One thing that has stuck out to the Niners, especially their pass-catchers, is how hands-on the Chiefs’ defensive backs tend to be. It’s something San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has emphasized for his wideouts as they get ready for Sunday’s game.
“I have definitely seen it on tape,” receiver Kendrick Bourne said. “Kyle has definitely made us aware of it.”
During the regular season, Kansas City was flagged 21 times for defensive holding, the highest total in the league. Starting cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward each had seven such calls go against them, tied with Baltimore Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey for most in the NFL.
Ward had the most accepted defensive holding penalties in the league with seven and Breeland was second with six. No other defender had more than four.
As a team, the Chiefs had a combined 32 pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding penalties during the regular season, which was fourth-most in the league.
Of course, many of those penalties could be attributed to the fact that the Chiefs haven’t shied away from playing a lot of man coverage. According to ESPN coverage metrics using NFL Next Gen Stats, the Chiefs played man coverage 57% of the time this season, fifth-most in the NFL.
That number has dipped in the postseason, though, as Kansas City had played zone on 50.5% of the snaps in two playoff contests. Still, the 49ers are spending time in meetings and on the practice field this week working on how to deal with the Chiefs’ penchant for being physical through the whistle. Bourne noted that sometimes as a receiver you don’t want a call because if a defender attempts to grab and misses, it could set up a big play.
Regardless, he says the key is to be decisive with choosing an edge of the defender to attack at the snap.
“It’s more in the moment when you kind of feel that,” Bourne said. “I never really anticipate it but sometimes you don’t get the call and that’s when you’ve got to improvise. That’s when you’ve got to say, ‘All right, they’re not calling anything so let me fix what I’m doing so I can be more open or avoid holding.’ That’s the main thing, rather than thinking about it before the play, messing myself up early and we’ll just let it happen and then adjusting once you feel where he tugs you or however he messed you up.”
Whether those holding calls will come or not is another reason the 49ers are discussing it in the run-up to the game. Referee Bill Vinovich’s crew called just 14 defensive holding penalties this year, fewer than most of his peers and in general is known for calling fewer infractions in games.
Of course, that might not matter as much on Sunday since it won’t be Vinovich’s usual crew working the game and he’s not directly responsible for those calls. The five officials who will be responsible for watching that area are down judge Kent Payne, line judge Carl Johnson, field judge Michael Banks, side judge Boris Cheek and back judge Greg Steed.
All five of those officials were part of regular-season crews that finished in the bottom half of the NFL in the combined category of defensive holding, defensive pass interference and illegal contact.
“At the end of the day, they can do whatever they’ve got to do,” Niners wideout Emmanuel Sanders said. “We’ve got to play a game and let the refs do what they’ve gotta do.
“I feel like that’s the NFL. But at the same time, if they do come out and they’re grabbing, that’s on the refs to do their job.”
Scarred 49ers fans might still have bad memories of the end of Super Bowl XLVII when some clutching and grabbing against wideout Michael Crabtree went uncalled on the game’s final play as San Francisco came up short against the Ravens.
One thing that might work to their advantage this time is the presence of Shanahan. A video of Shanahan telling an official to watch out for holding on a pass play designed for tight end George Kittle in the NFC Championship Game went viral after the Niners’ win.
The Inside the NFL video showed Shanahan telling the official to watch for Packers defensive back Will Redmond grabbing Kittle and preventing him from running an out route on a third-and-3 with 5:56 left.
Sure enough, Redmond was flagged for defensive pass interference, the drive rolled on and the Niners got a field goal from kicker Robbie Gould to make it 37-20.
“I think it’s pretty common for all coaches,” Shanahan said. “You just hope, when it’s man-to-man coverage, you hope the play is on your sidelines so you can alert guys to stuff. Sometimes it’s tough for those guys, especially when you have switch releases and receivers moving in and out. So, you just try to give them a heads up where we’re looking. But I mean, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Usually it has to do with whether they PI or not.”
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert contributed to this report.