefs’ defense and some untimely miscues by the 49ers’ offense forced his hand with the passing game.

On their possession immediately following Moore’s interception, the 49ers gained a first down on a 12-yard completion to George Kittle. A one-yard carry, an incompletion, and a false start later, they were looking at a third-and-14, not an ideal down and distance to run the ball. Forced to scramble, Jimmy Garoppolo picks up only three yards before being pushed out of bounds, bringing up fourth down and a punt.

Following a Kansas City touchdown, the 49ers again took over with 6:13 on the clock. After a five yard run by Mostert, Shanahan dialed up play action, Garoppolo’s bread and butter. He eyed Kittle open between the numbers, but defensive lineman Chris Jones got his hand in the air and batted the pass down at the line of scrimmage. Third-and-5 followed, Kendrick Bourne ran an option route and depending on how the secondary was playing he could either run a corner or a curl at the numbers. Bourne misread the secondary and ran a curl, while Garoppolo, identifying where the safety was, expected the corner route. The incompletion forced the 49ers to punt again holding onto a three-point lead.

With 2:39 left the 49ers trailed 24-20 with the ball at their own 15. After two quick first downs the offense had a first-and-10 at their own 49, Shanahan dialed up another pass and rookie receiver Deebo Samuel broke open, but again Chris Jones got his hand in the air to bat down the pass. On third-and-10 Garoppolo just missed Emmanuel Sanders on a deep post that would have given the 49ers the lead. Garoppolo was then forced to pass on fourth down and was sacked, essentially ending the game.

Not counting their final two-play drive, the 49ers ran four times with 11 pass attempts over their final three drives. Over those 15 plays they had two false start penalties, on Sanders and Joe Staley, which led to a third-and-14 and a first-and-15 respectively. Jones also got a hand on three passes, all of which fell incomplete. It’s fair to suggest that Shanahan could have committed more to the run, but over their last three possessions the offense saw a second- or third-downs of greater than seven yards six times and only converted one of them. Through the Chiefs’ defensive execution, Garoppolo’s batted passes, and Shanahan’s play-calling, the 49ers were forced to pass more often than Shanahan would have wanted.

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