Grant Cohn: Chiefs, Andy Reid offer big challenges to 49ers' defense

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Here’s the problem.

Sunday, the 49ers will face the Kansas City Chiefs. They’re 2-0. They’ve scored 80 points. Their head coach, Andy Reid, is the best offensive coach in the NFL, the Bill Walsh or Mike Holmgren of his era. Reid could hold his own against both in their primes.

Plus, Reid’s offense is loaded with talent this season. And the 49ers have to play the Chiefs on the road at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time. The Chiefs have almost every advantage

But the 49ers can win if they play a perfect game. Here’s what they have to do.

1. Survive Andy Reid’s script.

Most offensive coaches script the first 12 to 15 plays of the game. Reid scripts his first 20 to 22. He wants to win the game early.

Here’s what he does. During the Chiefs first drive, Reid uses different formations and personnel groupings every play just to see how the defense matches up and what coverages it uses. He usually doesn’t call his big plays just yet. He’ll throw out a few decoys — a draw, a screen. Reid’s first drive is all about gaining information on the defense, so he can set up his home-run touchdown passes for later.

During the second drive, Reid will come back to a formation he used in the first drive. But, this time, he’ll know what the coverage the defense probably will use, and he’ll attack that coverage with a long pass. That’s how he wins.

Reid is like a boxer who feels out his opponent in the first round, throws a few jabs, a hook, maybe an uppercut, just to see how the opponent responds. Then, Reid throws haymakers and goes for the knockout in Round 2.

The 49ers have to withstand Reid’s haymakers. Because if Reid doesn’t land his knockout shots early, he may not land them at all. He depends on his scripted plays. They’re his biggest advantage. Once he has to improvise in the heat of the game, he’s beatable.

2. Make Patrick Mahomes think.

If he thinks, he could make mistakes.

Mahomes has started only three games in the NFL. He has less game experience than Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers have to make him make decisions.

The key is to confuse Mahomes, make him double-clutch before he throws. Force him to find the second or third receiver in the progression. If he can drop back and throw to his No. 1 receiver all game, it’s over, because the 49ers’ subpar pass rush won’t get to him quickly enough.

Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has to disguise his coverages so Mahomes doesn’t understand what he’s seeing and doesn’t know where to throw before the play even starts.

3. Roll coverage toward cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon.

We know where the Chiefs want to throw – wherever Witherspoon is. He’s the worst player on the 49ers defense, and he has a bad ankle. The Lions targeted him as much as possible last week. They gorged on him. Never even bothered with Richard Sherman on the other side of the field. So, why would the Chiefs attack anyone but Witherspoon?

The 49ers have to help him with a safety. Move free safety Adrian Colbert from the middle of the field and line him up closer to Witherspoon. Those two can double-cover a receiver.

Of course, in that case, Sherman would have to cover a receiver man-to-man by himself, no safety to help him. Can he do it? He says he still is elite. This is his chance to prove it.

4. Run the ball to shorten the game.

Kyle Shanahan can’t get caught up in a shootout with Reid. Shanahan will lose. Reid has better weapons in the pass game.

Shanahan has the No. 1 run game in the NFL. He should use it. Big time. He should shorten the time of the game, keep the clock running, keep the Chiefs offense on the sideline.

And keep the 49ers defense on the sideline. Keep those players fresh and confident. Don’t let the Chiefs demoralize them by scoring 28 points in the first half like they did last week against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Shanahan must not fall in love with the pass. Just give the ball to Matt Breida as much as possible. He’s averaging 11 yards per carry.

5. Get the ball out of Jimmy Garoppolo’s hands.

Through two games, Garoppolo has taken 17 hits – third-most in the league. And the hits have affected his performance. He’s less confident and less accurate than last season. That’s no mark against him. Every quarterback changes after getting hit a few times. No one makes it through the NFL unscathed.

Garoppolo can help himself by throwing the ball away. And Shanahan can help him by calling more quick passes.

Last week, the Detroit Lions sacked Garoppolo six times. Five of those times, Garoppolo took a five-step drop from the shotgun. That’s a deep drop — nine to 10 yards behind the center.

He comes from an offense in New England that features three-step drops. Those protect the quarterback, because he retreats only seven or eight yards and throws before the pass rush can get to him.

Shanahan should call more three-step drops on Sunday. The 49ers have a chance if he keeps Garoppolo on his feet.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at

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