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Critiquing the coach: How did the 49ers coaches do against the Cardinals

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Let’s put the coaching staff under the microscope

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The day after the game, it’s easy to second-guess coaching decisions. Arizona Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury defended his challenge and timeouts. Some feel like those decisions cost his team the game. If Fred Warner catches a pass from Kyler Murray, we aren’t having this discussion.

The San Francisco 49ers coaching staff had a few questionable decisions of their own, and we’ll go over those. On both sides of the ball, we’ll go over one play I liked and one play I didn’t like. Feel free to add in yours in the comments. Let’s start with the defense, a unit that was humbled on Thursday night.

Saleh’s strategy

Aggressive Robert Saleh is the best version of Robert Saleh. Kingsbury is too good of a play-caller to sit back and play coverage and rush four, which has been Saleh’s staple this season. When the 49ers were showing blitz, or actually blitzed, they caused chaos for Arizona. San Francisco blitzed on seven of Kyler Murray’s 28 dropbacks.

I would have liked to see Saleh keep his foot on the gas when the Niners had a big lead. He didn’t, and to me, it led to complacency and sloppy play. Players are cued in when they know they’re going to blitz or have to play man coverage. Arizona was missing their starting right tackle, so this would have been the game to put pressure on Murray.

On seven blitzes, the 49ers sacked Kyler twice. On the other sack, the defense bluffed as if they were bringing five rushes, but Warner dropped back. Here were the pre-snap looks on both sacks:

Blitzing messes with the offensive lines protection. The running back can no longer chip one of your edge rushers. The center, or whoever is uncovered, can’t help on your defensive tackle. Everyone is accounted for, and that means your weak link has to block 1-on-1. In the above screenshot, the Cardinals’ weak link couldn’t stay in front of Dee Ford.

The same thing happens below — Dre Greenlaw blitzes of the right edge, which caused Arizona to slide their protection his way. D.J. Jones, who is lined up over the left guard here, slants to the defenses left and comes free. He couldn’t bring Murray down, but Greenlaw finished the play.

I bet we see a more aggressive version of Saleh and the Niners’ defense against Seattle. This was a short week, and it’s tough to prepare for a mobile quarterback in a few days. The threat of the blitz has been money for San Francisco. Walking up guys to the line of scrimmage has worked. We didn’t see that on Thursday night.

To be fair to Saleh, missed tackles and mental mistakes aren’t his fault.

Why no timeout?

My biggest pet peeve from Thursday night’s game was when Arizona had their first possession of the second half. They changed their pace from the first half and went hurry up. The 49ers defense couldn’t get a stop. They couldn’t even get lined up. Saleh just watched Arizona drive it down San Francisco’s throat. Seven plays and 83 yards later, Arizona scored a touchdown. The Niners defense never gave themselves a chance. I would have liked Saleh to call a timeout and let his guys regroup. You’re not going to be able to change your approach in a timeout completely, but you may able to make an adjustment. What you can do is get the correct personnel in the game, and allow your defense to get a quick breather.

Shanahan Shanahanning

Yes, Shanahanning is a word now. There isn’t much to complain about when Kyle is calling plays. Hardly ever, honestly. There are always layers to his plays. You don’t see that on Sunday’s. The 49ers offense looks different with Emmanuel Sanders in the lineup. Shanahan is scheming plays for Sanders, and it appears that the kid gloves are coming off Jimmy Garoppolo. In turn, we see Garoppolo play with more confidence. It’s the domino effect that comes with acquiring Sanders.

If you adjust for drops and the batted pass, Garoppolo would have completed 86% of his passes. We haven’t seen many throws down the field and outside the numbers this season. Two crucial third downs were converted on corner routes on Thursday night. The dime from Garoppolo to Sanders came on third down. Dante Pettis scored his touchdown on third down as well.

Bailed out on fourth down

The 49ers scored before the end of the first half, but Shanahan was bailed out by the Cardinals, calling a timeout. San Francisco boasts one of the better running games in the NFL, but they’re middle of the pack in short-yardage run situations. The decision to go for it on 4th & 1 was correct. I can’t imagine a situation where I wouldn’t go for it on 4th & 1. I understand it’s easy to second-guess the play-call because it didn’t work, but running it up the middle and into the teeth of the defense where so many variables you can’t control can happen always leaves me skeptical.

The offense came out in their heavy package with Sheldon Day at fullback. The Cardinals loaded the middle of the field and had two free rushers into the backfield by the time Jeff Wilson had the handoff. The play never stood a chance. There’s no way to account for those extra rushers, which is what makes the play-call a bad one.

The next play, the touchdown, looked more like a Shanahan type of call. A wide receiver at fullback. Getting in and out of the huddle fast. Window dressing. You name it, it happened. I asked Shanahan about the call, and here was his answer:

On that goal line touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders, you had him lined up as the fullback. How do you make sure, what are the keys, so the defense doesn’t know that a wide receiver’s in the backfield?

”We try to break the huddle fast. They’re a man coverage team, so they’ve got to find all their guys. You put them in confusing spots, so they’re just a little late on their eyes and where to pick guys up, then you snap it and go. Sometimes you do that, and they’re a little slower to know where he is, and that’s why he scored. Sometimes it’s very obvious when a receiver is in the backfield, so everyone chases that guy, and it opens up other people. A little different stuff to do, and maybe Emmanuel is so good as a fullback in the pass game that we’ve got to come up with some runs for him as the fullback. Just joking on that, he wouldn’t like that [laughter].”