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 deliver
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 counter
There 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.
The Chiefs know how great the 49ers' pass rush is, so expect them to try to dull it early with screens, misdirection and quick throws. San Francisco was mostly sharp recognizing screens against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, but the volume and variety will be greater on Sunday.
4. Expect Shanahan to be aggressive
Even if he trusts his defense, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan knows Mahomes & Co. are going to score, and he knows no lead is safe. Expect him to come out firing.
Shanahan surely will count on the run game, but he should lean on Jimmy Garoppolo's arm early. There will be opportunities to attack the Chiefs with play-action and RPOs as they gear up against the run, and the 49ers also match up well in the drop-back passing game.
Emmanuel Sanders gave Kansas City repeated issues during his time in Denver, and Deebo Samuel's physicality will be a challenge for Chiefs cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Bashaud Breeland. There's no logical matchup for George Kittle —Tyrann Mathieu is feisty but lacks length, while Daniel Sorensen or any linebacker would be too slow.
One other central tenet of Shanahan's plan should be throwing to backs. His good friend and former coaching teammate, Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur, feasted on the Chiefs' linebackers with running backs in a Week 8 win. Shanahan's scheme is filled with creative vertical releases from the backfield.
5. Chris Jones and the Chiefs' run D
We know how deadly the 49ers' run game is, and we know the Chiefs' run defense struggled much of the season. We also know Kansas City has since improved, including limiting Derrick Henry to 3.6 yards per carry in the AFC Championship Game.
Pro Bowl selection Chris Jones played only passing downs vs. the Titans because of injury, so it's tempting to think the Chiefs could be even more stout inside if he regains a full workload. That's not impossible, but I'm not so sure.
Against Tennessee, Kansas City often played with Mike Pennel and Derrick Nnadi inside, essentially using two nose tackles who specialize in run-stuffing. They weren't perfect, but they did well to plug holes and limit cutback lanes.
Jones, while improved in this area, has never been a very disciplined run defender. He's more of a disruptor who shoots gaps, often creating negative plays but also pursuing too far or getting washed down the line.
Shanahan might prefer to see more of Jones on early downs. He could target him on trap plays (letting Jones rush upfield before a "wham" block seals him off) or on the backside of outside zone and split zone, enticing Jones to flow to the front side and open a cutback lane behind him.
The Niners' run game is too diverse and too effective to be shut down entirely by the Chiefs, but Kansas City might avoid the worst damage by leaning on the Pennel-Nnadi tandem. There might even be snaps where coordinator Steve Spagnuolo uses all three DTs against San Francisco's heavy personnel. That would put Jones at end, where his power would be a handful for tight ends and offensive tackles.