Chiefs know George Kittle, 49ers' run game pose huge Super Bowl challenge

Chiefs know George Kittle, 49ers' run game pose huge Super Bowl challenge

Last week, the Kansas City Chiefs faced a tough task in trying to slow down Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans rushing attack in the AFC Championship Game.

Coming into the game, Henry had carried the ball at least 30 times and racked up 182 yards or more in each of the Titans' last three games dating back to Week 17. The Chiefs were able to slow down the powerful running back, holding him to 69 yards in a 35-24 win that sent them to their first Super Bowl in 50 years.

After halting Henry, the Chiefs now must face a different kind of rushing attack when they meet the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV on Feb. 2. The 49ers rushed for 287 yards in their 37-20 NFC Championship Game win over the Green Bay Packers, with Raheem Mostert going wild on the ground for 220 yards and four touchdowns.

While both the Titans and 49ers love to run the ball, the Chiefs know they face a much different task in two weeks than the hurdle they cleared against Tennessee.

"The one thing is, San Francisco's got a bunch of guys they can put back there and hand the ball off too," Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said Thursday. "Last week, we really concentrated on one number -- 22. I think [49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan] does a good job with changing -- it appears to us that he'll look at the defense he is playing and attack with those particular runs. It may not be what they ran against Green Bay last week or Minnesota the week before. I think he's really good at that. So we'll have to figure that out early and try to find a way to control it.

"What they are really good at is getting you to run East-West and then cutting it back," Spagnuolo continued. "They have the speed guys who can do that. One of the things we tried to do last week was try to get there before the running back got started. With these guys, that's a challenge ... More than anything cut-back to me is huge. We talk about tracking the hips when the run goes away from you, and that's something we've got to put in the forefront of our thinking when they run the football."

Mostert, Tevin Coleman (who's status for the Super Bowl is in question) and Matt Breida are dangerous backs, but the 49ers' running game is so potent because of the blocking they get from the line, the receivers and tight end George Kittle.

"We were really impressed with how good of a run blocker he is," Spagnuolo said of Kittle. "We know what he can do [in the passing game.] There are many games we come in and say, 'Our D-ends, there's no way they can lose a blocking battle with a tight end.' There are just teams that have tight ends that are more receivers. But this guy, he's as all-around a tight end as we've seen this year. I give him tremendous credit for the emphasis he puts on run blocking. He looks like he enjoys doing it."

For the Chiefs' defense to have success stopping the Niners in South Beach, safety Tyrann Mathieu will have to play a big part both in diagnosing the run game and in pass coverage against the likes of Kittle. He's aware of the challenge that awaits the Chiefs' D.

"When I watch him, I see a team that can obviously run the ball really well, but I think he adds a different element to their offense, a physicality," Mathieu said of Kittle on Thursday. "More so an attitude that he plays with. He seems like he's having a ball every ballgame. It will be important for me, guys like [safety Daniel Sorensen], to match that energy and just compete. Just treat this like any other ballgame and whoever lines up in front of you, it's about man on man."

Shanahan's offensive schemes have allowed the 49ers to quickly diagnose the weak points in defenses all year and exploit them. Mathieu has been studying the tape and sees how the Niners try to confuse defenses with motion and different formations.

"I think the offensive coordinator, head coach does a good job of making a lot of plays look the same," Mathieu said. "They run a lot of different formations out of a lot of different personnel groups. I think at the end of the day, they like certain concepts. For me, I've been trusting myself all year. It's about believing in what I see and that has really allowed me to really play at a high level."

[RELATED: Five moments that defined 49ers' run to Super Bowl]

The Chiefs had the 29th ranked rushing defense by DVOA during the regular season, but they were able to bottle up Henry and hold him to just seven second-half yards in the AFC Championship Game.

The 49ers, however, are a whole different animal.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).

Watch 49ers' Robbie Gould use kids as goal posts in kicking session

Watch 49ers' Robbie Gould use kids as goal posts in kicking session

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

With the global coronavirus pandemic forcing athletes to stay home, they are finding unique ways to train and stay in shape.

For 49ers kicker Robbie Gould, that means he can't practice his craft at the team's facility or any other football complex.

So, on Sunday, Gould got creative.

Yep. Gould lined his kids up as makeshift goalposts and picked footballs over them.

As Gould noted in his tweet, he did make sure his kids were wearing protective gear.

It's definitely an interesting way for Gould to bond with his kids, but again, the choices are limited while everyone is staying home in an effort to flatten the coronavirus curve.

Last year, Gould asked the 49ers to trade him, a request they did not fulfill. Instead, the two sides agreed to a new four-year contract.

By Gould's standards, he's coming off the worst season of his 15-year career. He made 23 of his 31 field goal attempts, a 74.2 percentage. The 37-year-old did make 41 of his 42 extra-point attempts in 2019.

[RELATED: Could Gore or Walker return?]

If Gould bounces back in 2020, you can give some of the credit to his kids.

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks hypes Conference USA prospects to 49ers, other NFL clubs

Merton Hanks is not shy about reaching out to his former NFL team to provide tips on college prospects he knows well.

Hanks, who played eight seasons with the 49ers (1991-98) and won a Super Bowl, is the Senior Associate Commissioner of Conference USA, which consists of 14 football-playing universities.

“We want to make sure and give our young men every opportunity to be viewed by NFL clubs,” Hanks said on The 49ers Insider Podcast. “So I tend to call my peer group around the NFL to make sure they’re paying attention to our players.

“Oh, I bug everybody, (including) the 49ers with John Lynch and Martin Mayhew, that whole staff. They do a great job of sourcing talent from Division III all the way up to the (power five). They go to where the good players are, and we have some good players in the conference.”

The 49ers have six players from Conference USA on their roster, including such draft picks as safety Tarvarius Moore (Southern Mississippi), and receivers Trent Taylor (Louisiana Tech) and Richie James (Middle Tennessee State).

The 49ers signed quarterback Nick Mullens (Southern Mississippi) as an undrafted rookie in 2017, and he started eight games for the club in 2018.

One of the top prospects from Conference USA this year is Florida Atlantic tight end Harrison Bryant, who undoubtedly is on the 49ers’ radar.

The 49ers will be looking to add a tight end in the draft to pair with George Kittle. Bryant was the 2019 Mackey Award winner as the top tight end in college football.

“He reminds me of Brent Jones,” Hanks said, “a good pass-catching tight end and a willing blocker.”

Hanks also mentioned defensive back Amik Robertson of Louisiana Tech. Hanks envisions Robertson overcoming his less-than-ideal size (5-foot-8, 187 pounds) to carve out a 10-year NFL career with a playing style that reminds some of Tyrann Mathieu.

With the restrictions on private workouts and pro days due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hanks said he believes the college athletes from Conference USA or from any college program who were not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine are at an inherent disadvantage this year.

“Those players are in a bit of a tough spot, in the sense that teams won’t be able to circle back and get on campus and really take a look at them,” Hanks said.

[RELATED49ers Mailbag: Could Frank Gore or Delanie Walker return to franchise?]

One Conference USA prospect who might not suffer from not being invited to the combine is Middle Tennessee defensive end Tyshun Render.

New England coach Bill Belichick went to campus in late-February to pace Render through a workout while most of his NFL peers were in Indianapolis for the combine.

“Conference USA has been fortunate,” Hanks said. “We’re a football-playing conference in every sense. We put a lot of resources toward football and NFL clubs understand that they can come get good players.”

LB Azeez Al-Shaair, Florida Atlantic
WR Richie James, Middle Tennessee State
S Tarvarius Moore, Southern Mississippi
QB Nick Mullens, Southern Mississippi
WR Trent Taylor, Louisiana Tech
RB Jeff Wilson Jr., North Texas