Just over 12 months ago defense end Markus Golden fell to the turf in agony. The Arizona Cardinals pass rusher had torn his ACL. Golden was lost for the rest of the 2017 season and struggled to rehab. On Sunday the San Francisco 49ers play host to the Cardinals in an NFC West divisional clash. Today we take a look at the Arizona defense and two points of emphasis for Sunday. Is Arizona ready to slow down the potent 49ers ground game? Will Arizona get pressure on the quarterback?
Make it a Sack Party
The San Francisco 49ers have nearly the entire starting offensive line listed on the injury report. Last Sunday the 49ers lost starting tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley, as well as starting center Weston Richburg, to knee injuries. Staley has long been a stalwart protecting the blind side of San Francisco quarterbacks. The 49ers drafted McGlinchey in the first round of this past April’s draft while Richburg was an underrated free agent signing. The three linemen are the strongest pieces along the 49ers offensive line.
On Sunday the Cardinals will need to create chaos in the passing game by applying generous amounts of pressure on quarterback C.J. Beathard. The 49ers lost starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo for the season to a torn ACL. Beathard is a strong quarterback with a big arm. He will stand in the pocket and take a hit if it means he can make the throw.
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The Cardinals pass rush has struggled in 2018. Arizona currently sits in the middle of the league with 10 sacks through four games. Chandler Jones has found it difficult to replicate his production from a year ago. Through four games, Jones has collected just three sacks, in addition to 11 combined tackles. Part of the issue for Jones has been the scheme change. The other issue is a result of his success last season. Teams are now focused on slowing down Jones in the pass rush with either a double team or chip. The return of Golden provides Arizona with an additional pass rusher on the edge.
As of Thursday afternoon Staley is listed as doubtful while McGlinchey and Richburg are listed as questionable. The 49ers could start the game with a rookie left tackle, a banged up center, and a backup right tackle. Golden and Jones need to be ready to meet at the quarterback. However, Holcomb should not solely focus on the outside to dial-up pressure. The 49ers are weakest up the middle along the guard positions. Throw in a less than 100% Richburg and the Cardinals have an invitation to get pressure up the middle. Robert Nkemdiche has been aggressive and is second on the team with three quarterback hits. Using Nkemdiche in addition to using linebacker Haason Reddick on fire blitzes will help get pressure on Bethard and prevent the quarterback from stepping up in the pocket to make throws.
Bottle up the Run Game
San Francisco has the fourth best rushing attack in the NFL with 133.5 yards per game. The 49ers trail the league leading Browns by 77 yards, but have 26 less attempts. Leading the charge for the 49ers is second year back Matt Breida. The running back out of Georgia Southern is third in the league with 313 yards rushing. He is slightly more than 100 yards behind league leader Ezekiel Elliott, while carrying the football more than 20 times less than the Cowboys running back. Breida is a shifty and explosive runner who has the speed to break long runs.
The 49ers ground game features a mix of power runs and zone schemes. Head coach Kyle Shanahan prefers to run the football out of the I or offset I formation with one tight end and a fullback in to block. Breida is most successful on outside zone and stretch plays. These plays get the defense moving with the offensive line while the tight end or receiver seals the edge. This allows Breida to plant his foot and shoot through a gap caused by the moving defensive front. A key to disrupting the run game is setting the edge defensively. Edge defenders such as the defensive end as well as linebackers or safeties need to drop down and cut off the option for the running back to bounce the play outside. The idea is to keep everything inside where the bulk of the defense is in pursuit.
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Arizona needs to avoid getting too aggressive in getting up field. Against a zone scheme run game, penetration can cause holes to open along the line, providing running room for the running back. Nkemdiche and defensive tackle Corey Peters will need to play fundamentally sound but also get the necessary push to disrupt timing. Expect San Francisco to attempt and take advantage of the aggressiveness of Arizona defenders. Expect misdirection and motion to be in heavy use. The idea is to get the eyes of the defense moving before the snap. Quick trap plays also allow the offense to get the interior defensive line moving up field where a pulling blocker can get a block and open a hole to run through. A defense too focused on movement means a defense not focused on their assignments.
Ultimately, stopping the 49ers ground attack will be up to the players. The Cardinals will need to make open field tackles and set the edge. How the ground game goes, so does the entire offense. Arizona needs a big game from the interior of the defensive line. Keep the leverage advantage even while moving parallel to the line of scrimmage. San Francisco’s line will try to form a wall as it moves laterally. Arizona will need to disrupt that movement and slow down the movement of the 49ers offensive line.
Prediction: Cardinals Win 23-17
The Arizona defense has been up and down during the season. If the Cardinals are to break through and get their first win of the season, the defense will need to dominate. Ultimately the Cardinals have the game’s strongest unit, the defense. Arizona has the personnel to cause issues against San Francisco’s offense but the Cardinals will need to play mistake free football. A missed tackle or losing gap integrity could result in a big run by the 49ers. The game plan is simple. In the end the Cardinals should do just enough to slow the San Francisco run game enough to put pressure on the passing attack. The Cardinals will likely send pressure throughout the game and force Bethard and the passing game to make plays. Arizona has the horses, can they break free and get the victory?