The story for seven games has been the 49ers defense. And for good reason. They’ve certainly shouldered their share of the load in the 7-0 start, coming in as the #2 ranked defense per Football Outsiders DVOA. The other catalyst for the undefeated start was the ground game. The 49ers rushing attack was averaging 181 yards per game through seven games, including multiple games with 200+ yards while quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was averaging 212 yards passing per game.
Last Thursday night, Garoppolo threw for 317 yards and four touchdowns. The running game totaled 101 yards and zero touchdowns. They had a few long runs but it was not the ground game that propelled the 49ers on Thursday Night Football, it was the arm of Jimmy Garoppolo and passing game led by Emmanuel Sanders, who caught seven passes for 112 yards and what would prove to be a pivotal touchdown at the end of the second half.
First play: 1st quarter, 10:31, 3rd and 12 at SF 21
After giving up a touchdown on the game’s first drive to the Cardinals, Garoppolo took the field looking to quickly even things up. A run for no gain, a short completion, and false start set the 49ers offense up with a third-and-12. Garoppolo completed a pass to Sanders for nine yards on third down, and it’s not enough to move the chains.
Second play: 2nd quarter, 12:28, 1st and 10 at SF 20
The score was tied at this point, and the 49ers began the long march toward their second touchdown drive by getting it started off with a play-action pass to for a gain of 20 yards.
The play call is “P15 weak X read,” where Sanders, in the “X” receiver position, runs a “read” route where he has the option of running a deep curl route or a go-route based on the defender’s leverage. Cornerback Patrick Peterson plays over the top and turns his hips to run downfield, so Sanders sits at his landmark downfield at 20 yards.
He wastes no movement as he throttles down and knows that with Peterson over the top, he has to work back to the ball and shield it from the defender. He makes the catch as he takes the hit, showing his strong hands at the catch point.
Third play: 2nd quarter, 11:17, 1st and 9 at SF 45
Two plays later on the same drive after the catch above and a holding call wiped out a big gain, Garoppolo hit Sanders for a 32 yard gain after nice inside release against Peterson.
Sanders is running an inside slant against Peterson, where the concept is a two-slant pattern to the right side called “Lion.” The coaching point is to get an inside release and cross the face of the defender. Sanders uses a two-step jab release to win inside.
The first step gets Peterson to backpedal while the second jab step gets Peterson to open up to the inside with outside leverage now. Sanders effectively wins inside and crosses his face, catches the pass from Garoppolo in stride, and sprints to a 32 yard gain.
Fourth play: 2nd quarter, 10:46, 1st and 10 at ARI 23
Garoppolo found Sanders again on the very next play on an over route off play action.
Sanders is running the low cross on “Fake 18 Force,” a play-action movement pass simulating outside zone to the strong side with the quarterback rolling naked to the weak side. Garoppolo initially wanted Samuel deep on the “high corner” route but came back underneath to the low cross for a first down throw.
Three plays later, the Garoppolo threw his second touchdown pass of the night when he found Kendrick Bourne in the end zone. The drive itself was a product of Sander’s three first-down catches.
Fifth play: 2nd quarter, 0:04, 4th and 1 at the ARI 1
The drive should’ve been dead in the water on the previous play as the Cardinals stuffed a weak side run up the middle on fourth down. However, the 49ers were saved by Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s very late timeout call just before the snap.
The play call is a “Flow 6 Cross,” but instead of the traditional fullback in the offset I formation, head coach Kyle Shanahan lines up Sanders in a three-point stance running the “low flat” route to the front pylon. The 49ers get to the line quickly and snap it.
The play fake pulls the defenders out of position just long enough for Garoppolo to put the pass on Sanders in the front corner of the end zone. Linebacker Hasson Reddick (No. 43) has Sanders in coverage but got caught with his eyes in the backfield just long enough for Sanders to slip by him, giving Garoppolo a window for the throw.
Sixth play: 3rd quarter, 13:21, 1st and 10 at SF 41
The play was incomplete, and the throw was a difficult attempt for Garoppolo as he had to put air under it to clear the defender sinking underneath the route.
Off of play-action, Garoppolo looks for Sanders running a crossing route but can’t fit in over the linebacker dropping underneath the throw. Sanders made a leaping attempt to catch it, but it was too high.
Seventh play: 3rd quarter, 7:47, 3rd and 4 at ARI 46
One of the best throws Garoppolo’s made in his career. He placed a perfect pass in stride to Sanders outside the numbers with the defender in a trail position. The play would eventually lead to the game-winning touchdown.
In a trips bunch to the left, Garoppolo motions Pettis out wide with Sanders and Bourne as the two receiver stack in the slot. The switch release forces Bourne’s defender to go around the release of Sanders and his defender, but the short stick china route is double covered.
Garoppolo is initially looking at Bourne, resets quickly, and hits Sanders in stride with a nice anticipation throw. The ball is thrown before Sanders makes his break on the corner route to the spot where he can run under it. Three plays later, Garoppolo found Pettis for the go-ahead score thanks to the field position gained off the Sanders catch and run.
Eighth play: 3rd quarter, 1:13, 3rd and 9 at ARI 45
Garoppolo tried to fit a pass into an extremely tight space with safety Budda Baker underneath Sanders on a corner route to the sideline. A valiant effort, but the pass was knocked away out of bounds. If the pass was a split second later, it likely would’ve been picked with the way Baker was running underneath it.
Ninth play: 4th quarter, 4:37, 3rd and 11 at SF 25
This was the play Garoppolo got much attention and praise for by even his harshest critics. He showed off his elite release and processing speed, something he has shown in the past that we haven’t seen much of lately, and completed a pass to Sanders on a crucial third-and-11 backed up in their own territory. They converted two more third downs en route to their 8th victory.
The play call is “BUNCH RT NASTY Y CTR 24 DBL SWIRL” with the outside receivers running “swirl” routes. A swirl route is a corner route stem where the receiver breaks off the corner portion of the route and turns around to look for the pass. Sanders is to the left of the quarterback as the single receiver to that side.
The Cardinals are showing single high, and just as the snap goes off, they rotate to a two-high shell with quarters coverage, but Garoppolo likely doesn’t see it as he’s focused on catching the snap at that point. As he drops back, his eyes drift to the right looking at the swirl/dig route (basic), but there’s nowhere to go as the corner squats over the top of the swirl route to the right and the strong hook defender passes off the dig to the middle defender playing a “wall” technique.
The weak hook defender is the key here, though, as Garoppolo led him to the middle of the field with his eyes as he dropped back. The weak hook and the wall defender have the dig bracketed as a result of the quarterback leading them to the middle of the field. Garoppolo hits the top of his drop, sees nothing open, and resets his feet looking left.
As Garoppolo resets looking to his left, Chandler Jones is bull rushing Justin Skule into the throwing lane and gets by Skule. Jones is in Garoppolo’s face when he throws, and he is unable to step into the throw as a result. It doesn’t matter though, as Garoppolo has enough power to rotate and fire his left hip into the throw, a product of the quarterback mechanics he’s trained and developed.
=The throw leads Sanders away from Patrick Peterson, who had grabbed Sanders at the top of the route before Sanders was able to shed him.
The drive continued, and the 49ers picked up two more first downs, including on a third-and-9 where Garoppolo found tight end Ross Dwelley in the shallow underneath zone. Dwelley was able to pick up the first down, sealing the victory.
The 49ers may have finally found the perfect receiver to pair with Garoppolo, one that can put the passing game over the top and be called upon in crucial situations like the one above. Sanders does a lot for the passing game, forcing defenses to prioritize whom they can limit and whom they can’t. The other receivers made catches at the right times as a result with Pettis and Bourne both catching touchdown passes. While Sanders’ veteran presence will help the receivers develop, the more important aspect will be that his presence continues to allow Garoppolo the time he needs to develop by giving him a receiver whom he trusts to make difficult catches and gain yards.
The next big test in the “49ers haven’t played anyone” sweepstakes are the Seattle Seahawks in a Week 10 divisional matchup on Monday Night Football. The 49ers should have Joe Staley, Kyle Juszczyk, and Ahkello Witherspoon back and ready to play, giving them an added boost.