As Ed recently wrote, one thing the 49ers cannot do against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Offense is waste defenders. That means the fewer men San Francisco can sacrifice in coverage to get pressure, the better their chances are of disrupting K.C.’s offense. The good thing for the 49ers is that this is exactly how they have gotten to the quarterback all season. In fact, they finished the year top 5 in the NFL in sacks and pressure % while also ranking in the bottom 5 in blitz frequency.
Patrick Mahomes has had tons of time to scan the field and make defenses pay throughout the playoffs. The 49ers are equipped to not let that happen again on Super Bowl Sunday. Not only do they have multiple dangerous pass rushers in Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, but they have a defensive coordinator in Robert Saleh who knows how to generate favorable matchups for them. All season, we’ve seen him do this by aligning these 4 in multiple positions and alignments across the defensive line.
Take this play against the Vikings from the NFC Divisional Playoffs. Saleh had Ford (#55), a defensive end, align inside.
This put Minnesota’s 5-man protection in a sticky situation. Since Buckner was aligned in the A-gap to the other side, the center had to account for him. This left Ford alone against a guard, which is a huge athletic mismatch.
Creating pressure inside against Mahomes will be critical, and this is one way the 49ers will attempt to get it.
Another way is with the use of stunts or twists. On the below play against the Buccaneers, Saleh again brought his defensive ends inside. This time, the 49ers were in a tilted alignment with Bosa (#97) and Armstead (#91) aligned on the interior and to the same side of the center.
Bosa and Buckner (#99) ran a twist on the right side in front of quarterback Jameis Winston. Because Bosa was aligned over the center initially and crossed his face at the snap, it created enough of a hesitation in the center that he couldn’t help out the right guard against Armstead. Once again, the 49ers had a defensive end in a 1-on-1 situation with a guard.
The stunt would have gotten home if Armstead didn’t first. Also notice how the traffic from the stunt in front of Winston helped prevent any clear escape lanes. This will be critical for the 49ers on Sunday.
It’s not just important that the 49ers relentlessly rush Mahomes. It’s also important how they rush. They cannot get too far upfield past Mahomes, allowing him to step up and easily escape. The 49ers’ increased commitment to using a wide-9 technique this season should help in that effort.
Rushing from a wide-9 gives the defensive end a better angle to the quarterback and makes him less likely to be pushed upfield past the pocket. On the below play from earlier in the season against the Steelers, look at the angle Dee Ford was able to get on his pass rush.
Ford was basically in a straight-line sprint on this sack.
The alignment allowed the play to become a race to a spot between a right tackle and a more athletic defensive end.
From the end zone angle, you can see how Ford’s rush was complemented with a blitz up the middle.
There was nowhere for the quarterback to step up and no way to outrun Ford, who was in a dead sprint. That’s the type of pass-rushing approach that will make it difficult for Mahomes to sit back and pick apart the defense or easily find escape lanes to make game-changing plays with his legs.
Also notice how the 49ers still only rushed 4 on this play, meaning they did not sacrifice any men in coverage. Again, it is so important not to waste defenders against the Chiefs. This is why we don’t anticipate Saleh using a spy very often, if at all. Why take a man out of coverage against K.C.’s talented receivers? Why take a premiere defensive linemen out of the pass rush?
Don’t think for a second that the Chiefs Offensive Line, which was one of the best in the league this season, won’t be prepared for all of the fronts San Francisco will throw at them. Ultimately, this game within the game will likely be THE deciding factor in determining Sunday’s winner.
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