When the San Francisco 49ers take on the NFC West leading Arizona Cardinals this week, we will get yet another small piece of the puzzle as we attempt to figure what this team will be in 2014.
Week 2's 28-20 loss to the Bears was the first time the Jim Harbaugh 49ers took a double digit lead into halftime and failed to come away with the victory. It was a heartbreaking, turnover-filled loss, yet it is a loss that we need to be careful not to draw too many conclusions from.
After 18 consecutive wins with a halftime lead of 10 or more points, do the 49ers suddenly lack the ability or "killer instinct" required to finish off games? Unlikely. After maintaining one of the league's lowest turnover rates through 30 career starts, is Colin Kaepernick turning into Eli Manning? Probably not.
Yet, that doesn't mean the 49ers don't have questions that need answering. Here's a look a few that should be at the top of their list this week when they travel to Arizona.
To Blitz and Be Blitzed
In the NFL — where everything revolves around the quarterback — making life difficult for the opposing passer while protecting your own are musts for consistent, successful football. It’s still very early in the season, but these are two areas in which the 49ers must improve.
With Vic Fangio in charge of the defense, the 49ers have relied heavily on just four players to generate a pass rush and for the most part, this has worked out very well for San Francisco. Of course, much of the reason that approach has been so successful was the presence of Aldon Smith, who just so happens to be one of the two or three best pass rushers in all of football. With the All-Pro out of the lineup, Fangio has opted to stick with the rush four approach despite less than desirable results.
Through two games, the 49ers’ pass rush has been abysmal. While their four sacks — thanks Justin Smith — puts them square in the middle of the pack on a league level, their ability to generate consistent pressure has been severely lacking. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler were pressured on a combined 10 passes out of 76 total drop backs against the 49ers, a 13.2 percent rate. To put that number in context, Peyton Manning has been the least pressured quarterback in football this season and he’s been pressured on 15.6 percent of passes, per Pro Football Focus. Perhaps even more telling, San Francisco has forced just the opposing quarterback to throw just two passes from outside the pocket — both from Romo in the first half of the Dallas game — instead allowing them seemingly all day to survey the field and find an open target.
With the front four failing to get home, Fangio must find ways to manufacture pressure. The most obvious way to accomplish that is by blitzing more frequently and there’s reason to believe the 49ers could have success with this approach. Patrick Willis is among the best pass rushing inside linebackers in football and has been effective when asked to blitz in the past. Willis has finished in the top 10 among inside linebackers in PFF’s Pass Rush Productivity metric — which measures total pressures relative to pass rushing snaps — in each of the past four seasons, including a first place finish in 2010, his last season without NaVorro Bowman by his side.
Another player with the ability to be an effective pass rusher is Jimmie Ward. The 49ers have had success blitzing Carlos Rogers from the nickelback position on a limited basis in previous seasons and bring Ward off the edge in sub-packages could be even more effective. Blitzing puts more pressure on the secondary, but forcing them to remain in coverage for four or five seconds on every play isn’t exactly doing them a lot of favors.
When Fangio has dialed up blitzes in the past, the 49ers have been devastating. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, the 49ers have brought six or more pass rushers on 39 snaps over the last three regular seasons. On those plays, they’ve allowed just 3.5 yards yards per pass. It’s a very small sample, but that’s an incredible number. That previous success combined with the ability of players like Willis and Ward give plenty of reason to suggest blitzes should be a more prominent part of the 49ers’ defensive game plan until Smith returns. Despite that, San Francisco has rushed five defenders on only four snaps this season. If they continue to have issues getting to the quarterback, that number has to increase. Against a quarterback in Drew Stanton, making just his sixth career start on Sunday, and an offensive line that has struggled in pass protection, the 49ers must make the Cardinals prove they have an answer for the blitz.
On the other side of the ball, if there’s one thing we can be sure of, it’s that Arizona will have no such hesitation in sending players after Colin Kaepernick. No team blitzed more frequently than the Cardinals a season ago. According to the Football Outsiders Almanac 2014, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles sent five players after the passer on 32.4 percent of pass plays and six or more an additional 17.1 percent of the time, the first and second highest rates in the league, respectively. Despite losing several key players from last year’s front seven, that aggressiveness hasn’t gone anywhere in 2014, as the Cardinals have blitzed on nearly half of pass plays thus far.
Creativity with those blitz looks has been the calling card for Bowles during his time running Arizona’s defense. The Cardinals will show a variety of looks before the snap in attempt to confuse protection schemes and have an array of twists and stunts to run after the snap.
Though Calais Campbell is always a difficult player to contain on the interior, Arizona lacks a prototypical edge rusher to take advantage of the struggling Jonathan Martin at right tackle. Instead, San Francisco’s communication and ability to handle Arizona’s stunts up front will be tested this week. Greg Roman mentioned a communication breakdown that led to a sack late in the Bears game. Those are the types of things that must get cleaned up against a defense as proficient in creative pressure schemes as the Cardinals.
Helping Little Jimmie
In the 49ers’ home opener, the Bears’ offense got going once they realized the 49ers had no answer for Brandon Marshall in the slot. It was a rough night for first round selection Jimmie Ward, as he allowed Marshall to catch all four targets against his coverage, including all three of Marshall’s scoring plays.
Attempting to justify Ward’s performance against the Bears is a slippery slope to traverse, but upon re-watching the game I didn’t feel like Ward played as poorly as the numbers would suggest. He never allowed Marshall to get a lot of separation and was generally in good position. Part of that could undoubtedly be attributed to the ankle injury that Marshall was playing through. However, the bigger issue was that Ward simply could not match-up physically with the much larger receiver.
Marshall’s second touchdown (shown below) resembles a power forward boxing out a point guard for a rebound more than something you would typically see on a football field. The other two scores saw Marshall go up over the top of the smaller Ward, including a phenomenal one-handed catch that was practically indefensible at the end of the first half.
The 49ers will again be challenged to defend larger receivers this week in Arizona. Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd are both big, physical receivers that will spend time in the slot. The Cardinals especially like to get Fitzgerald in the slot once they enter the red zone, which is exactly where Marshall found his opportunities. When watching Fitzgerald’s usage in the red zone, you’ll find nearly identical plays to the ones in which Marshall scored on a week ago.
Fitzgerald wasn’t heavily involved in the Week 1 game against the Chargers, but Stanton relied on him much more against the Giants. In the above image, you can see Fitzgerald using his large frame to gain position in the middle of the Giants defense on the spot route, nearly converting for a score.
Later in the game, Stanton looks for Fitzgerald up the seam from basically the same spot on the field as Marshall’s first score. Stanton throws a poor ball in this case, but you can bet on the Cardinals looking to get Fitzgerald the ball in a similar fashion after seeing the success Chicago had.
While I’m still confident Ward is the best option on the roster in the slot, Fangio needs to find an answer against these bigger receivers in the red zone. Whether that involves cheating a safety Ward’s direction or trying a larger corner such Dontae Johnson in the slot once teams get closer to the goal line, the 49ers must show the ability to slow these types of plays or teams will continue to try and exploit that match-up.