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49ers’ Film Breakdown: Jimmy Garoppolo shines in aerial domination over Cardinals

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49ers’ quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo displays shades of his 2017 self in master piece against the Cardinals.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

New wideout Emmanuel Sanders could not help but sport a big smile each time he’s asked about his quarterback. Tight end George Kittle continued to shower his signal-caller with praise after the game. Head coach Kyle Shanahan called it to quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s “best performance yet,” as the 49ers escaped Arizona with a 28-25 victory on Thursday night.

It was a short week, the 49ers were on the road against a formidable divisional opponent, and the defense was not looking as dominant as it did in weeks’ past. This was a game that San Francisco needed their quarterback to win — and he did just that.

Garoppolo finished the game completing 28-of-37 attempts for 317 yards and four touchdowns, with no turnovers. The 49ers’ franchise quarterback finished with a passer rating of 136.9 — which was his highest rating this season. Per Pro Football Focus, Garoppolo finished the game with an 85.9 grade — again, his highest grade so far this season.

With the toughest part of the schedule ahead for the 49ers, including games against Seattle, Green Bay, Baltimore, and New Orleans, San Francisco will need this version of Garoppolo to be successful against the NFL’s best teams.

The $137M franchise quarterback has been highly criticized in the media for his turnovers and game-managing thus far, but Garoppolo has sneakily been one of the NFL’s 10-best quarterbacks.

Per QBR, Garoppolo is sixth in the NFL (69.1), trailing only Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson. Per DVOA (how valuable a quarterback is over the average player), Garoppolo ranks 11th in the NFL (9.2 percent). The 49ers’ play-caller is also third in the NFL in completion percentage (70.8 percent), so you know Shanahan’s setting him up for success.

But, beyond the numbers, turn on the film, and Garoppolo’s success on the field becomes highly evident.

Here’s good pre-snap recognition from Garoppolo on this first play. Deciphering that Arizona’s playing a zone defense, the route combination from Shanahan has wideouts Kendrick Bourne and Ross Dwelley running dig routes, keeping the Cardinals’ linebackers home.

Sanders can run a quick slant right behind them and find the open spot in the zone. For Garoppolo, it’s an easy read and throw. However, it was a third-down play, and the 49ers did not get the 12 yards they needed and instead were only able to get nine yards on the play.

Once again, pre-snap reads from Garoppolo continue to help him make smart throws in Shanahan’s offense. The 49ers motion running back Matt Breida out wide, and with no defensive back following, the Cardinals are in zone coverage.

Arizona only rushes three, dropping eight into coverage and giving Garoppolo plenty of time to make a good throw. Shanahan’s play design sends Bourne and wide receiver Deebo Samuel on vertical routes, taking the corners and safety with them and clearing out the underneath zone.

Breida comes in behind and finds the soft spot in the zone underneath with no defenders, and it’s another easy completion for nine yards on the play — this time on first down.

This throw ended up as an incompletion, but it’s one of Garoppolo’s better throws under pressure. Arizona brings a blitz, which is a smart thing to do against Garoppolo, who’s passer rating drops by nearly 40 points when he’s under pressure.

The Cardinals play man coverage across the board, with safety Budda Baker playing single-high. Garoppolo waits till the last possible minute to get rid of the ball and makes a sweet throw to Kittle, but Baker makes a better play on the ball to deflect it away.

The only knock on this throw would be that Garoppolo led Kittle further down the field, and that made it an easier play for Baker. Had Garoppolo thrown it shallower, Kittle might have made the play.

Another beautiful throw from Garoppolo to Sanders, which has me thinking of how Sanders has only been with this team for a couple of weeks — he seems to have adjusted really well.

Arizona lines up in man coverage once again, but the 49ers run play action, and Sanders runs a beautiful curl route that has the defensive back turned around. Garoppolo hits him right on the numbers, and it’s a big completion on the play. Sanders finished the game with seven catches, and this wasn’t even his best one — that’s coming later down.

Again, pre-snap recognition from Garoppolo has been one of his biggest strengths, and he uses it to his advantage again. Arizona sends a blitz off the left edge, and Garoppolo immediately recognizes it. He takes a three-step drop-back and hits Sanders on the quick slant.

Garoppolo can hit Sanders in stride, who turns it into a huge play after the catch.

Hard to choose from this game, but this might be my favorite play. The 49ers motion running back Tevin Coleman into the formation, recognizing that Arizona’s in man coverage in this red-zone play.

Knowing full well that defenses will pay close attention to Kittle in the red zone, the 49ers send Kittle on a hook route that keeps the linebacker and safety away from the end zone. Garoppolo looks to the left momentarily, looking off the other safety and then comes back to Bourne for six. As our editor, Kyle Posey likes to say, “TUDDY.”

And, we save the best for last. On this play, Garoppolo’s timing and chemistry with Sanders feels like they have been playing together for years. With the Cardinals lined up in man coverage again, Garoppolo can sit back and release the ball well before Sanders is out of his route.

The throw hits the former Bronco right in the lap, and he was able to turn it upfield for a first down. Sanders was amazed at throw postgame, adding that the ball hit him right in his lap when he turned, just as the receiver would expect.

Just to show how crazy this throw was, here’s a snapshot taken from the All-22 view. Sanders is being held by the defensive back, and the ball’s already on its way to the receiver. Just a phenomenal throw from Garoppolo that garnered ooh’s and aah’s from the crowd.

San Francisco will need this version of Garoppolo moving forward to be able to beat some of the better teams in the NFL. The 49ers have not needed this Garoppolo until Thursday night, but if the 2017 version of Garoppolo starts to return, it could be the extra fuel that San Francisco needs for a deep playoff run.