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By: Scipio Tex
A few idle thoughts before what should be a terrific Super Bowl.
This Game Boils Down To KC Offense vs 49er Defense, Right?
Well, half of it does.
Even if Jimmy G has been throwing the ball as frequently as an option QB in the playoffs (27 attempts in two games). The 49ers went 13-3 in the regular season playing in the best division in football because they had two units ranked in the Top 5 in Efficiency (Offense #5, Defense #2). Since November, the 49ers have dropped 48 on the Saints, 37 on the Packers (twice), and 34 on the Rams. All wins. All against their elite conference competition. They’re fully capable of winning a shootout. They own the #1 seed in the NFC because of it.
Jimmy G has thrown for 400+ in a game this year and had big moments carrying the offense when the running game flagged (4 games with 3+ touchdown passes). He also threw for 77 yards in the NFC title game as a hand off facilitator. Kyle Shanahan’s notion of balance isn’t a 50/50 split between run and pass. It’s exploiting what the defense allows. Over several games, those fluctuations average into something resembling balance.
Kansas City checked in at 2nd in the league in Offensive Efficiency (and would have been likely #1 with a healthy Mahomes all year) and though their upside is frightening to behold (ask traumatized Texans fans) the chasm between the two offenses isn’t so vast when the 49ers are hitting on all cylinders. The 49ers can keep up if this thing gets wild. Though undoubtedly their happy place is keeping the Chiefs under 27 points and they certainly don’t want to trail much.
Similarly, KC plays much better defense than they are credited, particularly late in the season. These are not the 2018 Chiefs. They were ranked in the upper half of the league in Defensive Efficiency (14th of 32) and allowed only 19 points per game (about the same as the 49ers), but recent trend lines have been better. Veteran DC Steve Spagnuolo has shown a real gift for making in-game adjustments and the Honey Badger has been sensational at safety. Kansas City struggles against the run, but plays good pass defense. Exactly what you want from a team that scores in crazy spurts and has the ability to force the opponent to throw to keep up.
The Mahomes Math Problem
A ring is on the line. That means Patrick Mahomes is going to run on 3rd down. He did that against Houston and Tennessee, totaling 106 yards, including several key 3rd down conversions. Every time KC regenerates a new set of downs, the defense faces another elevated percentage chance of a 60 yard touchdown pass. Let KC stay on the field enough, the defense is done. So how do you solve Mahomes running for an easy 8 yards on 3rd and 5 and getting fresh chains?
Just spy him, right?
Here’s the math problem for defenses: TE Travis Kelce must be double teamed. If he’s not, he’ll do what he did to the Texans “game plan” with 10 catches for 134 yards and 3 touchdowns. While Kelce is doubled, KC speed on the outside (Hill, Hardman, Watkins) demands some deep help as well unless you want to roll the dice. To further complicate things, Andy Reid excels at scheming up the screen game on the perimeter, so you can’t ignore KC’s average RBs. The field is getting big now. Big fields aren’t fun to defend. Where’s that spy coming from?
Add in that Mahomes has a bionic rotator cuff and the defense is left defending every inch on the football field. The defense must account for the probable and improbable.
How can you solve the Mahomes Math? A dominant smart rush that collapses the pocket, narrows windows, and uses the DEs to constrict and funnel instead of get upfield. That approach can take away Mahomes’ ability to keep the play alive. SF’s DL depth, quality, and length (a pair of 6’7″ guys opposite Bosa is nice) means they might be the only team in the league that can pull this off for four quarters. But it won’t matter if they can’t solve the math on the back end.
Don’t be surprised to see a 4 man rush with a dime (6 DBs) played on key downs.
Kittle and Kelce. Coincidence that the two best TEs in the league are in the Super Bowl? Probably not. Travis Kelce is Mahomes’ most important piece on the field and the San Francisco passing game owes most of its big play potential to George Kittle. Kittle is incredibly dynamic after the catch (legit 4.5 40 guy at 250 pounds) and a good blocker. Linebackers can’t cover him and defensive backs can’t get him on the ground. Travis Kelce is massive (6-5, 260), understands how to find space, and his sheer size belies his 4.6 speed. Kelce just completed his fourth straight 1000+ yard receiving season. He is the receiving TE gold standard and controls the middle of the field for Mahomes, forcing defenses to single cover some member of KC’s track team outside.
There are some good wide receivers in this game, both OCs are terrific, and SF’s running game is a major challenge, but it’s Kittle and Kelce keeping the other team’s defensive coordinator up at night.
Raheem Mostert, Elite Difference Making…System RB
My favorite color announcer/studio show talking point has been “After what we saw from Mostert (220 yards rushing) against Green Bay, how many teams in this league have eggs on their faces right now? Miami, Chicago, Philly, Baltimore, Cleveland, and the New York Jets (all teams that cut Mostert, some more than once) need to re-examine player evaluation! This kid is special!” Witness this article in the LA Times.
Aside from watching the game and observing Mostert run ten yards before first touch, we live in ahistorical times. Consider the Mike Shanahan RB model and names like Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis, Mike Bell, Terrell Davis, Tatum Bell, Selvin Young, Reuben Droughns in Denver. Not to mention the success the 49ers enjoyed this year and last from UDFA RB Matt Breida before losing him to injury.
Mostert rushed for 759 yards in four years at Purdue and was an undrafted free agent. A 27 year old NFL journeyman who has only seen success in SF. When he has. He had a 8 game stretch this season in SF where he totaled 187 yards rushing, taking on the 3rd role behind Matt Breida (later injured) and Tevin Coleman (who rushed for 105 yards against Minnesota in the opening round of the playoffs).
As an OC, Kyle Shanahan elevated RBs like Alfred Morris (1613 yard franchise single season record in Washington) and Steve Slaton(!!!) in Houston (1282 yards in 2008).
Over the last 25 years, six NFL RBs drafted in the 5th round or lower have rushed for 1400 yards. Five of them were coached by a Shanahan.
FB Kyle Juszczyk is more valuable to the offense than any single 49er runner.
It’s the system.
Systems Are A Thing, But You Still Gotta Scout the Man
Patrick Mahomes was 13-16 as a college starter. Conventional wisdom tells us that a truly great QB would have “elevated his team.” Perhaps Mahomes simply lacked winnerness. Of course, Mahomes didn’t play both ways, but that didn’t stop the criticism.
Similarly, the Air Raid offense is renowned for inflating statistics and making production measures difficult to gauge when projecting the game forward to the next level. No NFL team wants to draft a system quarterback that gets brutally unmasked against the pros.
The toughest thing to solve in scouting is cleanly delineating between “winnerness” or “system QBs” and not losing sight of actual traits and tools. Losing a 48-46 shootout didn’t make Mahomes “a loser” or a selfish stat compiler. Similarly, the fact that Mahomes played in a system that had a long record of creating inflated numbers couldn’t disguise a special arm, intelligence, character, mobility, accuracy, and durability.
You have to see the truth of the player and ignore the noise.
If Raheem Mostert and the many system RBs like him are the caution against confusing talent and system production, Mahomes is the deeper caution that you still have to do the work and not rely on lazy assumptions about same. The traits were there. Only Kansas City had the conviction to trade up in the 2017 draft and trust their evaluation.
Their reward? A chance to win their first Super Bowl in 49 years.