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What the Chiefs will do on defense in Super Bowl 54

Our Super Bowl preview rolls on, with Stephen White turning the spotlight on the Kansas City pass rush and Tyrann Mathieu.

Chiefs DL Chris Jones holds his hand up to his ear, with 5 teammates behind in, superimposed on a background with pink, teal, and white lines and the number 54
The Chiefs’ pass rush is a key to Super Bowl 54.

Welcome back to my Super Bowl 54 preview. If you’ve been following along so far, you know that I’ve been working on a five-part series that explores what both the Chiefs and 49ers will do on Super Bowl Sunday.

If you haven’t been following along, then there’s no time like the present to right that wrong. Here’s what you’ve missed and what you can still look forward to:

Jan. 28: Chiefs on offense; 49ers on defense
Jan. 29: 49ers on offense; Chiefs on defense
Jan. 30: Who will win the Super Bowl

This is the final column before the big reveal of which team I think will hold up that Lombardi Trophy Sunday night. But sometimes it’s about the journey, not the destination, and my No. 1 goal isn’t necessarily to predict the right winner, but to accurately explain what I think each team’s gameplan will be.

On that note, let’s dive into the Kansas City defense.

What to expect when the Chiefs are on defense

For the Chiefs defensively, the Super Bowl will come down to them just reading their keys and believing their eyes. Trying to adjust to everything the 49ers do with their running game would only have Chiefs defenders out there with smoke coming out of their ears every play.

I think the pass rush on Jimmy Garoppolo is going to be just as important to the Chiefs’ success on defense as it will be for the 49ers’ defense to get pressure on Patrick Mahomes. While I believe that 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey is probably their most vulnerable offensive lineman when it comes to pass protection, I wouldn’t necessarily want to move Frank Clark over there on early downs to match up with him. Not because I don’t think Clark could work McGlinchey over, but rather because the Chiefs’ defense would be better with Tanoh Kpassagnon rushing McGlinchey, while Clark stays on the right and gives 49ers left tackle Joe Staley the business.

I have no doubt that either Clark or Kpassagnon can generate pressure one-on-one against McGlinchey. I just don’t have the same level of confidence in Kpassagnon getting the pressure going against Staley, whereas I feel good about Clark being able to beat both of them. So, if it’s a choice between one guy getting beat or two guys getting beat, I’m going to use simple math and go with the latter.

At the same time, when old man Terrell Suggs comes in on passing downs, that’s the perfect opportunity for Clark to move over to McGlinchey. Suggs will probably be 50 years old and still able to beat tackles, so I think he will be able to get by Staley on Sunday more than once.

The X-factor for the Kansas City defense is the health of Chris Jones, the uber-talented interior defensive lineman. The Chiefs got away with only using him in spot duty on passing downs against the Titans, and somehow he was amazing coming off that calf injury.

Chiefs DT Chris Jones pressures Titans QB Ryan Tannehill into a throwaway.

I’m not sure that will be enough against the 49ers. But if he is able to play on early downs at even close to his normal level, Jones will have an opportunity to make a huge impact. If he can’t, the Chiefs could be in trouble.

One thing I’d do if I were the Chiefs is walk Tyrann Mathieu down to the stud tight end side on early downs and have him blitz off that edge every so often with the rest of the defensive linemen stunting away from where he is lined up.

For one, putting Mathieu on the line allows him to match up with George Kittle and get hands on him before he can get going down the field.

For two, the Chiefs can have him spill everything coming his way, which will help him to disrupt just about any runs they can throw at him in the backfield, especially those plays with pulling offensive linemen that the 49ers love so much. If Mathieu can blow shit up in the backfield, that will drastically improve the defense’s chances to keep the 49ers from gaining positive yards.

Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu blows up a short pass by tackling a Titans receiver for a loss.

For three, you also add a rusher against Garoppolo, and if it’s a play-action pass or a bootleg, Mathieu should be in position to possibly create a turnover or to force a throwaway. Honey Badger blitzing also helps the coverage, in that the hook-to-curl player to the side he is blitzing from can now be patient with the run reads. And that means on play-action pass they can just hang back and look for a quick pass that Garoppolo would normally try to fit in right behind them.

A quick note here: I noticed that the 49ers run plays that look like run-pass options (RPOs), but after watching the film, I’m pretty sure that there is usually no “read” involved at all. Basically, Garoppolo ain’t never going to hand that ball off if his eyes are up looking at the route. If the Chiefs are smart, they will tell their linebackers when they can see Garoppolo’s eyes to sink back instead of stepping up to play the run.

One of them may well end up having Garoppolo throw the ball right to them. The question is if they will catch it with the glare of the Super Bowl crowd upon them.

Only time will tell.