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The Chiefs Have the Fastest Receivers in Football. How Can the 49ers Contain Them?

Experts break down how San Francisco may game-plan to stop the Legion of Zoom

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Damien Williams scored a dazzling 84-yard touchdown run in the final week of the regular season, he wasn’t even the fastest runner on the play. The highest speed recorded on that run doubled as the highest speed any player reached this NFL season, but it came from Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill, who caught up with Williams at the goal line to celebrate.

Hill emerges from a crowd of Chargers at the end of the video like he’s a varsity player on the JV team. It was the second time Hill pulled that stunt on a Williams run. Back in November, Hill caught up to Williams on another touchdown run by running 22.64 miles per hour, faster than any NFL ballcarrier ran this season.

Hill ran faster on that play than he did in 2017, when he became the fastest player ever recorded by ESPN’s Sports Science. Hill is likely the fastest player in the NFL, but he is only narrowly the fastest player on his own team. At the NFL combine, Chiefs rookie receiver Mecole Hardman ran a 4.33 40-yard dash, which ranks in the 99th percentile among wide receivers. Hardman’s 63-yard touchdown against the Titans in Week 10 was the fastest any receiver reached on a touchdown all season. Well, a touchdown that they scored.

The rest of the Chiefs aren’t slow. Receiver Sammy Watkins ranks in the 86th percentile for receivers, giving them by far the fastest three-man receiver set at any level of football. Running back Damien Williams is in the 91st percentile of 40-yard dash times at his position.

While the 49ers’ pass rush will try to wrangle Patrick Mahomes, the secondary will have to stay with this ludicrously fast group. San Francisco cornerback Richard Sherman once led Seattle’s Legion of Boom, but now he and his defense have to take on a Chiefs receiving corps that has dubbed themselves the Legion of Zoom.

“It almost looks like they got their roster from the Olympic relay team and threw them on the football field,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told reporters last week.

No team is better suited to use that raw speed than the Chiefs. Head coach Andy Reid is the league’s best at getting his players in space, and his offense is designed to use every inch of the field. Patrick Mahomes is the most talented passer in the NFL and can throw a football across more parts of the field than any other quarterback. Kansas City has a coach who uses the whole field, a quarterback who can reach almost any piece of it, and players who can traverse it the fastest. The biggest difference between college football and the pros is speed, but the Chiefs have raced to the Super Bowl by collecting enough speed on their team to (literally) separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

When the Chiefs traded up to draft Hardman in the 2019 draft, it didn’t take much imagination to see the pick as an insurance policy in case Hill was suspended. Earlier that year, Hill had been investigated by police in Overland Park, Kansas, after a call about child abuse in his home. Hill did not end up being charged with a crime, but a potential NFL suspension loomed. (Hill had pleaded guilty to charges of domestic assault and battery by strangulation in a separate incident when he was in college.) When the NFL decided in mid-July not to suspend Hill, the Chiefs had two of the fastest players in the league.

That speed, along with the speed of Watkins, Williams, and Travis Kelce, will be one of the most important parts of the Super Bowl. How will the 49ers defend the fastest group in the league?

Take away the deep passes

Richard Sherman isn’t the only thing the 49ers took from the Seahawks. Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was an assistant coach for Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense, which faced Peyton Manning’s historic 2013 Broncos offense (which still holds the all-time record for points scored in a season). Seattle smashed the Broncos 43-8 in that Super Bowl. Saleh has instilled his Seattle philosophy into the 49ers: disciplined zone coverage with an emphasis on limiting big plays. That sounds great in the abstract, but Saleh’s scheme is about simplicity. The goal is for the defensive backs to have a black-and-white understanding of what to do in a given situation, and by removing gray areas from assignments, players can play at maximum speed. Hesitation, even for a fraction of a second, against this Chiefs team can lead to big plays, and the 49ers secondary runs a system designed to make sure players never hesitate.

San Francisco played zone coverage on more than 64 percent of opposing dropbacks this year, the second most in the league. When in zone, the 49ers are often splitting the deep parts of the field between two, three, or four defenders. That makes it relatively easy to defend big passes as long as the secondary stays disciplined.

“One of the founding principles of our defenses is to eliminate explosive [plays],” Saleh said in that same press conference. The Chiefs turn their speed into explosive plays. Kansas City led the league this season in passes that gained 40-plus yards (18). But the 49ers allowed the second-fewest passes of 40-plus yards (five). Whereas the Chiefs were churning out a 40-yard play more than once a week this year, the 49ers allowed just five all season, or roughly once a month. The defense gave up a 42-yard pass to Tyreek Hill when these teams played in Week 3 of 2018, and Richard Sherman nearly gave up another long touchdown, but Mahomes underthrew the ball. If the 49ers give up zero or no deep passes in this game, that’s a great start, but it’s just step one on the to-do list.

Get to Mahomes in the pocket—but don’t let him out of the pocket, either

Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst, says the way the 49ers secondary guards the Chiefs receivers is directly tied to how the 49ers defensive line pressures Mahomes. “[Pass] rush and coverage are two-way streets,” Bowen says. “They’re tied together.”

The 49ers secondary may not be as fast as the Chiefs receivers, but the San Francisco front seven might be fast enough to keep up with the speed limit on that two-way street. Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, DeForest Buckner, and Arik Armstead’s speed in getting to Mahomes might be the 49ers’ best bet to match the speed of the Chiefs receivers. Much of the focus on the game is about whether the 49ers defensive line can pressure Mahomes, but the line is also responsible for not letting Mahomes scramble. He has rushed for 106 yards in his last two games, but his scrambles are more dangerous when he extends plays until the secondary loses track of his receivers. That’s when the big gains happen. There are dozens of examples, but the best might be this pass Mahomes threw on fourth-and-9 against the Baltimore Ravens with less than 90 seconds left in 2018.

Mahomes is in the pocket for two seconds when he feels pressure, but scrambles to buy three seconds. He then throws a pass only a handful of quarterbacks in their prime ever could across his body into Hill’s breadbasket, and Hill outruns a bunch of Ravens defenders. The Chiefs scored on that drive to tie the game and then won in overtime. Mahomes has thrown 22 touchdowns on the run over the last two seasons (not including four in these playoffs), far ahead of Deshaun Watson and Jameis Winston, who are tied at 15 in that span, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

“The throws out of pocket are backbreaking to a defense,” former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz says. Schwartz, who played one season for Kansas City and is the brother of Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, believes keeping Mahomes in the pocket will be a priority for the 49ers. But containing Mahomes inside the pocket requires the defense to have the correct posture. When a defensive lineman rushes upfield for a sack but doesn’t get one, it’s much easier for Mahomes to scramble into the area the lineman just vacated. That’s when Mahomes can take two or three seconds of pass coverage and turn it into five or six seconds. To contain Mahomes in the pocket, all four defensive linemen must methodically back the offensive linemen around Mahomes until he is surrounded and then someone can grab him when he isn’t expecting it, like the trash compactor scene from Star Wars. It’s slow, but effective. Schwartz says if the 49ers alter their pass rush to focus on containing Mahomes in the pocket, it will require an adjustment to each lineman’s usual approach.

“You’re not going to get [defensive linemen making] these quick moves off the line of scrimmage,” Schwartz says about what containing Mahomes looks like. “You’re just going to get power because they’re going to try to bull rush you back into the quarterback, and eventually they’re going to find a way to get off you. You might think, ‘OK, I have this guy blocked.’ And then he’s going to quickly try to get off you because Mahomes is still in the pocket.

“It becomes the question of do you try to get Mahomes as soon as possible and then you miss, and it gives Pat a big running lane? Or do you just push the pocket down by bull rushing and then moving [for the sack] late if Pat moves late.”

The dilemma is familiar to anyone who has played Halo, Call of Duty, or any other first-person shooter. Is it better for a team to be aggressive and rush to the middle of the map, or camp and wait for an opponent to come to you? Bowen doesn’t think the 49ers have to pick. He believes the 49ers’ defensive line has the speed to rush Mahomes without changing too much of their approach. He’s watched the 49ers defensive line chase down Arizona’s slippery rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. San Francisco’s defensive line is a faster unit than Tennessee’s or Houston’s, and it will be harder for Mahomes to rush the same way he did in those games.

“Buckner and Armstead, Bosa and Ford, they can all change direction,” Bowen says. “They all have short-area speed, and they can close quickly. While they might be coached up a little bit more to rush and contain principles, I don’t think it’ll change that much.”

Tackling

Let’s say the 49ers can take away the Chiefs’ deep passing with disciplined zone coverage, and the defensive line is able to get pressure on Mahomes in the pocket plus keep him from scrambling. Then what? The Chiefs are probably going to respond with quick passing. Screens, slants, and shallow routes with receivers running horizontally across the field a few yards past the line of scrimmage. This is a win for the 49ers defense as long as they can tackle.

“That’s the thing about zone coverage,” Bowen says. “If you don’t tackle, you’re done. Because you’re going to give them underneath stuff. You just say, “OK, you want to throw 5-yard [crossing routes]? It’ll take 20 of those to get down the field and score. Eventually you’re going to lose patience or make a mistake, and we’re going to capitalize on it.’ But a 5-yard crosser that turns into 15 or 20 [because you don’t tackle], that’s trouble.”

If the 49ers have trouble tackling Hill, Williams, and Watkins in space, the Chiefs will be able to pick up big chunks of yards before the 49ers defensive line even has time to get to Mahomes. This was a big problem for the 49ers in their 38-27 loss to the Chiefs in 2018, although that was with a much different group of 49ers than this Super Bowl unit. Tackling is about form, but also about the angle that defenders take to cut off the ballcarrier. The angle a linebacker needs to take to catch Hill or Hardman might be different from the angle they used on any player all season.

“You can’t play out of control versus the Chiefs,” Bowen says. “What I mean by ‘playing out of control’ is poor angles [to the ball carrier], bad footwork coming out of your break, slipping, falling, playing too fast where you overrun the ball. Simple, day one fundamentals that you teach in high school.”

Third down

All of Kansas City’s speed at receiver and San Francisco’s speed on the defensive line and linebacker will clash on third down.

“That’s the game to me,” Bowen says. He notes that on first and second down, the 49ers blitz roughly one in seven plays, but on third down that number more than doubles to almost one in three plays. He also notes that the game will ultimately be about the players, not the scheme. When the Chiefs’ speed does break the game open, the 49ers have to move on mentally as fast as the Chiefs can move physically.

“You can have the best coverage, the best rush, and a third-and-7, maybe you’re bringing pressure in that situation, and everything on the chalkboard looks perfect,” Bowen says. “And Patrick Mahomes still beats you. And then you just shake your head and say, ‘Well, he made a play. Let’s go on to the next one.’”