NOTE: Unless otherwise specified, all stats include playoffs.
1) The elite 49ers' pass rush will overwhelm Patrick Mahomes
Abdoo: Not so fast. The 49ers generated pressure on 33.6 percent of pass plays over their first seven games of the 2019 season (the second-highest rate in the NFL over that span), but from Week 9 on, they fell to 28th in team pressure rate (22.2%). The culprit? The 49ers' pass rush underachieved against tougher competition and mobile quarterbacks. Seven of San Francisco's last 11 opponents featured offenses ranked in the top 10 in hurry probability allowed (the Cardinals and Packers twice, and the Ravens, Rams and Saints once), and seven featured mobile quarterbacks (Arizona's Kyler Murray twice, Seattle's Russell Wilson twice, Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers twice and Baltimore's Lamar Jackson once). Hurry probability allowed reflects the likelihood that a quarterback will be under duress within 3 seconds of the snap; the lower the rate, the better the protection.
These trends suggest the 49ers' pass rush might not live up to expectations against a strong offensive line and an evasive quarterback. The Chiefs ranked first in hurry probability allowed (9.3%) this season, and Mahomes has been the sixth-lowest pressured quarterback since returning from a knee injury in Week 10 (20%).
Band: Andy Reid is certainly aware of the talent level across the 49ers' defensive line. I would not be surprised if the Chiefs' first few drives featured a high percentage of quick passes, to limit the early impact of Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. It was the strategy taken in Patrick Mahomes' first two games back from a knee injury (Weeks 10 and 11), as a method to keep Mahomes clean in the pocket; 62 percent of his attempts took less than 2.50 seconds, well above his season average (43%). The 49ers' Cover 3-based scheme is built around limiting big plays at the expense of allowing separation underneath. 49ers opponents average the lowest air yards per attempt (6.9) this season, which suggests tight end Travis Kelce and running back Damien Williams could be heavily targeted in the passing game.
THE TRUTH: Mahomes and the Chiefs will likely be tougher for this Niners front to stop than you might expect.
2) Jimmy Garoppolo's passing efficiency numbers suggest he's a top-tier quarterback
Band: While Garoppolo finished in the top five in completion percentage (68.8%) and yards per attempt (8.3) this season, it's been Kyle Shanahan's scheme and the skill-set of his receivers that have propelled Garoppolo's passing efficiency. Consider:
-- 69 percent of pass attempts target receivers between the numbers (he was the only QB to do so at a rate greater than 65 percent).
-- 56 percent of his passing yards have come after the catch, the second-highest YAC percentage among QBs.
-- 31 percent of his dropbacks have been off of play-action, the highest rate among QBs.
Abdoo: Garoppolo's league-leading deep completion percentage of 58.1 percent (Patrick Mahomes is second at 47.1 percent) is correlated strongly to the separation created by play-action. Garoppolo's deep targets average 2.9 yards of separation from the nearest defender, 0.5 yards more than any other quarterback. Garoppolo rarely throws deep (6 percent of all attempts, the lowest rate among qualified quarterbacks), but when he does, it's often off of a play-action fake (48 percent of deep attempts, well above the NFL average of 22 percent).
THE TRUTH: Jimmy G's support system is driving his success.
3) Nick Bosa is the most important 49ers defensive lineman
Abdoo:Nick Bosa has had one of the most dominant rookie seasons from a defensive player in recent memory, putting himself in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Only the Packers' Za'Darius Smith and Cowboys' Robert Quinn have generated a higher pressure rate than Bosa's 14.0 percent this season among 89 defenders with 300-plus pass rushes. But while Bosa has made several game-changing plays, it's been Dee Ford's on-field presence that has correlated strongest with Nick Bosa's pass-rush production. Out of Bosa's 12 sacks, nine came with Dee Ford also on the field, despite Ford being on the field for just 161 of Bosa's 493 pass rushes (33%). On a per-play basis, Bosa generates a sack every 18 pass rushes with Ford, compared to every 111 pass rushes without Ford!
Band:Dee Ford's effect on the 49ers' defense goes beyond Nick Bosa's production -- the defense generated pressure on 34.2 percent of pass plays with Ford on the field (would rank first in the NFL) and 22.7 percent of pass plays without Ford (would rank 29th). There's no denying Nick Bosa's DROY season has been more prolific than Dee Ford's season by volume. Ford missed five games between Week 12 and the postseason, and he never played more than 60 percent of the defensive snaps in the 13 games for which he was active. But when Ford has been healthy, his presence has allowed Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead to play fewer snaps, keeping the defensive-line rotation fresher late in games. Consider:
-- Nick Bosa: 73 percent play-time when Ford is active; 83 percent when Ford is inactive.
-- Arik Armstead: 72 percent play-time when Ford is active; 81 percent when Ford is inactive.
Ford is only one season removed from finishing with the second-most QB pressures in the NFL (69 in 2018, behind only Aaron Donald's 72), and he's certainly capable of winning with speed off the edge. Ford's average pass-rush get-off time, which measures how long it takes a pass rusher to cross the line of scrimmage after the snap, ranks third among edge rushers this season (0.77 seconds). In his return in the Divisional Round against the Vikings, Ford provided a much-needed boost to the 49ers' pass rush rotation with speed off the edge. Ford's average pass-rush get-off (0.62 seconds) was among his fastest in a game all season.
4) Tyreek Hill is the most explosive offensive player in this game
Band:Tyreek Hill is no doubt one of the fastest players in the league today, having reached 20-plus MPH on 20 touches over the last two seasons, six more than any other player in that span. It would not come as a surprise, however, to see someone else make the biggest play on Super Bowl Sunday. Rookie wide receivers Mecole Hardman and Deebo Samuel are both more than capable of creating in the open field with elite speed.
On the other side of the field, Deebo Samuel has displayed unique ability to create plays in the running game, reaching the fourth- and sixth-fastest speeds on run plays by a wide receiver this season (21.27 MPH top speed). Samuel has also shown off run-after-the-catch ability, averaging 8.6 YAC per reception, second-best among wide receivers with at least 50 receptions this season.
Abdoo: Coordinator Robert Saleh's 49ers defense is built around cornerbacks aligning in off-coverage, which helps negate the effectiveness of the deep passing game -- and could impact Tyreek Hill's big-play ability. 49ers cornerbacks aligned in off-coverage (with 5-plus yards of cushion) on 60 percent of routes faced this season, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL. This has been a useful strategy against the Chiefs over the past two seasons, as Hill averages 11.7 air yards per target and 1.9 yards per route against off-coverage, compared to 19.7 air yards per target and a league-leading 3.4 yards per route against press coverage.
THE TRUTH: The Niners might be able to slow Hill -- but other WRs could pick up the big-play slack.
5) The 49ers will dominate in the running game
Abdoo: The 49ers' running game is predicated on speed and power -- no team features a faster trio of running backs by top speed (Matt Breida: 22.30 MPH; Raheem Mostert: 21.87 MPH; Tevin Coleman: 21.09), and no team runs more from I-formation (43 percent of runs). This is an area where the Chiefs' defense has struggled, allowing an NFL-worst 6.4 yards per carry and 10-plus yards on 20 percent of runs when opponents line up in I-formation.
Band: The mismatch between the 49ers' running game and the Chiefs' run defense becomes less important if the Chiefs jump out to an early lead. Game script will play a role in determining whether the 49ers can take advantage of their opponent's biggest weakness. If the 49ers do find themselves with a lead in the second half, expect them to lean heavily on Raheem Mostert and his lead blocker, Kyle Juszczyk, to control the time of possession and keep Patrick Mahomes off the field.
THE TRUTH: They CAN -- but only if game circumstances play to their advantage.