Dan Orlovsky posed the question to himself. And if he didn’t quite have the solution, nobody — including the 49ers at this point — does.
“Is he stoppable?” the ESPN analyst asked of Patrick Mahomes. “My answer is yes and no.”
Mahomes, the NFL’s best quarterback, will lead the Chiefs against the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV in Miami on Feb. 2, part of a high-wire attack that will test the NFL’s best defense.
“The answer is yes because the 49ers are built to stop him,” Orlovsky said on KNBR’s “Murph & Mac” on Tuesday. “If you look at the Patriots vs. the Colts back in the day. If you look at the Seahawks vs. Peyton Manning, if you look at the Giants vs. the Patriots, those front fours were good enough to get pressure on the quarterback on a consistent basis. Force him to have to get the ball out of his hands before he wanted to. And then there’s vision of the quarterback.
“Now, that being said, he’s different than all those guys. He can move. He can move, and that front four can be minimized because of the pocket movement. Patrick Mahomes has run for more first downs [than] any quarterback over the last two months in the NFL. Everyone probably thinks Lamar Jackson or Josh Allen, [but] Patrick Mahomes has run for more. That’s the challenge for the 49ers defense.”
It’s a massive challenge. According to Orlovsky, their best hope is to jam Mahomes’ receivers repeatedly at the line. Even if it draws some penalties.
“I think you’ve gotta be willing if you’re Richard Sherman and you’re [Emmanuel] Moseley or [K’Waun] Williams, you’ve gotta be willing to get hands on those receivers. Especially when they’re in the slot,” said Orlovsky, who played from 2005-15 in the NFL, predominantly with Detroit. “If you’re going to play Tyreek Hill off coverage in the slot — even if you’re 3 yards off, you don’t get hands on him, it’s dangerous.
“… If [the 49ers] get flagged for five illegal contacts, especially on first down, is that worth it? I’m going to say yes. I think you’ve gotta be willing to trade off 25 yards of penalties, 50 yards of penalties for the lack of explosive plays.”
The Niners play more zone defense than any team in the NFL, and no one has better numbers against zones than Mahomes. Orlovsky said the 49ers still should play a lot of zone — “it’s not like he struggles in man coverage” — because it’s how San Francisco has made it this far. They’ll have to be on high alert, though, because the RPO was built to combat zone defense.
“His brain is just as good as his talent,” Orlovsky said of Mahomes. “… His understanding of his movement and how that movement affects all 11 on the defense is so unique because a lot of quarterbacks move because they have to. And rightfully so. There’s times in the game when Mahomes moves strictly to disturb the defense. He knows, OK, if I do this, it’s very Aaron Rodgers-esque. If I move this way, I know the defense will shift in this certain manner and then it gives time for those guys to get open more downfield in space. It’s an immense challenge.”
It’ll be all about physicality. Both at the line with the receivers and sending message after message to Mahomes.
“When you start getting hit, you start getting hit. And your brain starts to tell you things that you don’t necessarily want to,” Orlovsky said. “And we’ve seen the greatest quarterback at least my eyes have ever watched [Tom Brady], and people in San Francisco will debate this, we’ve seen the greatest quarterback of all time look mortal because of hits. … You want to fluster greatness, it’s a constant hit. It’s a pushing of an offensive tackle into their lap. It’s just running by him and making sure … I used to hate — and I didn’t pay a ton, I get that. I used to hate when an offensive lineman would get pushed back onto my foot. Or when a defensive lineman that I know was really good, was a big human, when he would run by me and just brush m.e I used to be like, fudge, that dude was there again man and you know they’re coming.”