Take 5: Keys to Super Bowl LIV

With Sunday’s star-studded Super Bowl LIV battle between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers nearly here, it’s time to dive deep into the matchup.We’ll start with arguably the league’s best quarterback facing one of the league’s best defenses, as Patrick Mahomes takes on defensive coordinator Robert Saleh’s stingy unit.1. 49ers’ pass rush must deliverAs we touched on in our conference championship Film Study, the 49ers’ front four is the game’s biggest key. The best way to slow Mahomes is to generate pressure with only four rushers, but that must be done while also containing him in the pocket. San Francisco is certainly capable. Can the 49ers deliver?On the edges, the burden will fall primarily on Nick Bosa, who usually will face left tackle Eric Fisher. An above-average blindside protector, Fisher can be exploited, and Bosa must be effective with power. Bosa’s focus won’t be simply to go around Fisher — he’ll want to work through him and move Fisher toward Mahomes, shrinking the pocket without opening up a scramble lane.On the other side, Dee Ford will battle old teammate Mitchell Schwartz, perhaps the league’s best right tackle. Schwartz is extremely steady, so Ford must mix things up. His speed-to-power bull rush can help collapse the pocket, and his closing speed is the 49ers’ best way to track down Mahomes when he’s flushed.Inside might be the 49ers’ biggest advantage. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead are tough matchups for left guard Stefen Wisniewski, center Austin Reiter and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. At least one will be single-blocked on most plays, and both must win a majority of those reps.Saleh’s final piece in the pass rush is schematic, where he features a variety of fronts, stunts, twists and timely blitzes. Expect several tilted fronts — three of four linemen to one side of the center — and players deployed all over the line. Ford and Bosa will take turns at 3-technique, with Bosa even occasionally on the nose. Buckner and Armstead can and will line up anywhere.The unit has been seamless when stunting, working to maintain gap discipline while still reaching the quarterback. The periodic blitzes of linebacker Fred Warner, who often twists with Buckner or Armstead, add another dangerous element.The Chiefs’ O-line excelled against the Titans’ stunts in the AFC Championship Game, but those often came with only three rushers, and none overly dangerous outside of Jurrell Casey. This will be a different test.2. Saleh’s dilemma: More man or zone?Traditionally a zone-heavy defense, the 49ers have played more man coverage of late, and with great success. It might be tempting to continue vs. the Chiefs, whose rare struggles on offense this season came against man-heavy defenses, and whose deadliness against zones is well known.The problem is that Saleh’s personnel doesn’t match up particularly well to play man-to-man. There’s no logical speedster to track Tyreek Hill, even with safety help. The 49ers’ fastest cornerback is Emmanuel Moseley, and even if he can hang with Hill, the Chiefs still have plenty of speed elsewhere in Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins.The most logical matchup for tight end Travis Kelce might be cornerback Richard Sherman, with Warner and safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt mixing in occasionally. That isn’t ideal for a whole game.Saleh surely will play man coverage at times, but it likely won’t be the base of his approach. Instead, expect him to favor the muddied zones he used most of the season, with a variety of disguises and coverage rotations to force Mahomes to process after the snap.Considering the Chiefs are one of the league’s pass-happiest teams, Saleh should be creative with his personnel and looks, daring Kansas City to run. That might include six- and seven-DB packages, exotic fronts and stunts or blitzes, even on early downs.3. How Mahomes and Reid will counterThere certainly are challenges that come with playing zone. For one, it’s more exploitable by run-pass options, and Chiefs coach Andy Reid runs as many RPOs as any coach in the league. The 49ers might emphasize the pass, but expect the Chiefs to do some damage via RPOs one way or another.Likewise, Reid will be able to dictate matchups against zone.With Sherman staying on the defense’s left, the Chiefs could threaten him with Hill, a poor stylistic matchup, to see if Sherman can hold up vertically. Hill is also a terror inside against the zone, especially as the inside slot of trips, where he winds up on a safety or a linebacker.Reid will use plenty of trips and quads sets that unbalance the formation. Many of these looks will feature Kelce as the single receiver, allowing him to pick on Moseley while a three- or four-man route combination floods the other side of the field.

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