Why 49ers' defense is set up to slow down Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes

Why 49ers' defense is set up to slow down Chiefs, Patrick Mahomes

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.

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.

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.

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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).

Kyle Shanahan explains why Dante Pettis was not 49ers' punt returner

Kyle Shanahan explains why Dante Pettis was not 49ers' punt returner

INDIANAPOLIS -- No punt returner in the history of college football was as dynamic as Dante Pettis.

But in two seasons since the 49ers traded up to take him in the second round of the 2018 draft, Pettis has gotten only 11 opportunities to return punts.

All of Pettis’ chances came during his rookie season. While his play time at wide receiver dwindled to non-existent over the second half of the recently completed season, he was not even able to make a contribution special teams.

Why? Coach Kyle Shanahan said it was as simple as this: Richie James was better.

“We didn’t think he was our best guy,” Shanahan said of Pettis at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Pettis set the NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns. After Pettis visited the 49ers, the club selected him with the No. 44 overall draft pick. As a rookie, he fumbled twice while averaging just 3.0 yards on nine returns. He also sustained a knee injury on an early season return against the Los Angeles Chargers.

In 2019, James was reliable. He was fifth in the NFL in return yards and did not have a fumble on 33 punt returns while averaging a respectable 8.0 yards per return.

Shanahan said he wants Pettis to put up a battle to compete with James for the job in 2020. He said he has expressed that expectation to Pettis, too.

“He knows that,” Shanahan said. “I think he’s got a chance to be (the punt returner). But we felt more comfortable with Richie. And I hope Dante tries to take that job from him.

“It’s his decision. He’s got to show it. I guess, it comes down to my decision, but he should make it for me.”

Pettis averaged 17.3 yards on 27 receptions and caught five touchdown passes as a rookie. But his production dropped off in his second season, as he caught just 11 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He will be fighting for a spot on the 2020 team.

Shanahan said he wants Pettis to be on a mission during his second offseason to come back as a stronger, better and more-focused player. He said Pettis took a “documented” step back in his second season.

[RELATED49ers' receivers could change in 2020]

Shanahan said second-year players who struggle after promising rookie seasons can go either way.

“They keep being like that, and they usually filter out,” Shanahan said, “or it’s a wakeup call for them and they come back and you see It in April. They treated January to April so much different than the year before, and then it usually changes their career.”

Tyrann Mathieu explains how Chiefs stopped 49ers at end of Super Bowl


Tyrann Mathieu explains how Chiefs stopped 49ers at end of Super Bowl

The 49ers entered the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV with a 10-point lead over the Kansas City Chiefs, before eventually falling, 31-20. Even as they began squandering their lead, San Francisco had its chances to become champions. 

Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers found themselves in a 24-20 deficit with 2:44 remaining. The eight-play driving ended in four straight incomplete passes and Jimmy G being sacked on fourth down. 

After the Chiefs scored on a two-play drive to increase their lead to 11 points, Kansas City cornerback Kendall Fuller intercepted a Garoppolo pass intended for rookie Deebo Samuel down the field with only 57 seconds remaining. The rest is history. 

"We knew that obviously they were gonna try to get the ball to [George] Kittle," Chiefs defensive back Tyrann Mathieu said Thursday on Fs1's "First Things First." "But most importantly I felt that Deebo Samuel was their guy." 

[RELATED: Five defensive backs 49ers should watch during combine]

Mathieu said he and Fuller actually went over the route where Garoppolo was picked off ... one series prior to their prediction coming true. 

"On the interception that Kendall Fuller caught, we had actually communicated the series before about that same route concept," Mathieu explained. "We just thought that they were gonna put Kittle at No. 3 and try to force him the ball down the middle."

General manager John Lynch reiterated his confidence in Garoppolo on Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, and coach Kyle Shanahan certainly has gone over every situation from his latest Super Bowl loss this offseason. The two know they can't dwell on the past, though. 

It's time to look ahead and focus on making another run at the Lombardi Trophy.