Grading the 49ers Defense in the Super Bowl

February 7, 2020

 Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

 

 

 

 

I know they gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter. I know they gave up a crucial third-and-15 that was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back. Listen though, they played an incredible game. The “they” I talk about is the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive players. They did some amazing things. Fred Warner, Jaquiski Tartt, and Jimmie Ward played all 76 snaps. They were on the field chasing, tackling and shutting players down every single snap. Emmanuel Moseley and Richard Sherman both were on the field for 74 snaps. Dre Greenlaw also joined the 70 and over snap count participants with 70. The 49ers defense was on the field for twenty more snaps than the Chiefs’ defense or an extra 15 percent of the game. They were asked to do the unspeakable and they almost accomplished it.

 

The game opened up exactly as the defense wanted it to, with the Kansas City Chiefs going three plays for seven yards and quarterback Patrick Mahomes going 0-for-2 with two bad incompletions. He looked spooked, and he never really looked relaxed until the fourth quarter. Constantly being chased by Nick Bosa, who had 10 hurries, 1 sack, and 1 quarterback hit, all while what looked like Bosa and his defensive line mates being mercilessly held all game long.

 

After a ten-play drive by their offense resulted in a field goal and a 3-0 lead, the defense got their second crack at Mahomes and the Chief’s offense. The Chiefs took 15 plays to go 75 yards, capping it off with a Mahomes TD run two plays after Damien Williams ran for a first down on a fourth and one. That fourth and one run, with the offensive backfield all spinning in a circle, lining up Williams for the direct snap, took just enough of the 49ers defensive linemen’s attention that he squeezed through. The gap was big, and it was a stop that would have set the tone for the rest of the game, but Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid’s aggressive play calling overwhelmed the 49ers defense on that play, setting up their7-3lead.

 

The 49ers’ offense didn’t do the defense any favors. After being on the field for seven minutes and twenty-six seconds on that 15-play drive, the offense only gave them a one minute and twenty-three second break. Garoppolo’s interception put the 49ers’ defense back out on the field near midfield.  Mahomes and Reid went for the throat, completing a 28-yard pass to Sammy Watkins on the first down, but the drive stalled after that, with Mahomes checking down on two plays and a couple of short runs, which left the Chiefs at fourth and one again, this time at the 49ers’ 19-yard line. The Chiefs once again converted with Williams, this time on a three-yard run. The 49ers’ defense held up on third-and-7, after an incompletion and a three-yard run on first- and second-downs. That was the stop the 49ers defense needed.

 

With 9:36 left in the second quarter, the 49ers defense would start a defensive stand that would hold the Chiefs’ offense scoreless until the 6:17 second mark of the fourth quarter. That means they held the heralded Chiefs’ offense scoreless for thirty-seven minutes and thirty-six seconds of game time. Obviously some of that time was attributed to the 49ers’ offense, but not as much as to the 49ers’ defense.

 

In that time the Chiefs’ drives ended in: seven plays and a punt, seven plays and a Fred Warner interception, and 12 plays and a Tarvarius Moore interception. The defense was playing lights-out. Arik Armstead almost had a safety the first play of the first drive in the second half before he was tackled from behind by a Chiefs offensive lineman. Warner’s pick was a huge turning point in the game, coming after the offense had settled for a field goal on fourth and two from the Chiefs’ 24-yard-line. It set up the 49ers’ next offensive drive that gave them a Raheem Mostert TD run and a 20-10 lead.

 

Then they came off with another interception by Moore, who was only on the field for five plays with 12:05 left on the clock, and everyone was celebrating a soon to be sixth Super Bowl victory. What came next can’t be explained simply as a defensive collapse. The offense took three minutes and four seconds off the clock and then punted the ball to the Chiefs’ 17 yard line. Up by ten points and with the offense having to go 83 yards to come within a field goal to tie it, everyone still had to be feeling good. Even in this story, a loss, the defense played well enough to win, on all but two plays.

 

The Chiefs’ first fourth-quarter drive started with a three-yard and then a nine-yard run. After that first down, the Chiefs went into a no huddle offense, and Mahomes scrambled for nine yards on second and seven, and then threw for nine yards on first-and-10 . Staying in the no-huddle, Mahomes handed off to Williams for a two-yard run, giving the Chiefs a first down at their own 40 yard line. After a false start penalty and an incomplete pass, Mahomes was sitting at second-and-15 with a little over seven minutes left from his own 35 yard line. For Chiefs fans, it looked at first that Mahomes kept the drive alive with a 16 yard completion to Tyrone Hill on that second down, but it was reversed on review.

 

This set the stage for the infamous third-and-15 play. Whether you see Bosa getting held or not, the coverage was busted. Mosely bit on an underneath route, which left no one covering the deep sideline. Ward got beat on an inside outside move (he was supposed to be covering the middle deep) and Buckner was a quarter of a second late from getting a sack on the play –a Mahomes 44 yard bomb to Hill, putting the chiefs at the 21-yard line. The defense still held strong for two plays, causing two incomplete passes and setting up another third down play.

 

Whether you think Moore was guilty on the next play or not probably lies with what team you have an allegiance to, but Moore was called for a pass inference penalty in the end zone on third down, placing the ball at the one yard line and giving the Chiefs four plays to score. It only took one and after the Mahomes to Kelce TD, the 49ers were still leading 20-17 with 6:17 left.

 

After three plays and one minute of rest, the defense was asked to do the impossible:to do what it had just done for over two quarters of game time: hold the Chiefs scoreless for another five minutes. The task proved too much to handle. Again, using no-huddle, Mahomes methodically marched the team down with a couple of short to medium passes before finding Sammy Watkins down the right sideline. Sherman was beat long, and the touchdown was saved by Ward forcing Watkins out of bounds at the SF ten yard line. A six-yard run, followed by a one-yard sack set up Mahomes’ short pass to Williams for the game winning TD with two minutes and fifty seconds remaining, again on third down. That touchdown was one of inches, being called in while many viewers believed he stepped out of bounds before Williams barely stretched the ball over the goal line. The performance of the defense once again graded on a matter of inches.

 

The defense, and the franchise itself, looked to be in shock after the 49ers went seven and out, turning the ball over on fourth down after getting 32 yards on a couple of chunk plays. Two plays in to the Chiefs’ last meaningful drive the defense watched Williams stroll into the end zone for a 38-yard touchdown that sealed the loss.

 

Looking at the score, and the outcome, and the emotions of losing this Super Bowl after a season with so much hope and promise – it seems unfair to place a grade on the defense’s performance. They held Mahomes at his season average for yards with him throwing eight more passes than his average. They picked him off twice, nearly a third time if Kwon Alexander could have held on in the fourth quarter when he only average 0.35 interceptions per game. They sacked him four times, and nearly had him a dozen or so more times, when the Chiefs’ offense only gave up 1.2 sacks per game in the regular season. The defense forced three fumbles, but were unable to recover any of them. Without the 44 and 38 yard chunk plays, Mahomes barely throws for 200 yards. His completion percentage was four points lower than his season average, and thehuge rushing advantage his athleticism was supposed to give him barely even affected the game.

 

For much of the game they made the reigning NFL MVP and current Super Bowl MVP look ordinary and scared at times, causing over throws and miscues early on. Williams, as well as he played, only has 68 yards without the 38 yard touchdown. But, unfortunately for 49ers players, coaches, owners, and fans, those plays did happen, and it was just enough to defeat the 49ers.

 

So how did defense do? Well in a game where they had to be perfect, they missed the mark by two or three plays, and that along with poor special teams play and an inadequate offensive output, was enough to cost the team a Super Bowl ring.

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