What NFL teams can glean from conference championship participants

ByMarcel Louis-Jacques ESPN logo
Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Trailing the San Francisco 49ers by three points with seven seconds remaining in overtime in Super Bowl LVIII, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Mecole Hardman motioned inside.

When the ball was snapped, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce -- one of two tight ends on the field -- drew 49ers cornerback Charvarius Ward's attention while Hardman darted outside, freeing him up near the front pylon of the end zone.

The rest is NFL history:

Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes found a wide-open Hardman with a quick pass, and the Chiefs won their third Super Bowl title in five seasons.

"I ain't going to lie, man. I caught that pass and I blacked out," Hardman said. "I didn't know what was going on until I seen Pat running to me, and I'm like, 'Oh, we just won! OK, yeah, let's celebrate!'"

The play highlighted many of the aspects that made the Chiefs' offense tick in 2023 and encapsulated a larger trend found in all four of last season's conference finalists: the frequent use of pre-snap motion, a preference for two-tight-end and two-back formations, and the presence of an elite pass-catching tight end.

Indeed, the Chiefs, 49ers, Baltimore Ravens and Detroit Lions rode their commonalities to great effect last season, ultimately finding themselves atop their respective conferences while winning 48 regular-season games and four division titles combined. And while their general approaches largely mirrored each other, they were starkly different when compared to the rest of the NFL, perhaps making it a template others might choose in a league notorious for its copycats.

"It is cyclical and people are always evolving because people are always working ... there's always competition within the coaching ranks of who can have the answers to the test," Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said. "The second people put something on tape that proves -- one way or the other, on both sides of the ball -- to give something problems, you'll continue to see it again."

In 2023, 62% of all plays in the NFL were run out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers), but none of the four conference finalists ranked higher than 20th on plays run out of that formation. The Chiefs (28.3%) and Lions (20.8%) ran 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) more than the league average (19.3%), while the Ravens (24.8%) and 49ers (36.2%) opted for 21 personnel (two running backs, one tight end) at a much higher rate than the league (7.2%).

The results: All four conference finalists boasted top-10 offenses last season in terms of yards per game. The Lions and 49ers both ranked in the top five in passing, rushing and scoring, while the Ravens led the league in rushing yards.

Of course, everything works until it doesn't. Defenses will eventually figure out ways to defend whatever trends develop, forcing offenses to adopt new strategies.

"That's always the chess match in football that, from a schematic standpoint, is pretty cool," McDaniel said. "You can surprise people for a little bit, then they have an answer for it."

WHEN NEXTGEN STATS began tracking pre-snap motion in 2016, the Atlanta Falcons led the league, running some sort of motion on 61% of offensive plays.

Their offensive coordinator then? Current 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Last season, San Francisco used pre-snap motion on 79.2% of its offensive plays, trailing only McDaniel's 2023 Dolphins (80.3) for the highest rate ever recorded by NextGen Stats.

"As a football nerd, it's fun to see," 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey said. "It's exciting to see motion like that. Motions and shifts and different things that are just trying to put guys in space easier."

San Francisco's offense led the NFL with a success rate of 50.4% on plays that involved pre-snap motion. The other three conference finalists weren't far behind. Kansas City (63.9%) and Detroit (69.4%) ran motion at the seventh-highest and fourth-highest rates in the league last season. Baltimore (58.8%) ranked 13th in that category, but its 46.2% success rate ranked fifth.

Sending a player in pre-snap motion forces a defense to show whether it is playing zone or man coverage. It also can cause defenders to hesitate as they readjust to an offense's new alignment.

"Because it's so sudden right before the snap, it kind of shows you the ins and outs of what defenses are doing," McDaniel said.

McDaniel, formerly the 49ers' offensive coordinator under Shanahan, also was in Atlanta with Shanahan in 2016 and with him inCleveland,WashingtonandHoustonbefore that. Since their time together with the Texans from 2006 to 2008, McDaniel has seen the league implement more nuances, such as timing it so the motioning player is running nearly full speed when the ball is snapped.

"You're trying to gain leverage on the defense and dictate the terms in that regard," McDaniel said. "Doing that for 20 years ... I think that there's been more and more people that have latched on."

Of the 10 highest rates of pre-snap motion usage since 2016, eight of them occurred over the past three seasons: Shanahan's 49ers from 2021 to 2023, McDaniels' Dolphins in 2022 and 2023, and the Chiefs, Falcons andLos Angeles Ramsin 2021, 2022 and 2023, respectively.

"It's a copycat league, so everybody's just trying to do what everybody does," Pittsburgh Steelers running back Cordarrelle Patterson said. "If one team does it and it works, everybody's going to do it. That's just how it works."

LAST SEASON, NFL teams ran roughly 19% of their plays out of 12 personnel -- an increase from 16% in 2016.

With four of the top tight ends in the NFL anchoring their offenses, the Chiefs, 49ers, Ravens and Lions found myriad ways to get them involved. As the tight end position grows more prominent in the league, so do the matchup issues they pose for opposing defenses.

"You see it all across the NFL. The tight end position is growing and growing," Ravens tight end Mark Andrews said. "These are guys that are some of the best athletes on the field, being big, tall, strong [and] able to go get passes."

Since 2018, Kelce, Andrews and 49ers tight end George Kittle each have more receiving yards and touchdowns than any other tight end in the NFL.

Sam LaPorta, the Lions' 2023 second-round pick, could soon be keeping them company. Last season, the Iowa product set the all-time rookie receptions record for tight ends with 86, and his 10 receiving touchdowns -- tied for fourth in the NFL -- equaled Rob Gronkowski's mark for a rookie tight end in the Super Bowl era.

With the exception of Andrews, who missed seven games last season while injured, each received at least 19% of his team's total targets last season with at least 52 receiving yards per game.

But the key to their impact wasn't always because of their skill as a receiver.

"Mentally ... physically, [tight ends] have to be able to do both," said Lions coach Dan Campbell, a former tight end who spent more than a decade in the NFL. "You have to have flexibility physically to line up, be able to block a point, come back on the back side. You have to be able to one-on-one pass [block] a defensive end; you're going to have to handle the route tree. The more you have flexibility in those positions, between the mental and physically, I just feel like it opens up your offense."

Kittle -- regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, if not the best -- is a prototype of sorts.

Dolphins tight ends coach Jon Embree, who coached Kittle in San Francisco, said his ability to dictate the game as a receiver starts with how he handles himself as a blocker.

"George was the first guy that I coached that had this in him -- that if you can be a dominant run-blocker, how that will open up things for you in the pass game," Embree said. "And that's how George gets his stuff. He gets it off of the run game, which then helps us as an offensive unit in that now you can do stuff with play-action. That helps you with your protection as opposed to just dropping back and letting those guys just run up the field. If they don't know it's run or pass, that helps you with the pass rush and then allows you to sneak behind the linebackers and get stuff down the field."

THERE ARE THINGS each team does that make it unique, but certain traits cannot be copied.

The Chiefs and Ravens have two-time MVP-winning quarterbacks in Mahomes andLamar Jackson. Only Peyton Manning threw for more yards in his first seven seasons than Mahomes, and only Dan Marino threw more touchdowns. Jackson, despite playing just six seasons, is the fourth-leading rusher among quarterbacks in NFL history and the only QB to record multiple seasons with at least 1,000 rushing yards.

The 49ers and Lions do not have generational talents at quarterback. What sets them apart is their balance and two-headed rushing attack, respectively, each of which were among the best in the league.

Four San Francisco players recorded more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, including Kittle, McCaffrey (who led the NFL with 1,459 rushing yards and tacked on 564 receiving yards) and wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk andDeebo Samuel.

Shanahan said the pace set by McCaffrey on the ground helped the 49ers attack all areas of the field.

"It's hard to win consistently in this league if you can't run the ball," the coach said. "No matter how good of a passing game you have, no matter how good of a defense, it doesn't matter. You can do it here and there and always pull it off. But the most consistent way to win is to be balanced and to put pressure on everybody.

"We love being able to stick with the run game so you make people defend it. Then people defend it, everything [else] gets a little bit easier. If people can stop your run game without committing to it, everything's a lot harder."

The Lions' offense featured three players who recorded at least 1,100 scrimmage yards last season, led by running back duo ofDavid Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.

Only five pairs of running backs have ever rushed for 1,000 yards each in the same season for a single team, and none since the Carolina Panthers in 2009. But Montgomery (1,015) and Gibbs (945) came close last season.

"What makes us like peanut butter and jelly -- and I guess what makes us work -- is we're so different, but we're very good in our own way," Montgomery said. "It's hard for teams to prepare for us."

The NFL is constantly evolving, and there's always a counterpunch. After the Chiefs won the Super Bowl last season, how will the other three conference finalists -- and the rest of the league -- respond?

"So then they're overplaying one thing. What's the next move?" McDaniel said. "What's the next direction you go? Because if you give defensive coaches and defensive players an infinite amount of time to try to stop one thing, they'll be able to stop that one thing. So you always have to evolve, and so goes the chess match."

ESPN's Eric Woodyard, Brooke Pryor, Nick Wagoner and Jamison Hensley contributed to this story.

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