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How the Chiefs and 49ers learned from each other in Super Bowl LIV

Both teams saw what their respective offenses lacked, and they have set out to patch those holes ever since.

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NFL: Super Bowl LIV Opening Night Douglas Defelice-USA TODAY Sports

When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers met in Super Bowl LIV, their offenses were foils for one another.

Led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ offense boasted a prolific passing attack — but at times, it was a sleeping giant that was prone to inconsistency. During its playoff run, the Chiefs had to rally behind Mahomes’ big-play ability to overcome a 24-0 deficit to the Houston Texans in the Divisional round — and a 10-0 deficit to the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship.

The 49ers, on the other hand, waltzed through the playoffs with a dominant rushing attack that secured the team early leads and controlled the pace of the games. In the Divisional round against the Minnesota Vikings, the 49ers rushed for 186 yards. Against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC championship, running back Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards all by himself. In those games, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo attempted 27 total passes, going 11-19 for 131 yards, one touchdown and one interception against the Vikings, followed by a 6-8, 77-yard performance against the Packers.

The contrasting styles of the teams were on full display in Super Bowl LIV, where the 49ers once again rode a ground and pound game to a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter. But the Chiefs rallied back with big plays down the stretch to win 31-20.

In each other, the Chiefs and 49ers saw what their respective offenses lacked — and ever since then, they have sought to patch those holes.

The 49ers needed a quarterback who could make a play on third down when it mattered

As efficient as San Francisco’s offense was for the majority of the game, the team relied on having the down-and-distance on its side to keep the entire playbook open to head coach Kyle Shanahan — but on multiple occasions, passing downs stalled the 49ers’ offense. When the Chiefs penetrated the pocket or forced Garoppolo into his second or third read — especially down the stretch after the 49ers had abandoned the run — the quarterback struggled to make plays.

At the beginning of the third quarter, a nine-play, 60-yard drive ended in a field goal after Garoppolo checked down to running back Tevin Coleman short of the sticks on third down. Troy Aikman — calling the game alongside Joe Buck — immediately pointed out a wide-open George Kittle well past the first-down marker.

A similar scenario unfolded in the fourth quarter, when Garoppolo once again overlooked Kittle on third-and-5.

Later in the fourth quarter — with the game on the line — Garoppolo overthrew wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who had used a deep post route to get a few steps behind the defense.

With its back against the wall, a team needs a quarterback who can rise to the occasion and make a play. In Super Bowl LIV, the 49ers did not have that guy — but the Chiefs did.

The Chiefs needed to control the trenches to make the easy plays

But despite their heroics down the stretch of the championship game, Mahomes and the Chiefs offense could not get in sync through three quarters, as the 49ers’ defense produced 18 pressures on 29 pass-rush plays — a 62.1% pressure rate.

In a terrific interview by Kevin Clark published by The Ringer this week, Mahomes admitted he sometimes does not trust staying in the pocket and going through his reads when he is hit early. As he put it, he gets “back to that backyard-style of football a little bit too much.”

We saw an example of this in the third quarter, when 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa pressured Mahomes up the middle and punched the ball out of his hand — nearly causing a turnover.

On the next play, Mahomes threw an interception when a ball clearly got away from him over the middle of the field, missing the lane where Tyreek Hill could have made a play on it.

While Mahomes and the Chiefs struggled to take control of the game through three quarters, the stout play of San Francisco’s offensive line opened up a creative (and punishing) rushing attack. In turn, Garoppolo was able to sit back in a clean pocket while Shanahan schemed open receivers with a play-action game that feasted on easy completions of five to 10 yards.

San Francisco’s success in the trenches determined the outcome of the game through three quarters. If not for Garoppolo’s lapses — and the heroics of Mahomes and the Chiefs down the stretch — the Lombardi Trophy might have ventured west.

After Super Bowl LIV

In 2020, the 49ers suffered through a disappointing season that ended without a playoff berth — largely due to an ankle injury that kept Garoppolo out of all but six games. Following the season, the team took a page out of the Chiefs’ playbook, climbing up the order of the 2021 NFL Draft to select quarterback Trey Lance with the third pick.

San Francisco reportedly plans to give Lance a redshirt year behind Garoppolo — just as the Chiefs did with Mahomes and Alex Smith in 2017. Time will tell if Lance is the quarterback who can push the 49ers over the top, but we will get a good look at him on Saturday night. Shanahan said on Thursday morning that he plans to play Garoppolo only one series before Lance takes over for the rest of the first half.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers OTA Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Meanwhile... in 2020, the Chiefs took small steps toward bolstering its offensive line and running game, selecting running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of the draft and offensive tackle Lucas Niang in the third.

But following their 31-9 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV — a game in which the Chiefs’ inconsistencies in the trenches and boom-or-bust ‘backyard-style of football’ were its undoing — the team took a much larger leap to accomplish that goal.

On Saturday night, Chiefs Kingdom will get its first look at the team’s revamped offensive line and refocused game plan — one that aims to expand the roles of its running backs and help Mahomes control the flow of the game from the pocket.

Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. Arrowhead Time. Who’s ready?