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What the 49ers need to do to cover the spread in Super Bowl 54

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What are the keys for the 49ers to cover the spread in Super Bowl 54? Jimmy Garoppolo and Patrick Mahomes are big factors in this game, but it goes so much higher.

The 2020 Super Bowl is three days away and with player and coach media obligations wrapping up on Thursday, the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs will be able to lock in their focus on Super Bowl 54.

DraftKings Sportsbook opened the 49ers as a 1.5-point underdog to the Chiefs, and we have not seen any movement as game day approaches. You can find one point at some shops, but for the most part it’s hung right around 1.5 across the board.

We’ve had a fairly significant betting split in this with a majority of money bet on the 49ers and a majority of total tickets bet on the Chiefs. We have what could potentially be the most aesthetically pleasing Super Bowl in some time thanks to matchups on both sides of the ball. Patrick Mahomes and that high-flying Chiefs offense face a 49ers defense that has taken a huge step forward in 2020 and is in the discussion for best in the league. Kyle Shanahan’s offensive play-calling faces a Chiefs defense that has been inconsistent, but has stepped up in the past two weeks when they needed to get key stops.

We’ll get into predictions at the end of the week, but for now, let’s look at this strictly from the 49ers side of the conversation. A one-point game is in the mix, but if the 49ers cover, there’s a good chance they’ll also win their sixth Lombardi Trophy. What will it take for them to cover 1.5 points?

Pass rush

Patrick Mahomes is a wizard at the quarterback position. He can make plays through the air with his arm, he can make plays on the ground with his legs, and his maneuvering in and out of the pocket allows him to make big plays through the air thanks to both his arm and his legs.

In his two playoff appearances, Mahomes completed 65.7 percent of his passes for 615 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s looked particularly impressive when he’s been pressured. His 28 dropbacks under pressure are third most in the playoffs, behind only DeShaun Watson and Russell Wilson. When pressured, his 104.2 NFL passer rating is second only to Kirk Cousins, per PFF.

But he has yet to see a pass rush like the 49ers. The 49ers have invested top draft picks and big contracts in the defensive line, and it has finally paid off. DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead have been monsters in the middle, with Armstead having a career year, but the additions of Dee Ford and Nick Bosa helped flip the switch. Ford has dealt with some injuries this season, but when both are on the field, the 49ers defense has made life miserable for quarterbacks. If you missed it, a favorite stat related to this comes courtesy of ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. During the regular season, when Ford, Bosa, and Kwon Alexander were all on the field together (108 defensive snaps), opposing quarterbacks posted a QBR of 3.0.

The biggest concern for the 49ers in this game is the Chiefs speed. Richard Sherman and Emmanuel Moseley have been able to make some big plays in the playoffs, but they have not faced speed like they’ll see in Tyreek Hill and Mecole Hardman. If the 49ers can get some pressure on Mahomes and hurry him up, they can potentially contain the Chiefs speed. We’ll still see instances of Mahomes chucking up a deep ball on the run, but if the 49ers are successful getting pressure, the Chiefs should see less success in those instances.

If the 49ers can get pressure on Mahomes early and often, they could put a serious dent in this Chiefs offense.

Kyle Shanahan

Of course, the 49ers also have to score points to get over that spread. The point total sits at 54.5 and a massive majority of the betting public is betting over. I’m tempted by the under, but even if it does go under that number, it won’t be by much. The 49ers team total is 26.5, and they’ll probably need to get over that number to secure a win.

Over the past week and a half, we’ve heard plenty about Jimmy Garoppolo only attempting eight passes against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game. This came a week after the 49ers shut down the passing game against the Vikings and focused on the run for much of the second half.

The decision against the Vikings came after a Garoppolo interception. In both games, there was all sorts of speculation about Shanahan’s lack of faith in Garoppolo. However, much of the media criticism failed to mention the fact that the 49ers were bulldozing both teams on the ground. Notably, the 49ers put up 37 points against Green Bay because aside from Garoppolo’s four rushing attempts, San Francisco averaged 7.5 yards per carry on the ground!

The Chiefs run defense has been inconsistent this season, but you know defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be gearing up for Kyle Shanahan’s run scheme. The 49ers offense vs. Chiefs defense will hinge on how these two punch and counter-punch. Players need to execute, but it’s long been established how much Shanahan brings to the table as a play-designer and play-caller. It’s a bit of a simplification, but how Shanahan comes out of the gate with the game plan, and then how he adjusts if things go south could make or break this thing for the 49ers.

It is easy for analysts to say “A key for the 49ers is that Jimmy Garoppolo is going to have to make plays.” I don’t think that’s entirely accurate given how we’ve seen the 49ers impose their will on the ground. Shanahan’s run offense brings something different than what the Chiefs have faced in successful performances against Derrick Henry and Carlos Hyde in the playoffs.

That being said, Shanahan has shown an ability to put Garoppolo in position for some early success to build momentum. If the 49ers are not able to entirely impose their will on the ground, look for George Kittle to get more involved in the passing game than we’ve seen in recent weeks. He has four receptions for 46 yards and a touchdown through two playoff games, but if the 49ers cover in this game, it seems like we’ll see Kittle match those numbers. The 49ers might want to lean on their ground game, but look for them to take some shots early to throw off Steve Spagnuolo and his defense.

There will be plenty to track on the field, but Kyle Shanahan vs. Steve Spagnuolo and Andy Reid vs. Robert Saleh are going to be fascinating chess matches all Sunday evening.

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