Super Bowl 54 will come down to one essential matchup

Kansas City Chiefs, San Francisco 49ers, Super Bowl

Super Bowl LIV is a great matchup on paper. The game, though, will be decided by whether the 49ers can harass Patrick Mahomes.

MIAMI — Look at Patrick Mahomes’ jersey when the confetti is about to fall. You’ll know the result of Super Bowl LIV.

If Mahomes is clean, the Kansas City Chiefs will have their first Super Bowl title in a half-century. If he’s covered in Miami sod, the San Francisco 49ers are likely dancing to the podium.

Rare is it two teams meet in a Super Bowl and are so evenly matched. Yet here we are, with Las Vegas having Kansas City as a 1.5-point favorite for almost all the past two weeks. Most see this game as even with one glaring exception: Mahomes is a wunderkind, and Jimmy Garoppolo is good.

However, the 49ers have the tonic to do something no defense has ever done against Mahomes. They can produce a bad game. The only way that’s happening against any team for Kansas City’s superstar is consistent pressure from a four-man rush.

Luckily for San Francisco, it’s a specialty of coordinator Robert Saleh’s.

Behind edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and interior linemen DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, the Niners have amassed 57 sacks including the playoffs. Much of this has been done without blitzing, as San Francisco ranks bottom five in blitz percentage. Behind their four-man front, the 49ers play more than 75 percent zone coverage, usually in Cover 3 and quarters.

Here, though, is the conundrum. Mahomes has destroyed those coverages. In fact, Kansas City has torched the zone at an absurd rate over the past two years. The Chiefs also use pre-snap motions 62 percent of the time. When teams have used such movement, the 49ers have not recorded a single sack.

The translation can’t be more obvious. San Francisco has to get repeated pressure against Mahomes, or it’s lights out.

“The entire season we’ve been trying to put a lot on our shoulders, playing at a high level every single week,” Buckner said. “We’ve tried to do that on a consistent basis. I feel like we’ve done that quite a bit throughout the season. If we can do that, helped guys on the back end keep coverage tight, I think it’ll be a pretty good day for us.”

Come Sunday night, Ford will see plenty of right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, arguably the league’s best. On the other side, Bosa draws left tackle Eric Fisher, a good player who can be beaten with power moves. The interior is where the Niners have the decided edge, with Armstead and Buckner going against guards Stefen Wisniewski and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, and center Austin Reiter.

“The five of us need to buckle down and do our job,” Fisher said. “Five first-rounders on one defensive line is pretty impressive. … We just need to do our job, I’ve been saying it all week. We’re here for a reason. I think we’re a very capable group of playing the best, and I’d say they are one of the best. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

For Kansas City, the gameplan likely features Schwartz on an island while running back Damien Williams chips Bosa to help Fisher. Inside, Wisniewski has been terrific since earning a starting role in Week 16. Look for him to be left one-on-one while Reiter and Duvernay-Tardif perform a double-team block.

“It’s a front that makes you be on your ‘A’ game,” Schwartz said. “If you’re playing as good a game as normal, and you let anything slide, that’s when they take over. They’re really able to do that at every spot. That’s what makes them so dangerous. Any of the eight or nine guys they have out there, they are able to take advantage of your weakness. …There’s no magic formula, you just have to trust what you do.”

Another aspect of this game within the game to consider is Mahomes’ ability to run. While that should be mitigated in theory against zone coverage (the defenders are looking at him), Mahomes has shown the ability to take off in the postseason. Fully recovered from ankle and knee injuries which sapped his mobility during the regular season, the former MVP has rushed for 53 yards in each of Kansas City’s playoff wins this year, including a 27-yard touchdown jaunt for the ages.

Even if Mahomes doesn’t gain ample yardage on the ground against San Francisco, it’s his ability to break the pocket and win with his arm that had every 49ers defender who spoke to FanSided concerned.

In short, how do you strike the balance between aggressively rushing Mahomes, and keeping him contained?

“It’s tough to do,” Bosa said. “You just have to win, and win quick. If you are getting pushed past him, you have to counter back. If you’re stuck on a block, you have to find a way to get off it.”

Bosa talked about being “conservative” in pass-rushing situations, saying he and his teammates need to be smart about their routes to the pocket. Still, it’s about getting pressure and with Mahomes, getting him to the ground.

“You still have the rush the passer,” Saleh said. “You have to be cognizant of where (Mahomes) is. We’ve been fortunate this year. We’ve had a lot of opportunities to rush Russell Wilson twice, Aaron Rodgers twice, Lamar Jackson, so we’ve had opportunities to rush quarterbacks who were very mobile. It’s no different.”

Well, it’s a bit different. Unlike Wilson, Rodgers and Jackson, Mahomes has a plethora of high-profile weapons. No quarterback needs less time to make more happen, with speedsters Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins on the outside while tight end Travis Kelce works the middle.

The skill of Mahomes and the talent around him makes for a lethal combination. If the 49ers are going to take home their sixth Lombardi Trophy, they’ll need to get Mahomes before he gets them.

“It’s going to come down to winning individual matchups,” Ford said. “Winning your one-on-one matchups. Really affecting at least the first part of his progression. Just be savvy enough to know, we know where he likes to escape and things like that. We have a plan for that. It’s really going to be execution down the line. …We’re ready for the challenge.”

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