The 49ers have quite the challenge defensively Sunday as they face one of the best offenses in the NFL in the Arizona Cardinals. Only three teams have more explosive passing plays this season than Kyler Murray and the Cardinals.
Let’s take a look at five players to watch against Arizona.
CB Emmanuel Moseley
Moseley has passed his first two tests of what you’d imagine would be the most challenging exams any cornerback has to face. Between the Packers and the Seahawks, Moseley has broken up four of his 12 intended targets. It took Seattle to max protect and get D.K. Metcalf on routes 15 yards down the field to complete a pass on E-Man.
For reference, Jaire Alexander led the league last season at 4.7 yards per target. Moseley has been superb through two games. Now, he gets DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green. We all remember what happened during Week 1 of last year, and no matter what Moseley says, he does too.
If I’m the 49ers, knowing that Hopkins primarily plays on the left side of the offense, I’m lining up Moseley, who is my top cornerback, over D-Hop and telling him to be aggressive and sit on routes.
Murray has played like an MVP, but he will give you chances to make plays, as evidenced by Murray’s four interceptions. Turnovers have been hard to come by for the Niners. Moseley can fix that on Sunday.
RT Mike McGlinchey
Quality pass rushers have given McGlinchey issues dating back to college, and that hasn’t changed this season. Now, McGlinchey faces Chandler Jones, who is one of the league leaders in win percentage per PFF.
To put Jones’ season into context, Nick Bosa’s win percentage is 19.8%, while Chandler’s is 19.9%. Arizona would be doing San Francisco a favor by lining Jones up on the offense’s left side.
McGlinchey must avoid the crucial mistake. Holding, sacks, and sack-fumbles are either drive or game-killers. I’d expect the 49ers to give McGlinchey plenty of help with either a tight end or a running back to his side. The last thing you want is Trey Lance turning gun-shy and creating bad habits like dropping his eyes since he doesn’t trust his protection.
QB Trey Lance
Jimmy Garoppolo said he’s preparing as if he’ll start Sunday. But, knowing how rushing Garoppolo back from an injury last year hurt the 49ers’ long-term, I’d lean toward Lance as the starter.
Lance did a great job in the second half of avoiding turning the ball over. Unfortunately, that’s been an issue for the offense this season. Arizona is third in the NFL in turnovers per drive. They’re an opportunistic bunch, and you better believe defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will do everything in his power to confuse the rookie QB.
Arizona blitzes at the seventh-highest rate in the NFL and is top-10 in adjusted sack rate. So Kyle Shanahan will likely devise a game plan to make life easy on Lance. That should include plenty of designed QB runs, RPOs, play-action passes, and deep shots to loosen up the defense.
Lance won’t be asked to do too much. Keep the offense ahead of the chains, don’t turn the ball over, and hit the deep ball when the opportunity presents itself. That’s been the recipe for how to play quarterback under Shanahan for some time now. Jimmy Garoppolo struggled with each of those three this season. Let’s see if it’s any different for the rookie.
S Jimmie Ward
Knowing that Arizona loves to use four wide receivers and spread you out, Ward should be heavily involved this week. Last week, the 49ers relied on Dontae Johnson in the slot. Johnson had a free run at Russell Wilson, missed a sack opportunity, and Russ turned that into a touchdown.
Jimmie doesn’t miss if he blitzes. Jimmie doesn’t miss, period. Ward hasn’t missed a tackle all season. The Cardinals love throwing quick passes and screens to Rondale Moore or their underneath playmakers. Ward’s tackling will come in handy near the line of scrimmage.
Also, he’s not too shabby of a coverage player. Ward is a weapon in the secondary, and I’d use him to shadow Moore and force Murray to complete low percentage throws outside of the numbers.
Rookie running backs
Whether it’s Trey Sermon or Elijah Mitchell, the 49ers must continue to lean on the ground game. They started to improve last week, but the game flow forced the offense to turn into a dropback passing team, and that’s never been Shanahan’s M.O.
The Cardinals have surrendered 18 running plays over 15 yards, which is second in the NFL. This game is a perfect opportunity to use Lance as a decoy in the running game to get your backs going.
Arizona is 29th in the NFL in defensive rushing success rate. They’re undersized but speedy. It seems as though they’re looking to play the pass on every down, which is something Shanahan should make them pay for.
Physicality will go a long way in this game for the 49ers’ offense. There hasn’t been a team to punch Arizona in the mouth defensively. It feels like we say this every week, but this is the team to lean on your running game.