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In the Flip of a Quarter Cardinals Provide Potential

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I predicted that it would take three significant changes in the Cardinals’ modus operandi for Steve Wilks’ to save his job:

  1. Byron Leftwich needs to emerge as a competent OC, particularly in the manner in which he helps to develop QB Josh Rosen and diversifies RB David Johnson’s role.
  2. Wilks and Al Holcomb need to demonstrate scheme flexibility, particularly in showing they can run an effective base defense that is not their 4-2-5 nickel (which has been especially vulnerable to stopping the run and screens).
  3. Jeff Rodgers needs to improve his use of personnel and, in doing so, eliminate the poor field position rut the Cardinals have been in for several games.

For three quarters throughout the Cardinals come-from-behind 18-15 win over the 49ers, Wilks, Leftwich, Holcomb and Rodgers manifested the kinds of changes mentioned above.

A. Leftwich got David Johnson more involved in the passing game. He employed more of a zone blocking scheme in the running game. And his hands on communication with Josh Rosen allowied the rookie to stay positive and locked in adjustments.

B. While it took all of 8 games to see it—-the Cardinals actually played the 4-3. And it helped them set stronger edges and take away some of the misdirection and screen passes that the 49ers were hugely successful in executing 3 weeks ago in Santa Clara.

C. The one major change Jeff Rodgers made was finally to insert T.J. Logan is the kickoff returner—-and it worked because the 49ers did not want to pooch their kickoffs to Logan, as the Vikings and Broncos did when Brandon Williams was Rodgers’ guy.

While these tangible changes were in play—-the Cardinals struggled to cash in on them—-that is, until the 4th quarter, when a stunning confluence of all of the changes came to fruition.

  • Josh Rosen took over the game with the Cardinals down 15-3. He threw two of the most perfect post pattern TDs imaginable, one to Larry Fitzgerald and the other to rookie Christian Kirk, which proved to be the perfectly timed game winner.
  • The pass protection in the 4th quarter was superb—-by then the right side of the Cardinals’ OL, newly inserted RG John Wetzel and RT Andre Smith, adequately adjusted to having big-time trouble handling the 49ers’ “twists” (DT/DE) which was allowing LDE Ronald Blair III inside rush lanes to Rosen.
  • Larry Fitzgerald had his first 100 yard game of the season, thanks to Rosen’s pinpoint passes, a great catch by the Legend via a low pass on a key 3rd down late and a stunning deep 50/50 pass to Fitz where Rosen had to throw the ball off one leg with depth and touch while being flushed from the pocket. Fitz’s post pass TD was a thing of beauty—-where Fitz looked every bit and imposing, swift off his break and sure handed as ever. Then Fitz’s 2 point conversion and first ever spike were the icing on the cake exclamation marks.
  • David Johnson showed some flashes of his 2016 self. He was used much more creatively on screens (inside and wide) and on zone running plays. The result was 20 touches (16 rushes, 4 catches) for an even 100 yards (59 + 41). That’s progress.
  • The Cardinals 4-3 defense showed commendable improvement in stifling the 49ers’ offense: In Santa Clara three weeks ago, the 49ers amassed 449 yards, converted on 10-17 3rd downs and TE George Kittle and FB Justin Juszczyk combined for 158 yards receiving. In this game, the Cardinals defense held the 49ers’ offense to 267 total yards, 5-14 on 3rd down conversions and a mere 57 combined receiving yards for Kittle (57) and Juszczyk (0).
  • Without Corey Peters this week, Rodney Gunter continued his productive play inside: 5 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks and 1 QB hit.
  • The LB trio of Josh Bynes, Deone Bucannon and Haason Reddick plus safeties Antoine Bethea and Budda Baker combined for 23 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and 4 QB hits. Their pass coverage was solid throughout.
  • On special teams. despite nursing a sore hip, Phil Dawson had a perfect day (1/1 FG, 1/1 XPT and 4 touchbacks). Andy Lee averaged 48.5 yards on 5 punts, 1 inside the 20.

Coaching Points (improvement areas):

  • Leftwich did a good job of getting Rosen to move his feet in the pocket in the 2nd half and it helped settle him down and to regain his poise.
  • Because LDE Ronald Blair III was crashing down from the backside to tackle David Johnson just when he was getting to the line of scrimmage—-you have to keep ends like this honest with QB bootlegs.
  • John Wetzel wasn’t switching fast enough on Blair’s twists—-but then made the adjustment. Wetzel’s blocking in the 2nd half was strong, particularly on the 2nd level.
  • David Johnson has to start mixing up his speeds in the running game. Sometimes he needs to hit the hole faster—-he’s being a little too deliberate and is allowing the backside of the defense to catch up to him before he can get started.
  • if I were coaching Johnson, i would tell him to stop looking at the jumbotron after the plays and hustle back to the huddle to focus in on the next play. I would ask him to be more of a leader and to play with more emotion.
  • TE Jermaine Gresham—-once a defender turns his back, let him go, he’s out of the play anyway, all he’s trying to do is turn the play inside. Man, that mistake plus the ensuing fumble, is not what one would expect from a highly-paid veteran.
  • OLB Haason Reddick—-you kept your shoulders square on the 49ers’ read option, but you shuffled too far inside—-yet because of your excellent athleticism you were still able to get to Beathard—-just go for his legs—-no need to tackle high (face mask). However, I want to cue up the thumping you put on Matt Breida on one running play up the middle. You flipped him, man! That’s lowering your pads!
  • CB Bene Benwikere—-I think you deserve one of the game balls. Your tackled with authority and you never quit on a play including the long TD to Marquis Goodwin. That tackle you laid on George Kittle took the romance out of the TE crossing route.
  • CB Patrick Peterson—-you quit on the Goodwin TD—-not a good look, especially for a captain. And not smart to let him cross your face on the slant in the first place knowing the middle was going to be vacated via the blitz—-as you well know, you have to leverage Goodwin to the inside and if he does beat you you have to sprint extra hard after him—-you did neither and then you just jogged. That's what quitters do. Combine that with horribly timed the hand to the face penalty on T McGlinchey, when what you are supposed to do is take the blocker out by the ankles and not let him widen the hole by knocking you out of bounds. Plus—-why is your gunner getting to Christian Kirk every time, forcing Kirk to make fair catches? But—-kudos for the pass breakup on the deep pass to Goodwin. That was a big play in the game.
  • S Antoine Bethea—-you are a flat-out baller, captain! So glad you were able to return to the game after getting dinged up. Your subsequent TD saving tackle on Beathard at the 3 yard line was huge. And it was textbook.
  • STs Dennis Gardeck and Joe Walker—-keep balling on cover teams. You dudes are bringing it.

I am super happy that the Cardinals won this game, particularly in light of the adjustments the coaching staff made during the week amidst the unfortunate distractions. When a team has a young, talented QB and it rallies around him with the game on the line, it gives the QB, the coaches, his teammates and the fans a vision of just how good the QB and the team can be when they cohere and galvanize as a group.

I know it’s tempting for some fans to wish for the #1 draft pick—-but—-think of it this way—-if the team would have had the #1 pick last year, knowing what you know today—-wouldn’t you have taken Josh Rosen?

The truth is—-we don't need the #1 pick—-we need to build around the stars of this team on both sides of the ball. Finally, we have our QBOF, who yesterday helped to bring the potential and promise of the future into the present.