There’s a popular saying that “defense wins championships,” and while we’ve definitely seen offensive juggernauts win titles in recent years, there’s still some truth to this age-old mantra. It’s hard to make it to the top without a stout defense, and if there’s one franchise that knows this, it’s the San Francisco 49ers.
This recent era of Niners success has featured some creative offenses with Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, but there’s never been a superstar quarterback at the helm, as the team has been characterized by its highly physical defensive style.
With Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and Andy Reid on the other side, the Niners will have to be at their best to win their sixth Super Bowl title. Let’s take a position-by-position look at the San Francisco 49ers defense, and how they match up with their Super Bowl 58 foes, the Kansas City Chiefs.
49ers Defensive Rankings
The Niners ranked near the top of the league in a number of defensive metrics, including DVOA, in which they finished fourth in the NFL. EPA was a bit less high on the group, ranking them 10th, but both metrics agreed that the team’s pass defense is much better than their run-stopping unit. By EPA, the Niners are 26th in stopping the run and sixth against the pass, while DVOA has them ranked 15th and fourth in those categories, respectively.
Not many teams have exploited this weakness, as the Niners have seen the third-most passing plays per game of any team in the league, and the fewest runs of any teams. This is due in large part to the fact that teams are usually playing from behind against San Francisco, forcing teams to pass the ball more. The Chiefs are not your average team, and should definitely stay competitive for all four quarters, so it will be interesting to see what their run/pass balance looks like in the Super Bowl.
As far as some traditional metrics, the Niners were the eighth-best defense in terms of yardage allowed per game, and third in scoring defense. Unsurprisingly, they’ve struggled a good bit against run-first teams like the Ravens and Browns, while they were able to shut down pass-reliant teams like the Cowboys and Eagles
How the 49ers Defense Matches Up vs. Mahomes
The good news for the Niners is that they aren’t going against a run-happy team. This isn’t the gunslinging Chiefs offense we saw earlier in Mahomes’s career, but as long as he’s in Kansas City, he’s going to be the focal point for their offense, and slowing him down is by far the top priority.
The Niners only generate pressure at an average rate, 17th in the NFL, but the key is that they do it without blitzing, which they do at the 30th-highest rate in the league. The ability to get at least some heat on Mahomes without sacrificing men in coverage, or a QB spy, is a tremendous boon for this unit, and gives them a real chance.
The centerpieces of this pass rush are Nick Bosa and Javon Hargrave. Bosa had a solid 10.5 sacks in the regular season, and really heated up against a good Lions offensive line with a pair of sacks in the NFC Championship Game. Hargrave doesn’t put up the same numbers, but his performance from an interior d-line position could be key against an interior o-line group for the Chiefs that would be very vulnerable if guard Joe Thuney is still unable to perform.
San Francisco is also lucky to have Fred Warner on their side. The linebacker is one of the best coverage players at his position, and his big frame gives him a fighting chance to limit superstar tight end Travis Kelce. Similarly, Charvarius Ward is a true top corner, who will be able to limit Rashee Rice, the only truly viable wideout on the Chiefs.
Super Bowl 58 Over/Under Analysis
Even though this San Francisco defense should provide a tough matchup for Mahomes and company, the over is still the right play given the very low number of 47 found at many sportsbooks. The Niners can provide resistance, but Mahomes, Kelce and Reid will find ways to succeed, and running back Isiah Pacheco should be able to gash this very flawed run defense.
Of course, the matchup between the Chiefs offense and the Niners defense is only half of what we have to evaluate when it comes to the total. Similarly to the 49ers, the Chiefs are great at defending against the pass, but really poor when it comes to stopping the run.
The difference is that the Niners are one of the very best rushing teams in the NFL. They’re tops in the league in rushing EPA and success rate, and second in DVOA. In fact, they’re fantastic in all regards, ranking first in overall defensive DVOA, compared to seventh for the Chiefs defense. In neutral situations, the Niners are one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, and should have absolutely no issue moving the ball and staying ahead of the chains.
The Chiefs’ pass defense success is also very driven by pass rush dominance, which won’t matter as much against the Niners, who can get the ball out quickly to any of their dominant playmakers like Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. One or more of players will always be open, and all are dangerous in open spaces.
This total only requires the two teams to score in the mid-20s apiece, a relatively low bar for both sides. Despite the real strengths of both defenses, the over is the right play in a battle of two of the best offensive minds in today’s NFL.
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