The 49ers dropped their first game of the season to division opponent Arizona Cardinals, in front of, well, zero fans. Knowing there were going to be no fans was something the teams and league were prepared for, especially in California, where the coronavirus’s spread is being mitigated by the prohibitions on large gatherings and sporting events among them. What was less obvious, though, was how prepared the 49ers would be for Sunday’s game.
In a week that began on the wrong foot (literally), the 49ers placed receiver Deebo Samuel on the injured reserve list. They made a late game-time decision to go without rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk due to a hamstring injury. Deebo is out until at least week four, and it remains unclear what Aiyuk’s status will be for the road game against the New York Jets.
Against the Cardinals, the 49ers listed just four active wide receivers: Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, and Richie James. And it appears Richie James left the game in the second half with a hamstring injury and did not return, leaving just three. Despite all that, the 49ers offense managed to start off decently well, well enough to put together a touchdown drive and go up early 10-0 and lead 13-10 at halftime.
After the game, head coach Kyle Shanahan stated that
“We had a number of chances to win that game. I thought we started out very well. Thought we had a chance to run away with it a little bit in the first half. Anytime you average eight yards a play, and you’re holding them pretty good on the other side of the ball, thought we’d have more points to show for it than what we did. I know why we didn’t. We didn’t convert one third down in the first half. We didn’t convert one fourth down, and we didn’t convert in the red zone.”
That’s a pretty accurate summation of the game by the head coach. But they didn’t just miss converting a third down in the first half. They were 2 for 11 on third down for the entire game and 0 for 2 on fourth down with something for everyone: missed or bad throws, missed blocks downfield and getting pushed around up front along the offensive line
On defense, the 49ers played 78 snaps and hung in well until a late miscommunication cost them dearly and set up a first and goal after the halfway point in the fourth quarter. All things considered, they were less the reason why the 49ers lost than the offense.
The offense looked underwhelming at times, probably due to a lack of talent at wide receiver, but the play calls did not have the same distinct feel to them as they did last season. Lacking from the offense were any jet motions, shifts, fly motions, etc., that came to define the 49ers offense last season.
However, the 49ers do have a nice corps of running backs that, if nothing else, showed they could contribute most of the offensive production and keep the team in a close game.
Running back Raheem Mostert started what appeared to be an early offensive onslaught, seemingly picking up right where he and the offense left off last season. After a five-play opening drive that ended in a 52-yard field goal to get them on the board first, the 49ers went up by 10 on a 76-yard touchdown pass from Jimmy Garoppolo to Mostert on a choice route out of the backfield.
The play call is “Choice Stucko” and allows the H back (Mostert) to run a choice route based on the defender’s leverage after the snap. Out of the backfield, the choice route looks like the back is running out to the flat. The defender, rookie first-round pick Isaiah Simmons, has Mostert in coverage and widens with him out to the flat. Mostert crosses his face back inside, and Garoppolo hits him in stride wide open for the touchdown.
Mostert is able to run freely through the open field thanks in part to the coverage being pulled down the opposite trips receiver routes. The receivers appear to bust their routes as both Taylor and Kittle nearly run into each other running pivot routes back inside. But it worked anyways as the coverage seemingly got lost in the mix.
Jerick McKinnon also had a quietly good game in the offense and showcased what Shanahan always envisioned with him: a back that can effectively run the ball and be a weapon in the passing game. He only had three carries for 24 yards, including a 16-yard run that nearly went for a touchdown on 3rd and 16 inside the 20. He caught three passes for 20 yards in the passing game and scored his first touchdown since 2017.
He showcased his quick cut ability that nearly propelled him into the end zone in his long run. The play is a called trap run, similar to the play that Mostert broke for a long touchdown run against the Packers in last season’s NFC Championship game. The Cardinals appeared to be ready for it on the front side, so McKinnon cuts back quickly against the grain and gets upfield.
Receiver Dante Pettis is “down in the briar patch,” as Alex Gibbs calls it, blocking the corner but is unable to sustain any kind of block on him as he peels off Pettis’s block and forces McKinnon to cut back inside toward the two safeties coming over the top.
McKinnon cuts off his left leg and accelerates through the contact on his right leg (where he sustained the ACL injury) and drives through the two defenders before going down at the goal line. Had Pettis been able to sustain his block for a second or two longer, McKinnon could’ve just sprinted to the end zone’s left corner.
In the passing game, he caught a swing pass for nine yards, a quick “lookie slant” for six yards, and his five-yard touchdown catch came on a quick pass out to the flat behind two receivers attempting to create a pick to create space.
It was a play similar to his last touchdown catch in 2017, only this time; he was in the backfield versus lined up in the slot before the snap. George Kittle and Ross Dwelley are both inline tight ends in a YY formation to the left. Both release upfield into their defenders, preventing them from getting out to defend the quick flat pass. McKinnon all but walks in.
Fullback Kyle Juszczyk is still one of the most important pieces on the offense, and he can be counted for at least one big play every few games in the passing game and is undeniably one of the top non-offensive line run blockers.
But his best play from week one came late in the fourth and helped set up a badly needed scoring drive. Juszczyk is a chest piece in Shanahan offenses, a player he can line up in the slot, out wide, at tight end, and as a fullback. He’s caught passes, including touchdowns, from every skill position in the offense.
He caught a 41-yard pass down the right sideline on a fullback leak play out of the backfield on Sunday. Shanahan has run this play more than a few times with Juszczyk out of the backfield, and it works every time because the key to the play is how Juszczyk sells the run before accelerating past the defender. The WILL linebacker’s run fit is to disrupt the fullback. This puts him in a pickle as Juszczyk accelerates past him just as the WILL meets him at the point of attack.
Late defensive miscommunication
The 49ers defense was on the field for 78 plays, nearly the amount of snaps in a college football game. And for the most part, they still played well enough to keep the game close and limit the Cardinals offense until the fourth quarter. On what would eventually be the go-ahead touchdown in the game, they gave a long catch and run that set up the Cardinals offense with a first and goal inside the one-yard line.
The Cardinals are running an air raid offense staple: 62 mesh. Mesh is a basic crossing route concept designed to create traffic and confusion across the middle of the field as the inside receiver cross at a “mesh point.” The lateral stretch of the defense enables the deeper routes behind them to come open sooner, and the crossing routes aren’t even the primary reads.
The 49ers are in a quarters coverage shell with a five-man pressure underneath, meaning at least some of the defenders are going to need to travel with the pass patterns. After the game, cornerback Richard Sherman said, “there was a miscommunication on both sides, it’s just one of those things we have to address. The calls didn’t get all the way through to everyone, so we had two sides playing two different coverages.”
Based on how the defenders covered the routes, it looks like they were possibly playing cover-2 palms coverage (the video says “cover-2 trap,” this is labeling error, sorry!). The defender with the coverage bust was nickel defender K’Waun Williams. He should’ve traveled with receiver Deandre Hopkins since the WILL linebacker Kwon Alexander carried the sideline wheel. After a review spotted the ball down inside the 1-yard line, the Cardinals would punch it in on the very next play.
Cardinals defense limits Kittle
The Cardinals defense did a pretty good job of limiting Kittle and taking away this read from Garoppolo.
They did so by playing a mixture of solo/poach coverage where the opposite hash safety plays the #3 receiver if that receiver is up and across the field. This put a defender in a trail position with a defender providing help in front of Kittle. They also bracketed him heavily in obvious situations where Garoppolo would look to him. The result was an offense that could not stay on schedule.
To put it bluntly, Jimmy Garoppolo did not have a good game, despite what the passer rating and box score stats say. He didn’t face too much pressure, 11 total, on 38 dropbacks, and was responsible for at least two of the three sacks the Cardinals recorded when he failed to recognize twice that he should’ve thrown the ball away. And late in the fourth, he had an interception nullified due to pass interference, a pass that was underthrown into triple coverage as he was rolling to his right.
He was responsible for the two sacks; he should have thrown the ball instead of looking to extend to the play. He had at least four seconds to make a decision in both instances, and on the second sack, eight seconds elapsed from snap to sack.
Most plays that don’t develop within three seconds aren’t going to be a positive gain unless the quarterback can work outside the play structure, and that isn’t Garoppolo, at least not consistently. A majority of the time, when he hits the last step of his drop, the ball does not come out unless it’s on play action. He sort of panics and gets happy feet as he dances around looking for a receiver to throw to, and he can often run into trouble as a result.
He’s also still lacking in arm strength and timing, two bad traits that showed up on the game’s two most important plays.
He missed seeing open receivers that had shown just a bit more patience for a half-second on two late-game throws, he could have fired them off to a wide-open Mostert or a wide-open Kittle (and Pettis on the same play as Kittle). He has to be better and be patient as routes develop.
Missed reads and sacks weren’t the only issues. If Garoppolo took a lot of criticism for overthrowing Emmanuel Sanders in the Super Bowl, then he should be receiving an equal amount of, if not more, criticism for severely underthrowing Kendrick Bourne in the end zone.
Out of trips, Bourne is running a double move against cornerback Patrick Peterson. He gets Peterson to bite on his stutter 12 yards downfield, and as Peterson bites, Bourne runs right by him and gets nearly four yards of separation into the end zone. The ball floats on Garoppolo, and Bourne is forced to make a difficult adjustment on the pass, but it bounces off Peterson’s helmet and out of the back of the end zone.
Three plays later, Garoppolo was late throwing to Trent Taylor on a quick out route at the sticks on fourth down. The play is a three-step drop and throw to Taylor on a quick out, but he isn’t ready to throw until he stops his drop, pats the ball, and lets it rip. By this time, the problem is the defender is already anticipating the throw and breaking on the route. He swats the ball and any chance at a comeback victory away from the 49ers.
It’s too early to say if this is the dreaded “Super Bowl hangover” that teams often go through the season after losing in the big game. The opportunities were there for the 49ers to take advantage of despite the mistakes on both sides of the ball and despite limited availability of the weapons they’re accustomed to game-planning for, and they should be getting rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk back this week.
The great teams don’t always “do what they need to do” and win. This was one of those games. And the 49ers have two opponents upcoming that aren’t exactly powerhouses that Shanahan can use to re-tune his offense and get them back on track.