Super Bowl 54 Preview

Below is a podcast for Arizona State University’s Blaze Radio that features me and some friends previewing Sunday’s game.  Give it a listen below.

There has never really been a Super Bowl shootout.

Since 2000, the games that most fit that description was Super Bowl 52 between New England and Philadelphia and Super Bowl 47 between Baltimore and San Francisco.  Those were the two closest, high-scoring Super Bowls of the past 20 years.

But neither felt like a true shootout.  Each game featured big leads held by one side – the Eagles were up by about ten points throughout most of the game, with the Patriots playing catchup before taking a 33-32 lead with 9:22 left, and the Ravens slaughtered the 49ers early, as they took a 28-6 lead just after halftime before the power outrage triggered a San Francisco rally that fell short.

And only one of the scores of those games were shootout-like: Philly’s 41 to New England’s 33.  The 34-31 Ravens win over San Francisco doesn’t quite get there.

Before 2000, you have to go way back.  Games that were close and high-scoring were rare.  Steelers-Cowboys in Super Bowl 13 (the 1978-79 season) blips the radar – Pittsburgh beat Dallas 35-31.

But that’s it.  Super Bowls 13, 47 and 52 are the closest thing we got to a Super Bowl shootout, and all have a distinct case against them.

Sunday’s Super Bowl 54 could change that.

Super Bowl 54: San Francisco 49ers vs. Kansas City Chiefs (-1.5), 4:30 PM AZ Time

Patrick Mahomes is the scariest player in football.  That doesn’t mean he’s the best – that’s a conversation that’s incredibly hard to have because of positional value.  But there’s no one who feels more unstoppable when he’s cooking than Mahomes in the league.

San Francisco has a great defense.  They finished No.2 overall in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA.  They have a fearsome defensive line, equipped with the runaway Defensive Rookie of the Year and arguably the Defensive Player of the Year in addition to DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, both of whom had massive breakout seasons.   Richard Sherman has been excellent, and they have a bevy of other important role players on the squad (Dre Greenlaw and Fred Warner to name a couple).

There are some flaws.  Aside from Sherman, the secondary is weak (the opposite corner and nickel corner have had players rotated in and out frequently).  Secondly, San Francisco runs a cover 3 zone as their base defense.

Zone makes sense for San Francisco and has obviously worked this year.  It doesn’t put as immense of pressure on their right-side corner (Sherman is almost exclusively on the left side, no matter the matchup), and allows their safeties to keep things in front of them at all times.

But zone is a lax coverage.  It leaves holes open everywhere on the field.  It requires excellent tackling skills and execution.

Playing a zone base against Mahomes and this Chiefs offense is absolutely terrifying.

Mahomes should pick it apart.  There really isn’t much to pick with the space a zone allows, especially when considering his arm strength.  In addition, the Chiefs speed across their weapons core could make it even more devastating.  Zone not only allows space but, as mentioned above, requires speed to get to the point of the catch and make tackles.  Kansas City’s receivers – Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, DeMarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman – can all fly and bust through those holes.  They’re too fast for almost any secondary.

San Francisco is going to have to adjust and play more man – a scary shift for the biggest game of the year.  But it’s probably a better bet.  While man coverage comes with its own risks and relies on speed in a different way than zone, it at least makes the Chiefs’ weapons have to work a bit harder to get open.  The 49ers should be more comfortable going down swinging rather than just giving it to Mahomes and Co.  Man coverage at least makes it seem like they’re trying.

San Francisco’s heavy reliance on zone may not matter though if they execute well enough in another facet of their defense: the defensive line.

Despite his underrated running ability and agility, pressure has bothered Mahomes before.  It reduced him a bit against New England in last year’s AFC Championship Game (except later in the game) and has forced into some unlike-Mahomes performances.

San Francisco wrecked havoc against the Packers.  Aaron Rodgers was under constant duress, and Green Bay could get nothing going whatsoever.  They also hardly had the ball, which didn’t help.

The 49ers were also really good against Minnesota up front, but the Vikings offensive line has been a weaknesses for years, and wasn’t much better this season.

At the tackle spots is where San Francisco could see their line’s impact reduced.  Bosa made David Bahktiari look like one of the worst blind-siders in football instead one of the best last week, and a not-totally-1oo-percent Bryan Bulaga didn’t help on the other end as well.

The Chiefs have the best two tackles San Francisco had dealt with this postseason.  Mitchell Schwartz is an All-Pro on one end, and Eric Fisher has steadily rose himself to make that No.1 pick look justifiable – he’s had a nice season and should be considered better than Bulaga given that injury bug two weeks ago.

Kansas City is weaker on the interior, where Buckner and Armstead create their own pass rushing duo in addition to stuffing the run.  No matter what, the line is a lot for the Chiefs to handle.  But on the outside, it’s actually a more favorable matchup than you might think.  Stopping Bosa goes miles.

If the Niners can create some pressure on Mahomes, then they are definitely in this thing.

San Francisco’s execution on the defensive end in the NFC Championship was great.  Their offensive execution was better – as expected from possibly the NFL’s best executed group this season.

Like Mahomes throwing, the 49ers ability to run the ball and continue to do so over and over again can be unstoppable.  It was against Green Bay.

Jimmy Garoppollo threw just eight times agains the Packers.  That was all he needed to.

Every block was sealed.  Every hole was open, and every hole was hit by a 49ers running back two weeks ago.  Raheem Mostert stole the show, but San Francisco has shown the ability to have any back be able to breakout for a massive performance like that.  It’s really a matter of who they want to roll with.

Mostert will likely be the guy.  He’s coming off a ridiculous performance, and is the fastest back they have to test Chiefs linebackers, who aren’t exactly the best group in football.

Kansas City’s run defense was the fourth-worst in the league by DVOA this season, and they gave up an astonishing 4.9 yards per carry this season.  They were truly one of the worst groups in the league.

While it seems improbable that the 49ers could put up a performance like the NFC Championship again, consider how their regular season went.  That’s how they won so many games: running the football down people’s throats and only throwing when they absolutely had to.

It’s execution and coaching that makes this work for San Francisco.  Everything on that end is pristine.  Everything on the defensive side of the ball for the Chiefs is not.

There’s no reason to think that Kansas City should be able to stop them.  The 49ers are going to have to stop themselves, or become aware that Garoppollo maybe isn’t the most equipped quarterback for a shootout and panic.  Despite all of the crafty running schemes and the explosiveness that Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel bring, San Francisco’s offense doesn’t pop like Kansas City’s.

The 49ers could make it even less sexy by not only running constantly by really milking the clock and limiting drives for Mahomes as much as possible.  That was the formula the Colts used when they upset Kansas City in Week 5 – Jacoby Brissett and Indianapolis had the ball for 37:15 in that game, compared to the Chiefs at 22:45.  It felt like Kansas City didn’t have the ball at all, really.

Still, the biggest difference between these two teams – or their offenses – is that “Engage shootout mode” button that Kansas City has and San Francisco lacks.  In game where points seem destine to be scored in bunches and the over seems like an almost sure thing, that matters.  Mahomes matter.  He’s arguably the most talented quarterback of all-time.  Do not bet against that.

Prediction: Chiefs-35 49ers-31