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Can 49ers avoid embarrassing upset on Thursday?

SANTA CLARA - Under normal circumstances, the 49ers would blow out the Arizona Cardinals.

The 49ers have a complete team -they've built it up the past three seasons. The Cardinals have an incomplete team - they're rebuilding with rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury. They're at least two seasons behind the 49ers.

But the game will be in Arizona. Advantage: Cardinals. And the game will be Thursday night, meaning neither team practiced much this week. And neither team is fully rested and prepared.

“Guys coming off a Sunday game to play on Thursday is just a terrible turnaround,” Richard Sherman said. “Obviously, guys have gotten hurt during those games.”

Guys such as Sherman. He tore his Achilles tendon during a Thursday night game in 2017.

Funny things happen on Thursday night. The better team doesn't always win. This game could be much closer than most expect.

Here's what the 49ers must do to win.

1. Stop the Cardinals' running game.

The Cardinals have a run-first offense, contrary to what most people expected before the season.

“It's not what everyone talked about, how it's just going to be the ‘Air Raid' offense,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “They're mixing in a lot of stuff.”

Kingsbury was a college coach from 2008 to 2018, and he used a specific system called the “Air Raid.” It's a pass-first system, i.e. bombs away. Air Raid quarterbacks throw roughly 50 passes per game.

But the Cardinals aren't built to pass. They don't have good enough weapons. Larry Fitzgerald is 36 and slow. The offense averages just 6.2 yards per pass attempt - eighth lowest in the league. But it averages 4.8 yards per carry - ninth most in the NFL.

“The quarterback can run,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, referring to Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, the first pick of the draft. “He's a dynamic player, he's extremely fast. He's not afraid to pull it and run. He's got those young legs where he's not afraid to take a hit. Just the element of the quarterback being involved always presents more of a challenge.”

Murray's best attribute is his speed. He is the most agile, explosive quarterback the 49ers have faced this season, and he's averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Arizona also has running back Kenyan Drake - they traded for him this week. He's fast and will start, because the Cardinals' top two running backs are injured.

If the 49ers stop Murray and Drake, they should win. Sounds simple, but it's not.

2. Don't always match up with Arizona's four-wide-receiver formations.

The Cardinals are not a typical run-first team. They don't use lots of blockers, and rarely use a tight end. Instead, they use four wide receivers and one running back most of the time. They look like a college offense. They want to create running lanes by spreading out the defense.

And they spread the defense by aligning the wide receivers as far from the offensive line as possible. Sometimes, two wide receivers line up near the right sideline, and two line up near the left sideline. Meaning four defensive players must vacate the tackle box and follow those wide receivers to the sideline. Otherwise, Murray will throw one of his receivers a quick screen pass for a big gain.

To match up against four wide receivers, defenses typically use a “dime” defense - six defensive backs and just one linebacker. This is strong against the pass, but weak against the run. The Cardinals frequently run against soft dime defenses, which is one reason their run game has been so effective.

If the 49ers use dime, they'll have to bench standout linebacker Kwon Alexander, one of their best run defenders, and replace him with second-year safety Tarvarius Moore, who's a run-defense liability.

“It does pose a problem, but not something that needs to be panicked over,” Saleh said. “We're going to play our game. We feel comfortable with how we match up.”

The 49ers have an elite defense. It may not have to adjust to the Cardinals' limited, college-style offense. The 49ers may win by sticking with their nickel defense, which features their 11 best defensive players as much as possible. But defending the Cardinals' offense will be interesting.

3. Make Kyler Murray be a quarterback.

The 49ers don't have to sack Murray to beat the Cardinals. They merely have to contain him in the pocket and make him throw.

“The play doesn't start until he starts moving around,” Saleh explained. “Obviously, he's a good quarterback, he will throw on schedule, but a lot of their explosive plays are him creating off-schedule things.”

Meaning Murray easily can run for a first down on third and long, or he can scramble behind the line of scrimmage, buy time, wait for a receiver to break open downfield and throw him the ball for a touchdown. Both of these plays happen when defensive linemen let Murray escape the pocket.

“You're always trying to keep (quarterbacks) in the pocket,” Saleh said. “You're always trying to make them play quarterback.”

If the 49ers' defensive linemen simply keep Murray in the pocket - he's only 5-foot-10 - he'll have to throw over DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who are both 6-foot-8. Good luck with that, Kyler.

4. “Green dog” Kenyan Drake.

The Cardinals traded for Drake this week because they need a healthy running back, and he fits their running game.

“He's explosive,” Kingsbury said of Drake on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “We need somebody with pop while those running backs are banged up. He can catch out of the backfield, he's very dynamic in space and has been a very productive player in his career.”

But Drake is a horrible blocker. Kingsbury didn't mention that.

If the Cardinals keep Drake in the backfield to block on third down, and they probably will eventually, the 49ers should “green-dog” him. Green dog is a delayed blitz.

In the 49ers' defense, a linebacker typically covers the running back man to man if the running back runs a pass route. If the running back simply blocks, the linebacker can blitz, or “green dog,” instead of standing still and doing nothing.

When the 49ers green-dog Drake, they'll knock him over. He's a lightweight.

5. Don't mess with Patrick Peterson.

Shanahan went out of his way to praise a bad Cardinals defense this week.

“It's a huge challenge,” Shanahan insisted. “I never look at the numbers right away. I just watched the tape and thought they were ranked very high in a lot of areas. I see as good of a defense as we've played this year.”

Sure, Kyle.

Here's what the numbers say: The Cardinals defense stinks against the run. It gives up 4.7 yards per carry - 10th most in the league. It also stinks against the pass. It allows an average opponent quarterback rating of 116 - third highest in the league. It just stinks.

The 49ers' offense should get whatever it wants, if it's smart. The Cardinals have one elite cornerback - Patrick Peterson. The NFL suspended him for the first six games, but he's back, and last week he intercepted Drew Brees. The 49ers can avoid him the entire game and still win. Make Jimmy Garoppolo throw anywhere else.

“He's as talented as they come,” Garoppolo said. “He's got eyes on the quarterback most of the time. He does all the right things. But at the same time, you don't want to never attack (him).”

You don't?

Garoppolo tends to stare down receivers and throw at least one pass per game to the other team. That's what Bad Jimmy does, as opposed to Good Jimmy. The only person on the Cardinals defense who can bring out Bad Jimmy is Peterson.

Never attack him, Jimmy. Be smart. Be Good Jimmy.

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