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."
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).