An unstoppable force meets an immovable object in Miami when the 49ers face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV.
Reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes set the league on fire last season and is one win away from cementing his claim as the next face of the sport. Standing in his way is the 49ers' vaunted defense.
Mahomes and the Chiefs' high-octane offense erased double-digit deficits in each of their two playoff wins, including climbing out of a 24-0 hole against the Houston Texans in the blink of an eye. When fully healthy, few teams have been able to keep Mahomes down. The Raiders were the only team to hold him scoreless for a half, doing so during a Week 2 content where Mahomes tossed four second-quarter touchdowns.
So, how do you attempt to slow down Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and the blur offense?
The Detroit Lions laid the blueprint during a Week 4 loss in which they held Mahomes to 57 percent completion and did not allow him to throw a touchdown pass.
During that game, Lions coach Matt Patricia elected to play man on 36 of Mahomes' 48 dropbacks. Given that Mahomes regularly dices up zone coverage, this was a good starting point. In order to match up with the Chiefs' speed, the Lions chose to play more defensive backs than the Chiefs had receivers on the field. When KC went into 11 personnel, the Lions trotted out their dime package (six DBs), and the Lions shifted to their nickel package hen the Chiefs went to two tight ends.
To defend the run game, Patricia went to a front that asked his defensive linemen to attack the B gaps, where RPO teams like to attack, and trusted his linebackers to man the A Gap.
Now, the Chiefs still won because Mahomes is Mahomes and made some crazy plays down the stretch, but the blueprint was laid that day. The Houston Texans followed it in a win over the Chiefs two weeks later. The Chiefs adjusted ahead of their divisional-round win and quickly lit the Texans on fire after falling down 24-0, ending the game on a 51-7 run.
The [potential] key to slowing Mahomes and the Chiefs offense is two-fold. Defenses have to be able to pressure Mahomes without blitzing and their defensive backs must be able to handle the speed of Hill, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman and Demarcus Robinson.
Sixteen of Mahomes' 17 interceptions he threw this season came against four or fewer rushers.
Per @NextGenStats 16 of Patrick Mahomes 17 INT since 2018 have come vs 4 or fewer pass rushers. Mahomes INT pct is 3.5 when those 4 rushers get pressure and 1.2 when they do not.— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2020
The 49ers are getting pressure rushing 4 on 33.5 pct of dropbacks with Dee Ford on the field in 2019 pic.twitter.com/yT8XdBsu69
If you bring extra guys, Mahomes normally picks teams apart.
When the Tennessee Titans pressured Mahomes in the AFC Championship Game, he was far less effective than when they sat back and let him deal.
The @Chiefs offensive line's ability to hold up in pass protection was key to Patrick Mahomes' success through the air.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) January 19, 2020
Under Pressure: 3/10, 9 yards
No Pressure: 20/25, 285 yards, 3 TD
vs Blitz: 1/5, 7 yards
No Blitz: 22/30, 287 yards, 3 TD#TENvsKC | #ChiefsKingdom pic.twitter.com/PPZYrcSJ3V
Getting pressure with four or fewer rushers should bode well for a 49ers' defense that was built on getting pressure with the four-headed monster of DeForest Buckner, Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead and Dee Ford. When fully healthy, the 49ers' defensive front has been impossible to deal with.
The 49ers' nickel package features the best nickel front in the league and perhaps the best nickel corner in the NFL in K'Waun Williams. Williams will have a lot on his plate in Miami, as he's likely to draw the assignment of slowing Hill on most plays, as he does a lot of his work out of the slot.
Make no mistake, this Chiefs' offense is a nightmare to deal with. Their speed presents a number of issues, but the 49ers' defense is equally as fast. Mahomes' alien-like ability can't be stopped, but the 49ers have the defensive tools to contain him and frustrate coach Andy Reid's attack.
But as he has shown time and time again in his young career, even when you think you have Mahomes figured out ... you don't.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).