With Aaron Rodgers and the Packers looming in the NFC Wildcard Game Sunday, the 49ers pass defense has seemingly disappeared. After holding opposing quarterbacks to just below 200 yards a game over the first 14 games, Carson Palmer and Matt Ryan shredded the 49ers for a combined 756 yards or 378 per game.
In the Arizona game, the majority of the damage was done with deep passes that attacked the 49er corners and safeties down the field. With 8 pass plays of 23 yards or more, the Cardinals were able to storm back from 17 down and force a game winning drive late in the 4th quarter.
Lets look at how Arizona found success with their vertical passing attack with excellent execution, taking advantage of coverage techniques and winning at the point of the catch.
Game Situation: 2nd Quarter, 8:26, 1st and 10 at the ARI 28, Cardinals 0, 49ers 17
Formation: 3 Wide Ace
Offensive Concept: Post-Corner
Defensive Scheme: Robber
Pre-Snap: The Cardinals motion TE Housler halfway across the formation then back to his original position in order to read the 49ers defense. While the motion reveals little, QB Palmer can be heard identifying a single safety defense and he is correct as the 49ers are in a Robber defense, man coverage with S Eric Reid playing deep and S Donte Whitner roaming underneath reading QB Palmer's eyes.
Post-Snap: QB Palmer fakes a handoff to RB Ellington while TE Housler chips OLB Corey Lemonier creating more time for the deep routes to develop downfield. All 3 WR release vertically with WR Fitzgerald and WR Floyd running a Go/Corner route combination on the left.
With WR Floyd's Go route clearing out CB Tramaine Brock, WR Fitzgerald is allowed to work one on one against CB Carlos Rogers. After a quick move inside, WR Fitzgerald breaks outside on a corner route that gains a half step of separation. Additionally, S Reid is unable to help on a throw outside the numbers because of his deep center responsibilities.
QB Palmer throws a perfect dart that hits WR Fitzgerald in stride allowing him to elude CB Rogers and continue downfield until CB Brock pushes him out of bounds after a 49 yard gain.
Summary: While it was a valiant effort by Carlos Rogers against a double move by an elite wide receiver, he was unable to prevent a perfect throw from Carson Palmer. It should also be noted that an older wide receiver like Fitzgerald was able to create separation against Rogers, and he has been beaten consistently while covering the slot this year.
As for this Sunday the Packers will test the 49ers secondary covering the slot with the combination of Randall Cobb and Jarett Boykin. Add in the injuries of Carlos Rogers and his replacement Eric Wright's and the 49ers could have their hands full attempting to contain the quicker Packer receivers out of the slot.
Game Situation: 3rd Quarter, 3:56, 1st and 10 at the ARI 15, Cardinals 7, 49ers 17
Offensive Personnel: 2 WR (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd) 2 TE (Rob Housler, Jim Dray) 1 RB (Andre Ellington)
Formation: Ace Empty
Offensive Concept: Dig (In Route)
Defensive Scheme: Cover 1
Pre-Snap: The Cardinals motion RB Ellington out of the backfield to the left slot forming an empty backfield set. S Whitner walks down towards the line of scrimmage showing the Cover 1 coverage with S Reid again in a single safety look.
Post-Snap: All 5 eligible receivers go out on routes leaving the 5 Arizona offensive linemen to block 5 49er rushers. With single match ups all across the line, QB Palmer takes a 3 step drop and looks down the middle of the field. TE Housler runs a quick drag route that clears out the throwing lane across the middle allowing WR Fitzgerald to attack CB Rogers, who is playing outside technique, on a Dig route (Deep In).
With CB Rogers providing no resistance to an inward break due to his outside stance and S Reid too deep to provide any help, WR Fitzgerald comes wide open as he breaks parallel to the line of scrimmage. QB Palmer is able to release the football before the 5 man pressure gets to him for an easy 24 yard gain.
Summary: Why Carlos Rogers was playing inside technique without any help inside is beyond me. Maybe the 49ers were hoping to force the Cardinals into keeping a back or tight end by rushing 5 therefore allowing for one of the man defenders to drop into a middle zone or Vic Fangio wanted to ensure Fitzgerald wasn't going to beat them deep or maybe Rogers simply blew the coverage and was expecting help. Whatever the reasoning behind the coverage the Cardinals were clearly ready and able to take advantage of the mistake for what was one of the easiest 24 yard gains I've seen in the NFL.
If the 49ers present any similar opportunities to Aaron Rodgers and the Packers offense they will surely pay the price, as Green Bay has one of the most polished passing attacks in the NFL. Expect the 49ers play more inside technique and force longer throws towards the sidelines with conditions looking to be harsh.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 3:28, 3rd and 14 at the SF 34, Cardinals 10, 49ers 17
Offensive Personnel: 3 WR (Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Andre Roberts) 1 TE (Jim Dray) 1 RB (Stephan Taylor)
Formation: 2 Back Shotgun
Offensive Concept: Go Route
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3
Pre-Snap: The Cardinals line up with both TE Housler and RB Taylor in the backfield giving a max protect look. Because of the situation, 3rd and 14, the 49ers are in their Quarters package with 3 down linemen, 2 linebackers and 6 defensive backs playing Cover 3.
Post-Snap: Only 3 receiver release on routes as the Cardinals keep 7 blockers in against 3 rushers. Despite having time, QB Palmer sees WR Roberts create a one on one match up against Brock on a Go route and releases the football. Expecting a deep pass, Brock is perfectly positioned with a several yard head start down the left sideline.
As the ball sails towards the endzone, there is contact between Brock and WR Roberts as they position to make a play on the football. Roberts is able to shield Brock away while tracking the pass before hauling in a 34 yard touchdown pass.
Summary: While some, certainly Brock, will say there was offensive pass interference this exactly the type of play that you cannot allow if you to win in January. With perfect position as the ball was released Brock should have been more aggressive in locating and attacking the football. Instead he was slightly passive and allowed Rogers to initiate some contact and place him on his backfoot, rendering him unable to challenge the catch.
Next week will bring even more challenges as Aaron Rodgers is more willing to throw to tight windows than any other quarterback in the NFL. With extreme confidence in his receivers, Rodgers will give Jordy Nelson and Co. multiple opportunities to win at the point of the catch, something the 49ers failed to do against the Cardinals. Instead of allowing the receivers to dictate the catch, the 49ers defensive backs will have to be aggressive with both positioning and the use of their hands as the ball arrives.
While the statistics show that the 49ers pass defense struggled against the Falcons and Cardinals, in reality it shouldn't have been too surprising. With a conservative defensive strategy, lots of Man 2, Cover 3 and rarely bringing heavy blitzes, the 49ers don't attack offenses as much as challenge them to sustain drives to create points.
And top notch quarterbacks have been able to do just that, moving the ball between the 20s and creating scoring opportunities. In the 5 regular season games against Rodgers, Palmer (twice), Ryan and Brees the 49ers allowed an average of 338 yards passing while they held the other 11 quarterbacks they faced so far, including the likes of Chad Henne, Sam Bradford and RGIII to an average of 168 yards a game.
The problem with this strategy is there are no more Matt Schaubs or Kellen Clemens left, and while the 49ers could easily face Cam Newton and Russell Wilson, two quarterbacks they held to an average of 170 yards per game in 3 regular season games, those low yardage numbers were a result of the Panthers and Seahawks run heavy attack than anything else. With one of the truly elite quarterbacks on the schedule next week in Aaron Rodgers and likely more later in the Playoffs, the 49ers are going to give up yards and ultimately points because they lack the personnel and defensive identity to clamp down on the outside.
That's not as damming of a statement as it may seem, as the 49ers have been able to win 4 of the 5 games in which their pass defense was shredded because they have consistently created turnovers, the great neutralizer in football. With the game time temperatures expected to be below 0 with steady winds, expect the 49ers to stick to their guns and force Aaron Rodgers to string together prolonged drives in Ice-Bowlesque conditions.
Overall expected a doozy of a game, as these teams know each all too well having played 3 times in the past 16 months but the 49ers should be able to overwhelm the Packers. In some strange twist the 49ers are seemingly more prepared to play in frigid temperatures of January in Wisconsin than the Packers and should be able to dictate the game through Frank Gore limiting the number of opportunities for Aaron Rodgers to attack a potentially depleted secondary.
- All-22: NaVorro Bowman closes out regular season with monster performance against Cardinals
- 49ers vs Packers Wild Card Preview: Thoughts and Notes
- Niners Nation Podcast: An evening with the enemy, Packers edition
- 2014 NFL playoff predictions: Wild Card weekend through Super Bowl XLVIII
- Today's links