The Arizona Cardinals should be heading into week five with an even 2-2 record. Mistakes on offense and poor play calling have sabotaged a pair of possible late game comeback wins. Arizona now goes on the road to Santa Clara, to face another division rival, the San Francisco 49ers. How will the offense perform in the second game of the Rosen era? Today we take a look at a couple of keys of the game for the Arizona offense.
Get David Johnson in Space
In four meetings against the 49ers, David Johnson has averaged just under 100 yards of total offense and scored five touchdowns. Johnson was the starter in just two of those meetings. The Cardinals offense focused on getting Johnson the football in their loss to the Seahawks. Johnson had a great first half with over 60 yards rushing. However, his second half carries were not as successful as he added just five yards.
Seattle got penetration inside and made tackles in one on one situations. San Francisco runs an identical defensive scheme, with arguably a more talented front four. Running the football up the middle will be a chore for the Cardinals. However, it does not mean less touches for Johnson in the Arizona offense. For coordinator Mike McCoy, Johnson presents an opportunity to challenge the tackling ability of the 49ers defense in space.
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The 49ers defense has struggled with wrapping up the ball carrier in one on one situations. Current tackles leader for San Francisco is rookie linebacker Fred Warner. Warner has totaled 45 tackles with 34 of the solo variety. Even with the high tackle total, Warner has struggled with pursuit angles and breaking down before attempting the tackle. The issue is not unique to Warner as the entire defense has struggled with this aspect. McCoy needs to get Johnson in space. Screens, short swing routes, and isolation plays in the passing game will put pressure on the inexperienced 49ers defense.
Johnson missed both meetings with San Francisco in 2017, but the Cover-3 scheme used by the 49ers is nothing new. McCoy needs to trust Johnson to make his reads and make plays on offense. This means keeping his playmaker on the field in third down situations. Johnson is the biggest threat facing the 49ers defense, the more he is on the field, the better functioning the offense can be.
Help Out Rosen
Josh Rosen looked impressive in his first NFL start. The former UCLA Bruin commanded the offense and looked well seasoned. Rosen finished with 180 yards on 15 of 27 passing and his first career NFL touchdown pass. The rookie’s day should have been significantly more productive but he was let down by the receiving corp. Five drops on the day, likely adding another 70-80 yards and at least one additional touchdown, set back the offense against Seattle.
Rosen looked the part of the quarterback of the future for Arizona. He made difficult throws look simple and played without fear. Rosen has the tools to take apart an inexperienced secondary for the 49ers. San Francisco is without Richard Sherman due to a calf injury. The veteran cornerback has played very well in his return from an Achilles injury suffered the last time he visited State Farm Stadium. In his absence the secondary has struggled to communicate and stick to their assignments in coverage.
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Mesh and switch concept routes rely on accuracy and timing. Rosen nails both aspects and can make the throws deep downfield or underneath and on time. Against Seattle, Rosen showed the anticipation needed to make throws downfield and outside of the yard markings. He can deliver the throw with zip and has the touch to drop the ball into a basket. Rosen can make the throws to punish the 49ers secondary. McCoy can scheme the Cardinals receivers open, but the players need to finish the play.
The San Francisco defense is young, but they are talented. The best way to attack the secondary is in the slot. Arizona’s best two receivers, Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk, can make plays against San Francisco. Kirk is a shifty receiver who can move all around the field and is explosive enough to make big plays. Fitzgerald has always played well against the 49ers. The veteran has averaged nearly eight catches and 77 yards receiving per game against San Francisco. People will get open, Rosen will make the throws, but he will need help from the rest of the offense to put points on the scoreboard.
The Cardinals have won the last six meetings with the 49ers and seven of the last eight. Arizona on paper has the better team and should have the advantage on both sides of the ball. The offense has been handed the keys to the ball game the last two weeks but have failed when it mattered most. San Francisco has played tough and had chances to win in all of their first four matchups. The 49ers could easily be 3-1 and possibly even undefeated. Sunday’s matchup will come down to which struggling unit can come out on top, the 49ers inexperience defense, or the Arizona inconsistent offense.