Super Bowl Preview: Can the 49ers’ Pass Rush Bottle Up Mahomes?
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The weeks leading up to the Super Bowl can be tedious as the sports outlets look for content to fill the 336 hours between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. Anyone who has ever taken a snap in the NFL will be on television, radio or a podcast in the those two weeks pitching their latest venture, everything from books to herbal supplements that will cure back pain, add 30 yards to your driver off the tee and keep you from forgetting why you went into that room, but out of all that also comes the chance for younger generations to learn about Super Bowls past.
There have been a number of parallels between the 2019 49ers and other Niner teams of super bowl vintage, and the media hype surrounding the Niners’ opponent on Sunday brings to mind another: Super Bowl XIX.
In Super Bowl XIX, the 49ers faced the Miami Dolphins and it was the classic tale of contrasting styles. The Dolphins came into the game with the league’s top scoring offense (32.1 points/game) led by a second-year quarterback, Dan Marino. Marino led the NFL with 5,084 yards (it would be another 24 years before another QB would eclipse the 5,000-yard mark) and 48 touchdown passes.
Despite having the number one defense in terms of points allowed (14.2 points/game), the national media did not give the Niners defense much of a chance to slow down the high-flying Dolphins offense.
Even at 23 years old Marino was a statue in the pocket who relied on his exceptionally quick release to beat on coming rushers and the Niners exploited the fact that he wasn’t going to move (rumor has it that Marino once raced a pregnant lady and finished third). The 49ers would hold Miami to just 16 points on this day, a feat that was accomplished by getting pressure on Marino and sacking him four times. When the defensive line wasn’t sacking Marino they were hitting him and making sure that he rarely had a clean pocket from which to throw. Marino still managed to throw for 318 yards on the day, but he was never able gash the defense with downfield throws.
The current-day 49ers are faced with a similar task against the Kansas City Chiefs and in order to win the pass rush they will need to bottle up Mahomes, but can they?
Patrick Mahomes is a generational talent at quarterback, and he is surrounded by wealth of talent among his pass catching corps. You needn’t look at anything other than Kansas City’s two playoff games to see what they are capable of doing offensively.
The path to defensive success for the 49ers is going to start up front in the trenches, where the 49ers have the upper hand, but rushing as four individuals is not going to get the job done. The Niners front four will need to view rushing Mahomes more as a tactical assault than a race to the quarterback.
The assault on Mahomes should start from the inside out, not just because the interior of the Chiefs’ offensive line is its weakest point, but because getting pressure in a quarterback’s face is the best way to make him uncomfortable. According to Pro Football Focus, Chiefs left guard Stefan Wisniewski is the highest graded member of the interior at just 70.3. The right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is the lowest graded at 59.4 with center Austin Reiter grading out at 63.5.
Look for the 49ers to exploit these matchups with Deforest Buckner and Arik Armstead on the inside, and by lining Nick Bosa up over the guard of their choice. Kicking Bosa inside is something the 49ers have done especially with a healthy Dee Ford lined up on the same side, but perhaps the 49ers will use this more with a lack of a credible run threat from Kansas City. Also, look for Dee Ford to rush from a standing position over the guard more than the 49ers have shown this year.
The importance of an outside pass rush is evident when comparing the 2018 and 2019 49ers. The additions of Nick Bosa and Dee Ford turned the Niners front four into one of the most feared in the league recording 48 sacks in the regular season. At times, however, the 49ers’ rush could become undisciplined and as a result they struggled with more mobile quarterbacks. The arm of Patrick Mahomes gets all of the attention, but he is very mobile in his own right and could cause problems if the Niners lose discipline in their rush lanes.
Having played five games this season against some of the more mobile quarterbacks in the NFL, the 49ers should be well-practiced in the art of maintaining rush lanes and rushing as a unit. The key for Bosa and Ford will be to get so deep that they allow the Kansas City tackles to run them by Mahomes. The 49ers’ rushers need to make sure they stay on his up-field shoulder (the right shoulder for a right-handed quarterback), and they need to rush in a manner that compliments one another. For example, if Ford is going to try and rush to the extreme outside of the tackle, whomever is lined up on the inside of Ford needs to make sure his rush angle accounts for that as to not leave a huge rush lane between the two.
The 49ers are not a blitz heavy team, especially, on first and second downs and it is unlikely that they will blitz much at all in the Super Bowl. Patrick Mahomes’ numbers increase against the blitz and when he does throw an interception it typically comes when teams rush four and drop seven into coverage, as PFF’s Jeff Deeney points out:
Playing sound coverage behind the front four is always key to allowing the pass rush to be effective, and here you can read about how the coverage can complement the rush from my colleague Matt Barr.
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