For the Week 17 finale, the San Francisco 49ers will go on the road one last time, taking on the resilient Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Between the rivalry, playoff implications being on the line and both teams touting double-digit wins on the season, it projects to be a hostile environment.
If the 49ers have any hope of avoiding the Wild Card Round, and the Cardinals to sneak into the tourney, they each must start with getting a victory this week.
Fortunately for coach Jim Harbaugh's Niners, they’ll see a familiar opponent—one of which they’ve had recent success against. If the coaching staff takes a closer look at what has worked and what hasn’t, it should be able to formulate an executable game plan that helps position this team to win the game.
Without further ado, here is a look at San Francisco’s philosophy for the upcoming match against the Cards.
Two-Phase Aerial Attack
A lot has been said about the 49ers’ lack of success when they veer from a run-first game plan. It just hasn't gone well. And this week, against a top-rated pass defense and being on the road (via Pro Football Focus), it would seem like the 49ers should put even more emphasis on pounding the football.
While they shouldn't drift too far from the run, this game is just calling for an aerial assault.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis are both coming off their biggest career games versus this particular defense, combining for 16 grabs, 352 yards and four touchdowns in the past two games if you add their single-game bests together.
With these two averaging over 175 yards apiece, this is just a matchup that seems to favor the 49ers passing attack.
In Week 6, Davis’ 180 receiving yards versus the Cards tied for the third-most in the NFL in the past 20 years.
Anytime that kind of performance happens, it goes way beyond a bad game plan or a failure to adjust. Arizona simply can’t match up. Allowing 1,202 receiving yards to tight ends this season, they’re among the NFL’s worst defenses versus the position, and San Francisco has arguably the hottest one in the league right now, via Bill Williamson of ESPN.
So, since the Cards can’t match up, this is one of those games where the 49ers want to get Davis out on an island with a safety or linebacker.
That’s how he torched this team the last time—one-on-ones outside where No. 85 had room to breathe and was able to use those basketball moves and tap that horsepower. By getting Davis away from the congested part of the field, out in space rather than attached to the line, the 49ers increase their chances of a defensive breakdown.
Davis is a thoroughbred, so they want to let him run wild.
It’s that easy.
It’s not about any particular routes as much as it is matchups, although the 7-route (corner) and 9-routes (fly) have worked well. The 49ers must mobilize Davis, avidly search for the mismatch and take shots down the field once again and see what shakes loose.
Versus the Cards, defenders like safety Yeremiah Bell and linebacker Jasper Brinkley don't bode well out on the boundary or in the slot for Arizona.
The Niners can generate big plays down the field and knock the wind out of Arizona's sails this way. Right now, Davis has 11 receptions on passes thrown 20-plus yards down the field, which leads NFL tight ends (second, Jimmy Graham—seven).
On the other hand, Crabtree has been known to give Arizona star cornerback Patrick Peterson fits. In a pair of division games last season, the Niners wideout scored four touchdowns on him, tooling him all over the football field.
Whether it was the length of the field or in small spaces, Peterson had neither the awareness or agility to stick with him consistently.
However good Peterson is, you’ll find that around the league certain players don’t match up well with others. It’s often a contrast in skill sets. For one reason or another, Peterson has struggled to get a read on Crabtree and is notoriously burned by him or loses a jump ball to him.
Going into this one, its clear a matchup that favors the 49ers.
This becomes even more of advantage for San Francisco when it gets the matchup in the slot, where Peterson is not nearly as strong. While he is unlike other true No. 1 corners such as Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman in that he’ll follow the featured wide receiver to the slot, he is a below-average cover man there.
Meanwhile, Crabtree has consistently been the most productive slot weapon in the NFL.
If San Francisco is looking to manifest big plays, it seems like a no-brainer to utilize Crabtree in the slot, Davis outside and hope for a breakdown or simply target the open man. Also, with wideout Anquan Boldin also drawing coverage and tailback Frank Gore commanding heavier fronts, the 49ers should be able to dictate the tempo in the passing game.
Turn Up the Heat
Defensively, what do the 49ers want to do? Attack a mistake-prone offense.
No offensive line in the league has given up more pressures than Arizona. As Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus reports, the Cardinals’ O-line ranks 32nd in the league in pass-block efficiency. To anyone new here, that makes them the worst team in pro football when it comes to protecting their QB.
Not only has quarterback Carson Palmer been sacked 40 times this season, which is in the top half of the league, but he’s also been hit 93 times overall. The guy has really been put through the grinder this year. Out on the field against the NFL’s premier defense, he might find himself under fire.
Versus San Francisco in Week 6, Palmer was also hit five times, including one sack for a safety by rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier. And when he wasn’t sacked, but took a lick, Palmer threw picks to defensive backs Eric Reid and Carlos Rogers, and even got away with a couple more.
And that was without All-Pro rush linebacker Aldon Smith in the lineup.
With this leaky offensive line and Palmer’s innate reluctance to be safe with the football, there is no reason the 49ers shouldn't storm the backfield. Go on the offensive. Hit him. Force mistakes.
If the 49ers are to do this, they’re going to need to utilize their resources. Last week versus the Atlanta Falcons, which rank No. 30 in pass protection, the Niners defense failed to consistently get pressure and almost paid for it. To avoid making the same mistake twice, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio should write in a few ways to juice up the pass rush this week.
He can start by doing something as simple as switching up the personnel groupings.
This was a blitz package the 49ers featured in Week 11 versus the New Orleans Saints, most notably utilizing three outside ‘backers (one extra OLB, one less DT). This is a nickel variation Fangio used when defensive tackle Ray McDonald was out with an injury because it put the best players on the field and kicked up the pass rush.
It wasn’t used often, but it was effective when it was, and the local beat writers took notice, seeming a bit giddy.
The four men on the line of scrimmage from top to bottom are Ahmad Brooks (No. 55), Aldon Smith (No. 99), Justin Smith (No. 94) and Corey Lemonier (No. 96). This is a lethal four-man rush and still allows the San Francisco defense to drop seven men into coverage and blanket the deep part of the field.
This is the ideal way to attack Palmer on Sunday.
He is just outside the top 10 in passing attempts, throwing roughly 35 times per game, which is quite a lot. Having Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd on the outside will do that to an offense, though. Nevertheless, the underlying fact here is the 49ers know Palmer is going to be slinging it often and will have a good idea of when from their film study.
Like anything else, the 49ers can create favorable matchups by having over two pass-rush mavens on the field. With Justin Smith hogging two players, the center and the guard, Lemonier, A. Smith and Brooks are left on islands with the two tackles and the other guard.
As we noted with this porous offensive line, it won’t be able to handle that.
With those kinds of one-on-ones across the board, one of the three pass-rushers is going to get free, if Justin Smith doesn’t collapse the pocket on the quarterback on his own. Matchup football in the trenches, where Arizona is vulnerable, is a surefire way to give themselves an edge this week.
- Contain Andre Ellington: Keying in on Cards running back Andre Ellington will be essential in this game, largely because he is a do-it-all offensive player with game-breaking physical attributes. He was able to move the rock for 92 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in Week 6, helping to keep Arizona alive.
- Be Smart, No Flags: Rivalry games bring out the worst in players. Everyone's typically jawing, and things get out of hand quickly. The 49ers can't afford to take unnecessary penalties here for negative yardage, or, worse, have one of their guys ejected.
- Bracket Larry Fitzgerald: With this long speed, leaping ability and incredible hands, wideout Larry Fitzgerald is one of those players who calls for a second defender. The Niners must dedicate over-the-top help to No. 11. The threat he has to kill San Francisco deep is a concern. And even when he’s not, Fitz is problematic. Last time, he was able to break free, so if he sees a lane, he has as much speed and heart to not let that window pass him by.
- Block, Block, Block: The 49ers must have a great day blocking, particularly from their offensive line and tight ends. Calais Campbell, Darnell Dockett, Dan Williams, John Abraham and captain linebacker Daryl Washington make for a dense front seven. If San Francisco is to have any success offensively, they've got to win this battle.
- The Unheralded Guys: Incorporating role players like running backs Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James, as well as wide receivers Mario Manningham and Quinton Patton would be wise before playoff time. Tight end Vance McDonald is another option, if he can somehow turn over a new leaf late in the season here. Also, if San Francisco winds up breezing through this (unlikely), they should make it a point to rest the starters and get their backups in near the end with quarterback Colin Kaepernick.