Grant Cohn: How 49ers can beat Raiders in ugly Battle of Bay
It's the dueling chokers.
The 49ers and the Raiders. They will face off Thursday night at Levi's Stadium to determine which team will choke the least.
Both teams typically play bravely for three quarters, then lose heart. Each has blown three fourth-quarter leads already this season. The Raiders blew a seven-point fourth-quarter lead to the Indianapolis Colts last Sunday, while the 49ers blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead to the Arizona Cardinals.
Even if the 49ers have a 10-point lead late Thursday night, they should feel nervous, because they're chokers. If they trail by 10 points late in the game, they should feel optimistic, because the Raiders are chokers, too.
The team less mentally fragile will win.
Here's how the 49ers can increase their odds of victory.
1. Take away Derek Carr's short passes.
Carr has completed a gargantuan 73.9 percent of his passes the past three games. And he has two weapons the 49ers can't match up with — wide receiver Martavis Bryant and tight end Jared Cook. Carr could throw for 400 yards and three touchdowns if the 49ers aren't smart.
But, they can shut him down if they take away his dinks and dunks. Carr mostly throws short passes near the line of scrimmage. Head coach Jon Gruden has an allergic reaction to the long pass.
The 49ers should play zone coverage. It will allow defenders to keep their eyes on Carr and react quickly to his short throws. If they play man coverage, they'll have to turn their backs to Carr and chase receivers downfield. Then, he can throw a two-yard pass to a running back and, if one defender misses a tackle, no one else will be within 20 yards of the running back, and a two-yard throw will become a 20-yard gain.
Zone coverage will force Carr to hold the ball in the pocket. Then, the 49ers can sack him
2. Move DeForest Buckner to defensive end.
The Raiders have two weak links on their offense: Rookie left tackle Kolton Miller, and rookie right tackle Brandon Parker.
The 49ers can't let those rookies off the hook. Can't let them block Cassius Marsh and Ronald Blair the whole game. Those are usual defensive ends in the 49ers nickel defense, and they're not good enough. The 49ers need to change their scheme.
They need to move DeForest Buckner from defensive tackle to defensive end in the nickel defense against the Raiders.
If the 49ers don't move him, Buckner should walk right over to Kyle Shanahan on the sideline during the game and say: 'I want to face Miller, and I want to face Parker. Make it freaking happen, Coach.'
Buckner is the 49ers best pass rusher. Let him take the rookies to school.
3. Feature tight end George Kittle in the pass game.
The Raiders last Sunday gave up 133 receiving yards and three touchdown catches combined to the Colts three tight ends — Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and Mo Alie-Cox.
The Raiders struggle covering tight ends in general. Their strong safety, Karl Joseph, is little. Only 5-foot-9. Against the 49ers, he will cover tight end George Kittle, who's 6-4. Seven inches taller than Joseph.
Kittle is the 49ers' best receiver, and one of the top tight ends in the NFL. His 584 receiving yards rank third among tight ends. The 49ers should look to him as much as possible when they pass on Thursday.
4. Avoid third down.
The Raiders have one of the worst pass rushes in the NFL. They have just seven sacks — the only NFL team in single digits.
On third downs when the 49ers have to pass, the Raiders must blitz, because they can't pressure the quarterback with just four defensive linemen. They need extra rushers.
But, blitzing is effective against the 49ers for two reasons: The offense can't block the blitz, and quarterback C.J. Beathard can't make quick decisions to get rid of the ball in time.
Beathard may not play Thursday night — his right wrist hurts. He banged it on an opponent's helmet last Sunday. If he can't go against the Raiders, backup Nick Mullens will play quarterback, and the Raiders will blitz him, too. He never has played in the NFL. Teams typically blitz inexperienced quarterbacks just to overwhelm them.
The Raiders will send heavy pressure during obvious passing situations, like third down. The 49ers must avoid those situations. Here's how they can:
5. Run the ball, then keep running it.
The Raiders are giving up 144.7 rushing yards per game — worst in the league. And they gave up 222 yards on the ground last Sunday.
The Raiders can't stop the run.
Here's why: Raiders management has made it clear it doesn't care about the players on the roster – see what happened to Khalil Mack and Amari Cooper. That's how the Raiders look to me, an outside observer. The team is assembling for the future in Las Vegas.
Most current players don't factor into the future. They're expendable. Believe me, they know that. They're playing for now, but management is thinking about the future, a future without most of these players. Big conflict between management and players. Players inevitably ask themselves, 'Why should I risk injury for a team that doesn't care about me?' They start thinking about their next contract, their next team. And they play to avoid injury.
This affects run defense big time. Helps explain why the Raiders run defense sucks. To stop the run, players have to risk injury. Defending the run is violent and painful. Subconsciously, or maybe consciously, the Raiders run stoppers don't want the pain. They won't jeopardize their careers for a team that doesn't want them.
If Shanahan puts his ego aside, the ego that loves the passing game, and runs the ball 30 or 40 times, the 49ers will win. Simple. And if Beathard is hurt and Mullens plays quarterback, all the more reason to run.
Only chokers wouldn't run against the Raiders.
Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.