The 49ers got a much-needed morale-boosting win on Saturday afternoon on the road at home against the Arizona Cardinals. While the 20-12 final score isn’t indicative of the overall product on the field, it felt like a blowout nonetheless, with the offense delivering on nearly every drive in some form. If not for two missed field goals and an extra point, the Cardinals would’ve had no shot to tie the game on the final drive. The 49ers will spend the final week preparing to ruin, as best they can, Seattle’s seeding in the playoffs.
Thanks to yet another top defensive performance, the now 6th ranked defense per Football Outsiders DVOA through week 16 held the Cardinals air raid offense to 12 points, their lowest point total this season so far. The 49ers defense forced two fumbles, one which they recovered, one interception late in the fourth quarter, and sacked Kyler Murray three times, tying the most times he’s been sacked in a game this season.
On offense, the running game didn’t miss a beat with Raheem Mostert out. They gained 227 yards rushing at 7.5 yards per carry. If we exclude quarterback C.J. Beathard’s rushing attempts, that average jumps to nearly 7.8 per carry. Beathard threw for three touchdowns, and tight end George Kittle made his return, and his presence was felt immediately: he caught four balls for 92 yards and had several key blocks in the running game where he sealed the edge and put defenders on their back.
While the offensive performance was certainly impressive from an execution standpoint, it should not overshadow the fact that defensive coordinator Robert Saleh coached probably his best game of the season (among many well-coached games) and likely won’t be back in 2021 regardless of week 17’s outcome.
Defensive gameplan: fire zone, simulated pressures, and a new drop 8 wrinkle
In the game, Saleh mixed a blend of fire zone blitzes, sim pressures and showcased a new drop-8 wrinkle common among teams defending air raid offenses. None of the fire zone wrinkles were necessarily new (I’ve covered them here before), but they were used to great effect to rush Kyler Murray into hurried throws or sacks.
1st quarter 7:14, 3rd-and-10 at the ARZ 27
In this pressure, Saleh disguises it to look like his 2-under 3-deep coverage referenced in the article above, except that he’s sending a corner off the edge to the closed side of the formation with linebacker Fred Warner showing a simulated pressure alignment. This confuses the blockers to that side as Warner steps up to rush then drops underneath, looking to rob any shallow crossers. Witherspoon is unable to catch Murray, but he forces Murray to scramble around and throw the ball away.
3rd quarter 10:34, 2nd-and-11 at the ARZ 30
One of the other staple play calls is the cover-2 palms pressure with a 5-man rush underneath the coverage shell.
The rush features a nickel blitz and a delayed blitz by Warner if the back releases. Kerry Hyder Jr. is responsible for the shallow hole zone after a 1-step rush upfield and looks to rob any underneath route in his zone. On the back end, the coverage is in a palms coverage shell. In palms, the safeties take the number 1 or number 2 receivers vertically if the number 1 runs an in-breaking route or the number 2 runs an out-breaking route.
Here, the ones are vertical, so the safeties look to help on the inside routes. With Greenlaw “roboting” under the number 2 inside (or playing a wall technique, tough to tell), the weak safety would look to help over the top.
Murray looks for Hopkins on the left but cannot throw due to the blitz Williams getting home so quickly for the sack. Even if he can allude Williams’ blitz, there likely would not have been a receiver open to throw to.
3rd quarter 2:05, 1st-and-15 at the ARZ 48
This is just a nicely designed and well-executed disguised cover-3 overload pressure.
The 49ers are in a cover-1 coverage shell pre-snap. Safety Marcell Harris walks down to the line of scrimmage then bails to the post zone just before the snap as the coverage morphs into cover-3 zone coverage. Warner runs out to the seam/strong hook to cover the number three receiver in the trips to the defense’s left, and safety Tarvarius Moore is playing the buzz zone.
Upfront, the overload front is aligned from the A-gap on the defense’s left to the wide-5 technique outside the tackle. Hyder and defensive tackle Kentavius Street (No. 95) execute a tackle-end exchange stunt with Williams coming off the edge again in a well-timed blitz just before the snap. His pressure forces Murray off of his spot and into the pass rush of D.J. Jones (No. 93). Jones held his ground and was able to shed the blocker Murray escaped his way. He finished with the sack.
Simulated pressures tell a quarterback that pressure could be coming from anywhere up on the line of scrimmage. It adds an element of confusion for the offense because they have to account for more than just four rushers as any of the defenders could rush.
2nd quarter 12:49, 3rd-and-11 at the SF 38
The defense shows a mugged A-gap six-man front with the linebackers walked up into the A-gaps and a single-high coverage shell. At the snap, Harris spins to the deep half on the left side of the defense, revealing cover-6 (quarter/quarter/half), with the strong hook and flat defenders now able to rob underneath and bracket the deep in routes with the quarters' safety and corner from the two receiver side, resulting in Murray checking down and taking a 1-yard loss on the pass.
One common way to slow down the spread passing attack of air raid offenses is to play a “drop 8” defense behind three pass rushers. It’s a common defense Mike Leach had trouble with within his first season as head coach at Mississippi State because it puts defenders in a position to close throwing windows much faster if there are eight defenders to cover usually four or five passing routes.
You can see how Arkansas dropped eight into coverage behind their 4-0-4 defensive front. Arkansas’s defense dropped five into underneath zones cover-3 behind them on most snaps. The result was clogged throwing lanes and nowhere to throw.
Against the Cardinals, the 49ers used some of these same principles, just modified for their four-man front instead of a three-down linemen front.
The Cardinals play call is what they call “Indy” to the trips side (under routes by one and two and an inside go route by the number three) and stick-go to the boundary two receiver side. The 49ers are in a 2-high shell behind a four-man front. Post snap reveals that the 49ers are only rushing three and dropping eight into coverage, six under and two deep.
The coverage call is “steeler” to the trips side and “cone” to the boundary two receiver side. In steeler, the field safety (Harris No. 36) caps the #2 or #3 receiver if one of them is vertical. Fred Warner has #3 man-to-man. The boundary safety (Moore No. 33) has bracket responsibility on #1 deep with the corner (Witherspoon No. 23) bracketing with outside leverage underneath.
The coverage underneath allows the 49ers to remove the under routes and stick route as D.J. Jones drops into a low hole. Warner carries number three vertically as the safeties can bracket to the two go routes. Murray actually throws an accurate pass and threads the needle between Warner and Harris, but Warner’s instincts take over as he’s able to knock the pass free from the tight end’s hands as he’s going to the ground.
George Kittle’s return sparks the offense
George Kittle returned to the starting lineup for the first time since week eight at Seattle. In that game, he suffered a hairline fracture in his foot on a hospital ball from Nick Mullens that sidelined him for two months. He was cleared to practice the week before the game against Dallas and activated during the week of preparation for Arizona. And his impact was immediately felt as he caught four passes for 94 yards.
His receptions came on just two different concepts: play-action “Y shallow” off strong side outside zone and four verticals “aggie now” (detailed in this Anatomy of a Play).
Y shallow lets Kittle do what he does best: use his speed to get open and create yards after the catch.
Y shallow is run off strong side outside zone play action. On most of Shanahan’s play-action bootleg concepts, there is only one crossing route from the backside, with a corner route, a slide route, and a late down flat to the play side. The 49ers really only run this with Kittle from the backside, so it’s not used very often.
They play action fake draws the defenders to the strong side as they read they’re run cues. As this is happening, Kittle takes off on the shallow crosser in front of the linebackers and is wide open in space. The Cardinals have no backside defender to slow play the run and chase the quarterback or funnel to Kittle. The Cardinals weakside linebacker reads it faster than the first play in the second clip, but Kittle still sprints for an 18 yard gain because he is just a better, faster athlete than most defenders covering him.
Beathard also found Kittle on a couple of nice throws on vertical routes down the seam on the 49ers' four verticals concept “Aggie Now.”
Aggie Now is a run out of 3x2 empty formations with four receivers running verticals and the number one receiver to the trips side running a “now” slant underneath the coverage as the outlet receiver. The quarterback can throw any vertical as he does not have to progress through a series of reads and instead picks the best match-up for the coverage shell.
In the first clip, Kittle is lined up as the slot to the two receiver side and running down the inside of the numbers. The defender has outside leverage with the safety shaded over to that side. Instead of a true go route, Kittle widens the defender with a stick-nod move before continuing down the numbers. This move gave Beathard an easier window to fit the pass into instead of having a defender trailing Kittle’s hip and being in a position to break up the pass.
In the second clip, they’re running a modified aggie to the trips side with Kittle as the inline tight end. The Cardinals send a five-man rush with cover-1 behind it, and the safety shaded to the trips. Beathard hits Kittle on a nice back-shoulder throw away from the defender inside leverage over the top.
In the running game, Kittle was showed why he’s easily the top run-blocking tight end in the NFL. He had several key blocks that led to big gains for Jeff Wilson and the 227 yards of rushing offense the team racked up.
The 49ers controlled the game on both sides of the ball, limited their offensive turnovers, pressured Murray on defense, and kept both the Cardinals' offense and defense out of sync. With one game left, the 49ers would like for nothing more than to spoil the playoff seeding for the Seahawks. With a little more flexibility on offense, the 49ers have a golden opportunity to finish the season on a high note. The Seahawks defense is playing like a top 10 unit right now, so it won’t be easy but should be highly entertaining.