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An underlying storyline coming into Super Bowl LIV was how the 49ers’ defense would perform against Kansas City Chiefs and its mobile gunslinger Patrick Mahomes.
The 49ers’ defense finished the 2019 regular season eighth overall, with the top pass defense and 17th ranked rush defense. Those rankings do not reflect the massive turn-around from 2018 - when the 49ers couldn’t generate a pass rush to break balsa wood or even execute a routine coverage.
Frankly, the defense did its job on Sunday evening. Over four quarters, the 49ers held Mahomes to under 300 yards passing and picked him off twice. Defensive linemen DeForest Buckner and Nick Bosa registered sacks, with strong safety Jaquiski Tartt also taking down Mahomes. Defensive lineman Earl Mitchell also recorded a half-sack, which he split with Buckner.
Unfortunately, the 49ers’ offense could not generate the needed points to put the game away. Even great defenses cannot hold a championship football game together for a full 60 minutes.
Like fire, a defense sucks the oxygen from the field to burn hot. It cannot sustain itself without a solid base of points, especially when rose gold and diamonds are at stake.
I wanted to review a defensive series that hasn’t had much light shed on it - the 4th defense in the second quarter. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had just led a seven-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to tie the game. The momentum was up for grabs with under five minutes left in the first half.
1st and 10 at the KC 19 (4:59)
For some reason, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh sent out three reserve defensive linemen to start the series. Veterans Solomon Thomas, Sheldon Day, and Anthony Zettel aligned in a 4-3 under front, with Ford and Zettel in wide-9 looks. Thomas was working from a 3-technique on the right, and Day’s head was tucked in with the left guard’s inside shoulder.
Saleh dropped the four defensive backs into quarters coverage, with his linebackers also sinking into the field. He sent the four defensive linemen after Mahomes with no line stunts.
The 49ers’ secondary locked up all of Mahomes’ deep and intermediate threats. Despite the vanilla front, Thomas was able to flush Mahomes to his right. Mahomes took a few steps and found running back Damien Williams wide open on a swing route in the right flat.
Williams shouldn’t have been so free, but 49ers’ linebacker Kwon Alexander moved too far inside, covering wide receiver Tyreek Hill on a shallow cross. Once Alexander was out of position, it left a soft spot for Williams and Mahomes. Williams ran up the sideline for a gain of ten yards.
1st and 10 at the KC 20 (4:27)
The 49ers’ defensive line missed having defensive linemen D.J. Jones and Ronald Blair in the Super Bowl lineup. Instead, Saleh was forced to rotate Zettel, a massive drop in talent compare to Bosa.
Nick Bosa is like a pitcher with a 98-mile-per-hour fastball, a wicked change-up, and a curveball that Mr. Spock would find highly illogical. Zettel, on the other hand, is the 54-year old city league softball pitcher with a new Stryker hip and four medical grade cobalt disks in his back.
Kansas City’s offensive coordinator must have noticed the substitution and took advantage of a far weaker player at the edge.
Mahomes ran a run-pass option on the second play. He faked a handoff, saw Zettel knife too far down the line of scrimmage, and pulled the ball from Williams.
Alexander chose to cover tight end Travis Kelce, who was executing a fake sift block and heading to the left flat. Tight end Blake Bell ran a short seam route, and Mahomes found him in a honey hole.
2nd and 1 at the KC 38 (3:49)
Saleh mixed up his coverage and had the 49ers line up in a Cover-1 man, but kept the same defensive line on the field.
I’m not annoyed the Chiefs ran the ball, gained four yards and another first down. I’m annoyed that after the Chiefs gained 19 yards in two plays, Saleh still kept his best players on the sideline.
The 49ers’ previous offensive series lasted just under 10 minutes, and the Chiefs’ drive had taken another minute off the clock. I respect keeping defensive linemen fresh, especially against a mobile quarterback, but 11 minutes was plenty of time to recover.
1st and 10 at the KC 42 (3:09)
As the drive continued, Saleh sent in new coverage and finally sent an additional player on a blitz. The 49ers’ defense was in a Cover-3, with safety Jimmie Ward lining up next to Alexander in the box.
At the snap, Ward looped around the right edge as the defensive line flowed to its left. Ward’s long path to Mahomes had little impact on the play, and the defensive line hardly generated a push.
Hill lined up against defensive back Emmanuel Moseley and ran a deep comeback route. Moseley has been one of the better 49er defensive backs this season, notching an interception against the Carolina Panthers and another in the NFC Championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
Moseley did everything right on the play, but Hill ran a perfect route.
1st and 10 at the SF 48 (2:27)
Kansas City started a drive that gained 33 yards of grass in four plays.
They’d only gain another five to close out the drive.
Saleh substituted the reserve defensive line for Bosa, Buckner, Mitchell, and Arik Armstead.
There was an immediate difference in the tone, talent, and demeanor at the line of scrimmage. Bosa shoved his opponent into the backfield, which Zettel failed to do during the previous four plays. The 49ers’ defense held Williams to a short two-yard run and took the clock to the two-minute warning.
2nd and 8 at the SF 46 (2:00)
I’m not sure what the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy was thinking on this call. However, it went the 49ers’ way for three reasons.
First, end-around plays are a considerable risk for often minimal gain. A receiver usually runs eight-to-10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and gets the ball at the top of his arc. Unless the offense truly sells the play, the receiver runs a very long distance for four or five yards.
Second, an unblocked Bosa and Moseley cut off wide receiver Mecol Hardman from turning around or planting to cut against the grain.
Third, Kelce and Williams wanted no part of Armstead. Both decided their long term health was more important at that moment and allowed Armstead to chase Hardman to the sideline.
3rd and 14 at the KC 48 (1:53)
The 49ers’ defense had pushed the Chiefs back into its territory in two plays and forced a pass situation. Saleh put Armstead and Bosa in wide-9 techniques, and also aligned Ford on the same side as Bosa.
The broad look would be a huge benefit to help the 49ers shut down the play since it forced the opposing tackles into one-on-one situations against two very athletic defensive ends.
The Chiefs ran a screen pass to the right, with a swing option route to the left. Both Y and U receivers ran clearing routes into the field, which gave Armstead and Bosa to gain a full head of steam before either tackle could get set to block them. Armstead was far enough in the backfield to cause Mahomes to make a bad throw to Williams, allowing for Tartt to make a quick stop.
A one-yard gain ground the drive to a halt and forced the Chiefs to punt, allowing the 49ers to put more points on the board before the half.
Unfortunately, Shanahan did not call a timeout, and the Chiefs bled nearly 30 seconds from the clock. The 49ers still had a chance to put late points on the board, but a mystery offensive pass interference was called on tight end George Kittle, and the 49ers knelt the ball to kill the second quarter.
All images courtesy of NFL.com.
All statistics courtesy of the NFL Game Summary.
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