1. Defending Kyle Shanahan's Offense
Last November, Kyle Shanahan's Falcons picked apart the Cardinals defense with RBs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman rushing for 3 TDs and speedy WR Taylor Gabriel scoring 2 TDs off WR screen passes (35 and 25 yards).
In SF, Shanahan obviuously does not have Matt Ryan, Julio Jones, Taylor Gabriel, Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman...however, in those roles he has Brian Hoyer, Pierre Garcon, Marquis Goodwin, Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida. He also has one of the most talented and versatile fullbacks in the game in Kyle Juszczyk. At first glance it might appear to be a significant talent drop-off from the offensive personnel in Atlanta. However, in watching the 49ers' offense click against the Rams last Thursday night, after a shaky start, Hoyer threw darts left and right (23/35, 322 2-1 TD/int), Garcon (7/142) played like a man possessed, Goodwin (2/62) flashed his all-world speed, Hyde and Breida combined for 124 all-purpose yards. FB Juszczyk added 1 catch for 34 yards. Hyde and Hoyer scored a combined 3 rushing TDs and quick rookie slot WR Trent Taylor and backup TE Garrett Celek caught TD passes of 3 and 1 yards respectively. In the red zone, Shanahan loves to beat you off play action. Watch the FB sneaking into the flat.
For the Cardinals, it would appear that Patrick Peterson will need to shadow Garcon. That means that Justin Bethel will have to play very fast and fluidly versus speed WR Goodwin. Hopefully Bethel can get some safety help over the top. All Cardinals' DBs and LBs need to expect a number of quick WR screens to Goodwin and Taylor and play action passes to rookie TE George Kittle, FB Juszczyk and the RB tandem of Hyde and Breida. Hyde is playing faster this year and can bounce runs outside in the red zone. Breida is quick to the hole. Knowing how weak the Cardinals have been in keeping contain and covering mis-direction passes, one would expect Shanahan to run some bootlegs, waggles and sprint outs with Hoyer. Hoyer is not quite as quick footed as Dak Prescott, but he's no slouch when it comes to using his feet to buy time and space.
One of the major keys to the game is how well the Cardinals can adjust to play action and the screens...as well as how much pressure they can put on Hoyer. The 49ers have two good tackles in Joe Staley and Trent Brown. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden will have to be at their best. What the Cardinals desperately need this week is a pass rush up the middle. That's where the $9ers' line is most vulnerable.
The question is: will Shanahan's offense have as much success versus the Cardinals as his offense did with the Falcons last year? Shanahan knows the Cardinals defense and its vulnerabilities very well.
2. Attacking the 49ers' Defense
Just as Kyle Shanahan is very familiar with the Cardinals' defense, first year DC Robert Saleh was the defensive quality control assistant for the Seahawks for a few years before heading to the Jaguars as LB coach for Gus Bradley, and thus Saleh will be familiar with the Cardinals' offense and its tendencies.
One of the musts for the Cardinals in this game is to do a much better job establishing the running game. The 49ers are 23rd in the league in rush defense thus far...which is somewhat surprising in that Saleh has 3 first round DL up front (DE Arik Armstead, DT DeForest Buckner and DE Solomon Thomas). However, MLB NaVorro Bowman and OLBers Eli Harold and Ray Ray Armstrong (in for injured rookie 1st round pick Reuben Foster) have struggled thus far. The Cardinals' offensive line has struggled mightily in opening up holes, which could well be the case again this week. If so, it will allow the 49ers to do what the Cowboys did...tee off after QB Carson Palmer. Clearly, after watching DeMarcus Lawrence dominate RT Jared Veldheer, LDE Arik Amstead must be licking his chops. Same for the best pass rusher, DT DeForest Buckner who is likely very confident of his chances versus the trio of Iupati, Shipley and Boehm. RDE Solomon Thomas is getting his first start in place of injured DE Tank Carradine. Solomon will be matched up with John Wetzel (bicep) or D.J. Humphries (ankle).
It wouldn't be a surprise at all if Saleh employs his own 3 man rush (Amstead---Buckner---Thomas) in favor of dropping 8 men into coverage. The whole nation saw how badly the Cardinals struggled with it versus the Cowboys. And Bucker is capable of blowing up the middle all on his own.
On the back end the 49ers have speed, but not a lot of polish. Their safeties (Jimmy Ward, Eric Reid and Jaquisky Tartt) are aggressive and physical. The CBs (Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson) have speed and flexibility, but are not as yet particularly nuanced.
if the Cardinals can get some push in the running game, then they can hit pay dirt on their play action passes. If not, they will have to find a way to crack 8 man coverages. Carson Palmer may have to run from the pocket a few times to keep the defense honest. Whenever a defense rushes three, the QB scramble is a concern...but not so much if the 49ers play 5 under 3 deep zones. Still, Palmer may have to do whatever he can to move the chains.
BA's reaction to the pass blocking woes on MNF was to "block better." And it has not been in BA's m.o. to change what he does, but with a banged up and unconfident offensive line, BA will need to make some adjustments, somehow, some way. Right?
The question is...will the Cardinals be able to establish a running game this week so as to create a balanced attack and so as to avoid 8 man coverages? Plus, in clear passing situations, will BA provide added pass pro help this week?
3. Quality Special Teams Play
On paper, after 3 games, the 49ers hold a distinct advantage on STs.
K AZ-Dawson (5/8 FG, 5/5 XP)
K SF-Gould (6/6 FG, 3/4 XP)
P AZ-Lee (45.8 ave., 38.2 net)
P SF-Pinion (42.5 ave., 42.0 net)
KR AZ-Williams (20.2 ave.)
KR SF-Bolden (21.4 ave.)
PR AZ-Williams (3.0 ave.)
PR SF-Taylor (11.3 ave.)
One would think that Phil Dawson and Andy Lee will be extra amped to play well versus their former team. Thus far, Dawson has missed a FG in each of the 3 games, while Gould has made all 6 of his. Lee has outdistanced Pinion, but Pinion has gotten better hang time and a laudable 42.0 net.
Rookie Trent Taylor has nifty feet, as evidence by his 58 yards in 5 punt returns. Meanwhile the Cardinals' combo of Williams and Peterson has produced a mere 3.0 average even though opposing punters are booming 50+ yards seemingly each punt...which normally would outkick the coverage, but Williams has let a number of punts bounce and he's fair caught a few punt that normally would be and should be returned.
The question is---will the Cardinals' STs woes continued to cost the team valuable momentum and a better chance to win? Will the 49ers keep flipping the field on the Cardinals the way the Cowboys did ad nauseum in the second half on MNF?