49ers vs. Cardinals: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
Riding a two-game win streak, the San Francisco 49ers will be faced with its third division opponent in six weeks, having gone 1-1 so far. Head coach Bruce Arians and this new-look Arizona Cardinals team are tied with the Niners for second in the division and dying to make a statement. Sunday, the Cardinals travel to Candlestick Park.
True, the birds are not exactly soaring this year, but it is a rejuvenated unit nonetheless—one that opponents can now expect to come out and play a competitive game. So the 49ers have to be prepared to take some shots on Sunday. Arizona can say more by winning this one, which is always a dangerous advantage.
Resiliency will be key for San Francisco.
But in the end, it should come down to the Cards' 30th ranked total offense versus the top five overall defense of the 49ers. The 'Niners are scoring enough points as a team to pull this one out, but can Carson Palmer and Arizona match it?
The storyline, and thus the game-impacting matchups, will be quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the struggling passing offense versus this spiced up Cardinals D, while Palmer battles it out with NaVorro Bowman and the no-name 49ers defense.
Expect some back-and-forth early on, but if San Francisco is meant to win this, it should pull away by the late second quarter. On the other hand, if the 49ers are faltering without big plays into the third quarter, it might be Arizona’s game to steal.
A battle between NFC West rivals makes it anyone’s contest, but here is how coach Jim Harbaugh can give his San Francisco 49ers an edge.
Let Kap Play Pitch and Catch
Like a battleship with a ruptured hull, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers passing offense are capsizing, near dead last in the National Football League (181.6 YPG), peddling the 31st ranked attack with no encouraging signs of staying afloat.
Knowing Arizona is No. 3 versus the run, having only allowed one rushing touchdown all season—and that this aerial unit needs to get back on track—offensive coordinator Greg Roman and the 'Niners must be geared toward assaulting the opponent’s No. 19 ranked pass defense.
They need a boost and here is an opportunity to right the ship. And moreover, it is a more permeable part of the Cards defense. They also have to be prepared with a full arsenal of pass plays if Arizona's unit comes hard and stuffs the run, much like the Seattle Seahawks did.
That would leave them with nothing.
Lost in the Niners big win over Houston is that Colin Kaepernick is still struggling: 6/15 for 113 yards. 64 of them came on one throw— trey wingo (@wingoz) October 7, 2013
That said, if San Francisco views it that way and plans accordingly, this week’s matchup could actually be a resurgent one for Kaepernick and the passing attack, which, until now, has been perpetually drowning in its own ineptitude.
You can see it: It is a flame they struggle to ignite each week.
Those issues in mind, if Kap is going to put the ball in orbit, he has to be a mix of both confident and careful, seeing as how Arizona is averaging 2.7 takeaways in its past three games in 2013, per NFL Team Rankings.
So even though throwing the football might be the way to rout the Cardinals, it is not going to be a walk in the park.
The 49ers coaching staff must design ways to get the football out quick to new receivers. They need to get the message across to Kap that it is okay to pull the trigger, and together, they have to identify soft spots in the defense and make the necessary in-game adjustments.
Seeking out promising matchups on the field, it might be wise to start with the weak side of the Arizona defense, which features cornerback Jerraud Powers (5’10”) and free safety Tyrann Mathieu (5’9”). Between them, you’ve got two fairly undersized guys; one, a veteran, and the other, a rookie learning the ropes.
With San Francisco’s banged up and skittish receiving corps—plus the fact that the 'Niners struggled versus big, physical defensive backfields—Kap might want to veer away from Patrick Peterson and Yeremiah Bell, who are both 6’0” and change. The matchups on the other side of the field are more tempting.
Kap can also gut that side of the field, since he can throw running to his left, which tends to throw defensive players off guard.
Cardinals lead columnist Shaun Church of Bleacher Report said, “[Powers has been] up and down. Good one week and awful the next. As per his history.” In regard to Mathieu, Church insisted that the rookie is “as instinctive as any player on the defense,” via Twitter.
“He is a fighter. Never out of a play.”
Now, they’re both qualified NFL contributors, but they have vulnerabilities.
When targeting that side of the field, the 49ers will want to deliver the ball to the receiver away from Mathieu, forcing Powers to defend the pass (let the Honey Badger engage afterwards). That way, both players will be forced to rely on their respective weaknesses, which is consistent coverage for Powers and tackling for Mathieu.
Since Kap is cold right now, he might not want to test Mathieu too much in coverage, who has been on quite the high-energy rampage:
Thru 5 weeks, just 7 NFL players have recorded a sack, a forced fumble & an INT. Tyrann @Mathieu_Era is one of them— MarkDalton (@CardsMarkD) October 7, 2013
He wants to take the football away, so whether Kap is throwing near him, running in proximity to him or detecting him close to the line of scrimmage, he must respect Mathieu’s ability to make a game-changing play. So, like we said, challenge him to make the tackle when possible, and when targeting him, aim high.
From the pocket, he can look to four powering pass-catchers, all of whom can present physical issues for the young versatile defensive back—a player the Cards have come to rely on. Jon Baldwin, at 6’4”, 230 pounds, coupled with incredible length and vertical ability, may turn out to be the weapon of choice.
That is, if they can get him going.
Baldwin is a jump ball receiver with long speed, and even if Mathieu was hanging on him like his Siamese twin, the 49ers pass-catcher can go higher. Pending unforeseen game circumstances, Baldwin is winning that matchup 10 out of 10 times.
Maybe not the crispest route runner, but if nothing else, he can undoubtedly climb the ladder. He also possesses a Diet Coke version of the spectacular catch gene.
Then there is tight end Vernon Davis, who will see plenty of shots against Mathieu.
The best way to get him rolling is to just play a little pitch and catch, with crossers, digs and slants, allowing No. 85 to get a full head of steam. That is a train no defensive back wants to get in front of, especially one that is roughly half-a-foot shorter and 70 pounds lighter.
That’ll eventually loosen up the Cardinals defense and allow Davis to get down the field later in the game, working the deep part of the turf with wheel routes, seams and the deep crossers he is so very good at.
Do you think Colin Kaepernick can finally get rolling vs. the Cardinals 19th-ranked pass defense?
Moving on down the list, Vance McDonald (6’4”, 267 lbs.) is another weapon the 49ers have yet to fully explore. He is a big, big target, who, like Davis, can be quite the force once he's picked up speed. And given his size, even if he is covered, Kaepernick can throw it up and allow him to make a contested catch.
But Kap needs to have more faith in the totality of the receiving corps around him, rather than just one or two players.
Only one wide receiver has been relevant for the 49ers this season, and he should get a fair amount of opportunities versus Mathieu. According to Mike Clay of NBC Sports, Mathieu has seen around 150 snaps from the slot this year, which is a reason why he is likely to encounter 49ers wideout Anquan Boldin, who is a big, physical vet receiver who works inside.
This is going to be a lot like Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston—physical and quick with the latter getting embarrassed. Boldin can beat Mathieu up, not only with his physicality, but also with his veteran panache. This is a matchup the 49ers have to like.
Again, the 49ers have athletes. They’ve got playmakers and guys who can really run, so the offensive staff needs to enable them to do that. Perhaps the most important thing they can do is design plays with simplified reads, while reassuring Kap that it’s okay to make a mistake.
Just pull the trigger. Unleash.
If Kap gets back to the all-or-nothing style we saw in 2012, this receiving corps may finally thrive.
Of Colin Kaepernick’s 123 targeted passes, 54 percent (66) have been intended for Anquan Boldin or Vernon Davis. #49ers— Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch) October 10, 2013
Contain Larry Fitzgerald
Much like a dead battery coming to life again, the 49ers recently received a much-needed charge on the defensive side of the football, namely by regaining their ferocity versus the run over the past two weeks. They’ve also been able to muster splash plays and field a top three pass defense.
This is a great sign for a unit that, is not only without its stars, but faced an identity crisis early on.
As it relates to this week, the Cardinals are an undeniably shoddy team on the ground, having made little to no effort in the offseason in terms of investing at the position. Really, the club just put a Band-Aid over it in Bruce Arians’ first year as head coach, signing Rashard Mendenhall, who had washed out with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
But lo and behold, Arians knew he could count on Larry Legend.
Larry Fitzgerald is one of the all-timers at one of the hottest positions in sports—wide receiver. The seven-time Pro Bowler and jump ball hero is the franchise leader in career receiving yards (10,701), receiving touchdowns (80) and receptions (788), as one of the best to ever don an NFL uniform.
While he has had superb quarterback play at times in his career, having made a Super Bowl run with Kurt Warner, No. 11 has been a one-man wrecking crew for the majority of his professional life, and regrettably so.
Now, in the post-Warner era, the Cards have since shuffled through Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall, Kevin Kolb, Ryan Lindley and Brian Hoyer, before finally dismantling the quarterback carousel and signing veteran passer and former Pro Bowl sharpshooter Carson Palmer.
Even though he is a generous upgrade from what Arizona had, he is still a very beatable quarterback.
Heading into Week 6, Palmer currently has the fourth-highest interception percentage in the league, via Team Rankings. He touts a 67.0 QB rating on the season, which is the second worst for passers that have 100 or more attempts, tossing five touchdowns to nine picks.
Also worth noting, Palmer’s Total QBR has been below 50 in four of five games, via ESPN.
Ergo, since Fitzgerald is playing with a run-of-the-mill of quarterback, the 49ers can do what they’ve done versus teams like the Detroit Lions and recently to the Houston Texans—teams which also have a single alpha receiver.
And that is employing a mixture of blitzes, disguising coverages and bracketing the No. 1 wideout, who in this case is Fitz.
By bracketing Fitzgerald, the 49ers can take away his favorite read, make Palmer survey the rest of the field and perhaps try to force something—check down or chuck it out of bounds. Either way, it results in the disruption of flow in the passing game—making him uneasy and unable to establish any sort of a rhythm.
With the 49ers new-look secondary growing into itself, one of the safeties—in Eric Reid or the newly invigorated Donte Whitner over the top—can support whichever cornerback has responsibility for Fitzgerald.
By the looks of it, Carlos Rogers, Tramaine Brock or Tarell Brown are going to take turns, and all appear fully capable.
We touched on an example of this earlier in Week 3, in regards to how the 49ers would put the clamps down and contain Indianapolis Colts wideout Reggie Wayne. However, the breakdown revealed was of a situation wherein San Francisco’s defensive players competed in man coverage.
For balance, here is a situation of how it can work in zone, which is when the 49ers defenders ran to create that pick-six opportunity for Tramaine Brock last week.
This example is not about glitz or glam, but rather the simple notion of taking away an option for the quarterback. In 2012 versus the Detroit Lions, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was dedicating extra men to Calvin Johnson because he is the clear strength of that offense.
Right off the snap, it is clear to see that Stafford is locked onto Calvin Johnson (cyan square), waiting him to finish his break and fill into that patch of green grass. Shortly after Aldon Smith gave Johnson a bump at the line of scrimmage, the receiver had an unimpeded route the rest of the way.
Though, the 49ers defensive backs don’t need to get physical with Johnson to eliminate him from the play; they just need to outsmart the route design.
As you can see, Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown (yellow circles) are parallel to one another, positioning themselves to box Johnson in. Brown (No. 25) has Johnson’s outside shoulder, while Goldson (No. 38) has him inside.
One could make an argument here that the primary option on this play is already broken, and that Stafford is already thinking about dumping it off and moving onto the next down.
Johnson continues to drive on his route, but Stafford can’t pull the trigger for two reasons.
- Brown is in a clear position to break on the ball, as is Goldson.
- Stafford knows that you don’t make that throw with your receiver ready to get teed up like that.
Neither would be a positive play for Detroit, so with the protection holding up (since Aldon Smith is in coverage), Stafford hangs onto the ball with his body directed toward Johnson, waiting for a development that never comes.
Brown and Goldson finally move on Johnson (they barely had to move at all on this play, saving their breath). But it is clear, Johnson is locked up and there is really no safe throw to be made—not for Megatron, and not for Stafford.
Stafford winds up holding the ball for 5.13 seconds (unofficial) before finally getting rid of it.
Instead of pushing it to Megatron, the Lions quarterback dumps it down to his tight end, Will Heller, for a seven-yard gain, which the 49ers will take all day if it means safeguarding themselves from the momentum-infusing deep ball to the team’s superstar wideout.
Larry Fitzgerald must be treated the same way.
- Beware the Blitzing Badger: Tyrann Mathieu is an all-purpose weapon for a defense, and it would not be a surprise to see him play up in the box, blitz from the slot or come off the edge of the line of scrimmage. Kap will have to decipher these looks and make judgment calls. Is he coming or is he not?
- Sound, Fundamental Football: The 49ers have had a return to this style of football the past two weeks. Running the ball, coupled with ball security and hard tackling, has helped this team make up for a lot of absent talent. San Francisco must play smart against a division rival that knows how to get in its head. It must avoid penalties and finish assignments.
- Win in the Trenches: This particularly goes for the 49ers offensive line, which will have a tough match with Darnell Dockett, Calais Campbell, John Abraham, Dan Williams and Matt Shaughnessy. From Joe Staley to Anthony Davis, this front five needs to protect Kap and enable Frank Gore and Co. to do their thing.
- Hit Carson Palmer: We mentioned limiting Carson Palmer by taking away Larry Fitzgerald, but what we left out is that when he is holding onto the ball for that little while longer, the 49ers need to bring the pain. This will be on Justin Smith, Corey Lemonier, Ahmad Brooks and a pass-rushing NaVorro Bowman.
- Watch for Newcomers: Going back to Week 2, wideout Michael Floyd has been targeted 23 percent of the time while Larry Fitzgerald has been targeted 20 percent of the time, per Mike Clay of NBC Sports. The 49ers need to watch No. 11 closely, but they can't allow Floyd to get loose, either. The same goes for tight end Rob Housler, who is exactly the mold of player to unsuspectingly cause problems for the San Francisco defense, especially on third down and in the red zone.
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