Sunday, February 11th, 2024

No magic to stopping Mahomes, insists 49ers defense

nicholasmcgee

No magic to stopping Mahomes, insists 49ers defense

nicholasmcgee NFL

The San Francisco 49ers had to go through a lot of adversity to get to Super Bowl 58. It was predominantly adversity brought about by their own slow starts, but their ability to overcome a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit in the divisional round against the Green Bay Packers and fight back from 17 points down at half-time of the NFC Championship Game against the Detroit Lions would appear to be indicative of a team destined to win it all.

Yet there is a problem with that line of thinking, and it comes in the form of the opponent, Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Mahomes was, of course, the man who broke 49ers hearts at this stage four years ago, leading the Chiefs back from a 10-point deficit with under seven minutes to play to guide Kansas City to a remarkable Super Bowl 54 triumph.

Kansas City’s offense is not the fire-breathing dragon it has been for most of Mahomes’ already remarkable career, and the Chiefs have not shown the ability to score points in bunches, or indeed score much at all, in the second half of games. In the regular season, the Chiefs managed just 128 second-half points, tied for the third-fewest in the NFL. It’s a number to calm fears of Mahomes heroics akin to his late show in Miami in 2020.

But in the playoffs, the Chiefs have done an excellent job of clicking when it counts, with Mahomes’ connection with Travis Kelce looking ominously strong. Tight end Kelce, perhaps inspired by playing in the postseason in front of girlfriend Taylor Swift, has caught 23 of his 27 postseason targets for 262 yards and three touchdowns.

So there is reason for 49ers fans, including those set to pile into Elland Road for the official UK watch party on Sunday, to be nervous about their team attempting to slay the dragon who has already burned down their dreams once before.

Linebacker Dre Greenlaw, however, has no such nerves.

“That’s exactly who you want to face,” Greenlaw said simply when asked about facing Mahomes.

Greenlaw and All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner will have a huge role to play in preventing Kelce from wreaking havoc over the middle of the field. However, Warner knows Mahomes’ ability to fit the ball into almost any window and access seemingly every area of the field from inside and outside the pocket makes his task a lot easier said than done.

“He’s just a really special player,” Warner said of Mahomes. “I think the things that he does play in and play out, he obviously can do a lot of different things in terms of extending the play, he has a great connection with his players, specifically Travis and knowing exactly where he’s going to be, finding open space. And so you might be more used to having your eyes on the quarterback and being able to read him but you have to have awareness for where the receivers are on the field at all times.

“He’s obviously going to break the pocket and do those sort of things, being able to plaster guys [in pass coverage] late in the down, it’s like playing two different plays in one. That’s what makes it so hard with him.”

Few players in the NFL are as good at doing multiple things at once as Warner, so the Niners will likely have extreme confidence in his ability to keep eyes to Mahomes and maintain an awareness of the location of Kelce and the other receivers.

The 49ers also added another player to their defense this past offseason with experience of facing Mahomes in the Super Bowl, defensive tackle Javon Hargrave having done so against the Philadelphia Eagles last year.

But he has no special tips from his experience of that agonising defeat.

“I think everybody just knows it’s going to take all out effort, so everybody’s got to have their A game, if we want to get this win,” said Hargrave.

Hargrave’s words were in keeping with a theme from the 49er defense, which collectively rejected any notion of there being any kind of magic formula to stopping Mahomes.

Cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, who rotates between outside cornerback and the slot, will likely cover both Kelce and standout rookie Rashee Rice, Mahomes’ most dependable weapon at wideout

How does he approach that challenge?

“Really just proper preparation. I feel like me putting in the work these past two weeks, I’m ready for anything that they’re willing to throw at me,” said Lenoir.

The 49ers know they must be ready to have everything thrown at them by a quarterback who is a different and more ruthless animal when the lights are at the brightest possible setting, and Lenoir’s attitude would be praised by four-time Super Bowl-winning offensive lineman Jesse Sapolu.

Sapolu, a mainstay on the 49ers’ interior offensive line from 1983 to 1997, compared the challenge of going against Mahomes to San Francisco’s Super Bowl wins over Hall of Fame quarterbacks during their glory years.

“Two of the quarterbacks that I won against is Dan Marino and John Elway,” Sapolu said. “If people say rank the top 10 quarterbacks of all time in the history of the game, I wouldn’t be surprised if both Marino and Elway are in the top 10, and maybe in the top five. We’ve beaten those guys. Why did we do that? We respect them but we know that the reason we’re there is because we’re good.

“That’s the kind of mindset you have to have going into the game, same respect you have to give to Patrick Mahomes. You know he’s been a champion, you know he’s been to four Super Bowls in his career already. That’s great, I respect that, but I’m here to become a world champion, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it done, that’s just the mentality that you have to have, or else don’t waste your time playing the game.”

Yet San Francisco’s approach to dealing with the potential barrage of brilliance that could come from Mahomes is perhaps best summed up by Greenlaw.

“All I can do is do my job man,” said Greenlaw.

“I can’t stop every throw but I can do my job and, the part of the field that I am in I gotta do my job on it so I’m gonna do my job on it. I think the mindset is if everybody does their job, I think we’re going to be alright.”

It is an attitude reflective of the 49ers’ culture. The primary instruction for the team is clear for all to see as soon as you enter their locker room back at Levi’s Stadium. ‘Do right longer.’

It’s the 49ers’ ethos, but they have not lived by it consistently enough in this postseason. If they want to get revenge on Mahomes on Sunday, they have no choice.