Can 49ers contain Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes?
SANTA CLARA — Patrick Mahomes is just different.
Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins are good quarterbacks, but not good enough to compete with the 49ers’ phenomenal defense. Not nearly good enough.
Mahomes can compete. His record as a starter is 27-8 including playoff games, and he is by far the most naturally gifted quarterback in the NFL. Plus he beat the 49ers 38-27 in 2018. His quarterback rating was 115.5. Granted, the 49ers’ defense has improved since then, but so has Mahomes.
“His mobility is unique,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “His arm strength is ridiculous. He’s very, very accurate. But what I don’t think people give him enough credit for is that he actually plays quarterback. There are a lot of quarterbacks in this league that will say no to the No. 1 option (in their progression), and then it just becomes streetball.
“Mahomes gets rid of the ball on time. He puts it where it needs to be. He hits a lot of throws in rhythm. And when he needs to take his shot (down the field), he knows how to buy time in the pocket. He’s a superstar in every way you can possibly imagine and he’s going to be tough to deal with.”
Never has Saleh praised a quarterback so highly.
Mahomes does everything for the Chiefs’ offense. He has accounted for 86% of their total offense in the playoffs, and was their leading rusher in both of their postseason games. He’s like a younger, bigger Russell Wilson.
But the 49ers have a dominant defense, and they feel it’s equipped to defend Mahomes now that they have Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, who weren’t on the 49ers last season.
“They can run with Mahomes,” Saleh explained. “When you have edge rushers, it speeds up the process of the quarterback — not that he needs speeding up, he already gets rid of the ball pretty quickly. But it changes the game. It gives the guys inside more space to operate (and rush the quarterback). So, having those guys out there, having them at full speed, will do nothing but help.”
Despite the additions of Bosa and Ford, the 49ers have struggled defending dual-threat quarterbacks who can run and pass well. This season, the 49ers have faced Wilson twice, Kyler Murray twice and Lamar Jackson once. And in those five games, the 49ers’ defense gave up an average quarterback rating of 99.
When the 49ers faced traditional pocket-passing quarterbacks during the other 13 games of the season counting the playoffs, they allowed just a 75.3 quarterback rating. Pocket passers have been hopeless against the 49ers’ pass rush. Dual-threats have been able to avoid it.
“Every week, whether you’re playing a guy like Mahomes or a statue, you have to respect where he is in the pocket,” Saleh said. “You’re just not carelessly rushing the passer to where even a statue can buy time and escape the pocket and create an explosive play. You’re always rushing in unison, you’re always paying respect to the quarterback in the pocket and you’re always trying to keep him in there.”
Trying everything imaginable to corral athletic quarterbacks has come at a price for the 49ers. When they have played those quarterbacks, the 49ers’ run defense has given up a whopping 4.92 yards per carry and opposing teams have scored 24 points per game. When the 49ers’ defense has played teams with pocket passers, it gave up just 4.14 yards per carry and a measly 17 points per game.
Athletic quarterbacks might be difficult for the 49ers. But the 49ers feel their experience against athletic quarterbacks has prepared them for Mahomes.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to make a few guys miss and he’s going to make his plays,” free safety Jimmie Ward said. “We just have to make more plays than him.”
Memorize and repeat.