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What to expect when the 49ers are on defense against the Cardinals

Two fast units, but the Niners defensive line should overwhelm

Arizona Cardinals Training Camp Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

On Thursday, we went over what to expect when Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers offense is on the field. Now, we’ll take a look at what to expect when the Niners defense takes the field. Let’s start with the matchup that will win the game for Robert Saleh’s bunch.

Trouble in the trenches

Here are the starters along the offensive line for the Cardinals, with how many blown blocks, sacks, and QB hits they allowed in 2019:

Now, for context. Cole started two games after losing a positional battle to A.Q. Shipley at center. Cole did start all 16 games in 2018. As for the right tackle Beachum, those numbers came at left tackle for the Jets in 13 games. He moves to the right side as third-rounder Josh Jones isn’t ready to play yet.

The blown blocks are alarming if you’re a Cardinals fan. The QB hits speak to Kyler Murray’s escape ability. I understand it’s a different offense, but, for reference, Justin Skule had the most blown blocks against the pass on the 49ers last year, and he had 13.

It doesn’t help that Kyler holds onto the ball while looking to make the big play. Pro Football Focus charged Murray with 23 sacks last year. That’s unreal, but it matches the eye test. Check this play out from Week 11 last year:

Murray runs out of a clean pocket. The GIF starts 1.5 seconds after the snap. The 49ers pass rush didn’t win there. Murray did them a favor. There were two other sacks like the play above.

This time around, Murray and the offensive line will see a Niners defensive line that is fresh. Dee Ford will play. He was limited to 46 snaps in two games last year.. Nick Bosa will have another season under his belt. No. 94 in the clip above will have a full training camp of practicing inside, and he’s added 15 pounds of good weight. Throw in Arik Armstead, who won’t be worn out from playing too many snaps, and I’m having a difficult time seeing how Arizona will block San Francisco. I’d expect to see a bunch of screens and quick throws again.

Do the Cardinals have the edge on the perimeter?

The Cardinals wide receivers all complement each other well. Many receiver coaches will tell you they’d like their room to look like a basketball team. That’s Arizona. You have the star player in DeAndre Hopkins. You have the wily veteran in Larry Fitzgerald. Then, you have two speedsters that open up the field in Andy Isabella and Christian Kirk. The latter two will hurt you in the screen game. Fitz can hurt you down the seams and underneath, while Hopkins can make plays all over the field. I don’t expect Arizona to target Richard Sherman too often:

Will Arizona’s wideouts have the time to make plays down the field? Will they create for themselves in the open field? Get ready to see four-wide receiver sets. The Cardinals used 10 personnel, a league-high 33% in 2019. They also led the league in “empty backfields” at 15% of the time.

One obvious part about this matchup is that the Cardinals will look to Kenyan Drake in the passing game. Whenever a team spreads you out, they’re trying to get as many 1-on-1’s as possible. In two games against the Niners, Drake caught 10 of his 11 targets for 64 yards and three first downs last season. Drake also forced a couple of missed tackles on those touches. Arguably the biggest issue with Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw is their open-field tackling. It was an issue in 2019. Of course, not all missed tackles are problematic. Warner could miss a tackle, but slow the runner down enough that he doesn’t gain any yards after the miss, thanks to the rest of the defense right there.

Dozens of in-game chess matches will make this game fascinating. We’ll have our game predictions later. Open-field tackling and not allowing Kyler to extend plays will be critical for the 49ers. I expect the defensive line to overwhelm and be the difference in this game.