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.