On the defensive side, Vance Joseph’s 3-4 defenses have been a bit different from the press man cover 0 that he ran in Denver that many expected him to bring to Arizona, and part of that seems to be due to the amount of youth at the position.
Joseph brings 4-5 on the vast majority of the plays, and rather than playing cover 0, he has been putting more and deeper two safeties or cover 1 in leaving a safety valve. Arizona lost Patrick Peterson for 6 games due to a suspension and Robert Alford for longer and Joseph seems to be willing to give up underneath in order to prevent the big play from occurring, while also having enough linebackers to stop the run around the middle or prevent an 80 yards scamper on the ground with no safety valve. For the most part, the secondary’s held teams down and hasn’t given up a ton of big plays, but there’s definitely some philosophy and talent issues that can’t be masked.
The approach has resulted in a lot of LB/Tight End matchups and receivers eating up underneath ground, meaning teams can march down the field and get YAC even on 3rd down, and in the red zone, it’s been a pretty high conversion rate for opposing teams. The “bend don’t break” zones he has been playing are a lot of this.
When Joseph does blitz, he’ll usually bring 6-7 guys in a cover zero look and trust his players to hold up on the back end and does get pressure on the QB. However, a smart veteran QB seeing the hot route and all that off-coverage have just to hit their man, and it’s a first down given up. Teams struggled to haul in interceptions this year, and partially that’s due to a lot of zone but not really having a free safety play a robber role versus being back to cover.
Even with Patrick Peterson back, Joseph continues to mix up his man and zone looks and spends more time blitzing in the 2nd half than the first with a lot of those blitz looks being relatively telegraphed pre-snap versus delayed or disguised. The Cardinals approach likely will be to focus on limiting the Niners’ run game upfront and handing off responsibilities in zone coverage with some man played as well. By making a goal of stopping the run-up front and the deep pass in the back first, the intermediate areas may be open for teams…. as long as Terrell Suggs and Chandler Jones don’t get there first and force a fumble.
It’s a catch-22 when it comes to stopping San Francisco’s offense. What I would do is load the box and the middle of the field, forcing the passing offense to beat me down the field. Make the 49ers receivers prove they can consistently win 1-on-1 for four quarters. If I give up a deep pass, then so be it.
The issue with that is a running back forces a missed tackle, and it’s off to the races. We saw that with Tevin Coleman against Carolina, and Matt Breida against the Browns. Blake mentioned the “bend but don’t break” strategy. That’s feeding right into Kyle Shanahan’s hands. Jimmy Garoppolo wants to get the ball out of his hands quick and let his skill players do the work. The 49ers offense will be more than willing to take five and six-yard gains on offense.
Arizona hasn’t provided much resistance this season. They’re allowing a first down on 76% of drives this season, which is 29th in the NFL. That’s why we had George Kittle as one of the biggest mismatches in the game. Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders should have plenty of opportunities over the middle of the field
Quietly, the Cardinals defense has generated pressure this season. Arizona is generating the ninth-most pressure this season, and are a few tenths away from being in the top-five. They’re 13th in adjusted sack rate as well, so the pressure is working. Chandler Jones is a monster and has the same number of pressures as Nick Bosa with 22, per Football Outsiders. Suggs has 15 pressures, and two other players have ten apiece. If there’s a matchup where the Cardinals can keep it close, it’s their defensive line. We will see Garoppolo under pressure on Thursday night. He’s handled it well to date, but Jimmy hasn’t had a game where he has consistently been under pressure.
Shanahan resorted to more 12 personnel against Carolina. I’d expect to see more of the same against the Cardinals. That forces their edge rushers to line up wider, while the Niners can “chip” block with Kittle and Ross Dwelley. Slowing down the Cardinals pass rush will be imperative for success. Avoiding Peterson may be wise, as well. I don’t believe we’ll see the star cornerback travel with Sanders, but if he does, it’ll be interesting to see if Shanahan continues to keep Sanders involved.
San Francisco is going to win this matchup on the other side of the ball. I will say this every week, but this game is about matchups. New Orleans was a rough matchup for Arizona’s defense. With how the 49ers play, and how the Cardinals attack, I don’t expect San Francisco to move the ball with ease like they were able to against the Panthers. Not at first, anyway. Eventually, I expect Shanahan to open it up and take advantage of Arizona’s secondary. Long, methodical drives that bleed the clock will make for a low-scoring first half.
For the Cardinals, their real X-Factor has been running back David Johnson in the receiving game. He’s been their best downfield receiving threat able to both separate and make plays on the ball in running good routes. He’s questionable for Thursday’s game, but Kingsbury and Murray have done a great job of manufacturing pass plays for him either out of the backfield or better yet, downfield in plays where he’s matched up on a safety or linebacker in coverage.
However, he’s questionable, and with their other players less consistent receiving threats, the area that no one is talking about is Murray’s legs. If the pass rushers against AZ are overly aggressive and get too far upfield, he’ll scamper through those lanes for significant gains and even against a zone his speed is too fast for angles to tackle him, or he can hit a receiver that leaves their assignment to come to tackle Murray in that vacated area of the field. He also slides and has picked up a few extra penalties for late hits on the QB as a result.
Those scrambles are maybe his best weapon, so opposing pass rushers need to be disciplined and keep him in the pocket with their hands up to block his throwing lanes and windows.
Murray’s scrambling ability does worry me. There’s no way to simulate what he can do in practice. Murray is on his way to being a very good quarterback. He just needs time to develop and more than 1.5 seconds in the pocket.
I’m going with Justin Skule. The more he’s been left 1-on-1 the last few weeks, the more he has looked like a sixth-round rookie. There won’t be a snap against Arizona, where Skule won’t need his A-game. Suggs is still productive, and Jones gave Joe Staley problems. He’s sure to give first-timer issues. Skule will have plenty of help tonight. What he can’t afford is a game where Skule looks out of his depth.