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Chess Matches vs. NFC West Offenses

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

In rallying his offense back from an early 16-0 deficit, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan displayed an impressive knowledge of how to attack the Cardinals’ defense where it was vulnerable.

Shanahan’s first big call was a perfectly executed throwback screen pass to WR Richie James which resulted in a 57 yard gain. Only three Cardinals were in position to slow the play down, but they were outnumbered by 4 49er blockers—-CB Kevin Peterson in man coverage on James was late chasing him off the motion, but recovered enough to do his job by trying to turn the play inside and he almost was able to make a shoestring tackle. But, OLB Cassius Marsh failed to get a read on the play and got caught too far inside and was blocked. DT Corey Peters had a chance to read the play, but ran toward the flow.

The backside pursuit by the Cardinals was actually very good, all things considered. They took good pursuit angles, with Budda Baker taking on the lead blocker and Patrick Peterson running James out of bounds. This was great hustle to see from Peterson. Kudos too to Byron Murphy who covered his man all the way across the field and then sprinted the whole diagonal length of the field to try to make the tackle.

This play is very difficult to defend if the edge player doesn’t stay home and snuff it out. The Cardinals’ have a real weakness on the edge, as they are undisciplined in keeping contain. With 5 games left the defense has to show it can defend the perimeter on sweeps, reverses and screens—-it’s been one of the glaring weaknesses—-not only this year, but for quite some time.

On TE Ross Dwelley’s first career TD reception, what Shanahan knew was the Cardinals were in a 6 man under zone, with a single high safety. The 6 underneath defenders were protecting the goal line, and thus Shanahan knew that with FS Budda Baker shading the middle, if they ran a deep out pass to TE Ross Dwelley it would be very difficult for Baker to make a play on the ball. Have a look:

Note: Where Budda should have had some help here from Jalen Thompson. A rule of thumb in zone defense, particularly on the goal line is that if there is no man in your area, you peel backward to help on any receiver behind you. The play happened fast—-but Jalen Thompson was caught flat-footed with no receiver in his zone—-thus, it was an easy throw and catch from Jimmy Garoppolo to his wide open TE, Ross Dwelley.

So—-with the 1st possession of the 2nd half, now down 16-10, Shanahan figured that the next time they get in the red zone, the Cardinals would switch from zone to man. Thus, this time instead of running a deep out to TE Ross Dwelley, he ran a criss-cross pattern figuring it was was going to e difficult for the Cardinals’ LB, Haasan Reddick, to fight over the traffic coming from his left to be able to cover Dwelley crossing in the opposite direction.

It’s uncertain as to whether Reddick was free-lancing here or whether he thought he was in zone coverage, but, regardless, Reddick got caught on top of the crossing routes and never fights over them to defend Dwelley. Kliff Kingsbury calls this kind of defensive breakdown “overanalysis paralysis.”

Upon Further Review: It appears that both Haasan Reddick and Jalen Thompson think they are in zone coverage. If they were in man coverage, Thompson should have covered Dwelley, as Dwelley was the widest receiver to that side. Reddick should have had the off-set RB to his side, Tevin Coleman, who, off the snap, angles to the right—-which Reddick completely ignores . Thus, neither Thomason or Reddick move from their posts as if they were in zone coverage, thereby allowing Dwelley to run free and wide open—-and to be honest, making the Cardinals defense look like fools. It’s now 17-16 SF.

Now for some good news:

Here’s where Vance Joseph dialed up a safety blitz with Budda Baker that forced a hurried pass from Garoppolo which wound up deflecting into the hands of FS Jalen Thompson. The Cardinals had the lead at this point, 26-23. It was a great call by Vance in that situation. Plus, Vance was able to maintain a single high safety over the middle in Thompson who made the pick.

After the Cardinals’ offense went 3 and out—-Kyle Shanahan and Jimmy Garoppolo were now keeping a close eye on Budda Baker in anticipation of another safety blitz. On the snap, FS Jalen Thompson is lined up in the deep middle, with SS Budda Baker in the slot to the side of the 49ers’ trips.

This time around, instead of blitzing Baker from the edge, Joseph twists Baker up the A gap to Garoppolo’s right, while ILB Jordan Hicks draws the center into the other A gap, leaving a clear path to the QB for Baker.

The problem is—-first, that both DEs Chandler Jones and Terrell Suggs are dropped into coverage. Jones sees RB Jeff Wilson coming right in his direction—-and initially it looks like Jones thinks Wilson is coming to block him, so Jones oddly slides a step or two toward the sideline, thus giving Wilson a clear path to the middle on his circle route.

On the other side, the side of the trips, Suggs does a good job jamming TE Ross Dwelley to allow FS Jalen Thompson time to switch over to Dwelley in man coverage (who was originally Budda Baker’s man)—-but the problem with that is that it left no safety help in the middle and thus allowed Wilson a clear path to the end zone for the game winning TD.

In retrospect, there are three big ifs to consider: (1) if only Baker would have been taller, it would have made it harder for Garoppolo to throw the pass; (2) if Joseph could have had a cover linebacker to the side of the trips instead of Suggs, he could have switched the cover LB to Dwelley and thus could have kept Jalen Thompson in the middle; (3) and the biggest if of all—-if Chandler Jones would have just held his ground and put a thumping on Wilson (which is well wishing his rights within 5 yards of the l.o.s.), then he could have taken the romance out of the circle pass.

Give Kyle Shanahan credit for having the perfect counter to the play—-from a RB he hadn’t played all game—-and on a circle route where normally you would keep the RB in to protect the QB.

Being a defensive coordinator in the NFC West is a daunting challenge in playing 6 chess matches a year versus Jimmy Garoppolo (Kyle Shanahan), Russell Wilson (Brian Schottenheimer) and Jared Goff (Sean McVay).

Thus far for Vance Jospeh his results in the NFC West games vs. NFC West QBs are:

  • Seahawks 27-10 W (at ARI): Wilson—-22/28, 240 yds., 1 TD 0 int., 4 sacks for 15 yards
  • 49ers: 28-25 W (at ARI): Garoppolo—-28/37, 317 yds. 4 TDs, 0 int., 1 sack for 7 yards
  • 49ers: 36-26 W (as SF): Garoppolo—-34/45, 424 yds., 4 Tds, 2 ints., 2 sacks for 16 yards.
  • Totals: 84/110 (76.3%) for 1,081 yards, 9 TDs, 2 ints., 7 sacks for 38 yards.

The 76.3% pass completion total and 9 passing TDs in 3 games are alarming. TEs have 4 of those TDs (Will Dissly—-1, George Kittle—-1, Ross Dwelley—-2).

Kudos this past week to Joseph’s defense for creating their first 2 turnovers in 3 NFC West games. So, that’s a start. It was great t see Joseph,the defensive coaches and players so fired up on the sidelines after the interceptions. More of that please!

Vance Jospeh and the defense have 3 NFC West games remaining. Let’s see if they can make progress versus the Rams (@ ARI and @ LA) and Seahawks (@ SEA).

That’s the key—-with half the NFC West games remaining, there needs to be signs of tangible progress, because Vance Jospeh and his coaches need to show they can match wits with Schottenheimer and McVay.

However, versus Shanahan and his 49ers offense this year, the results were disappointing, which stings because it is fair to say that Kliff Kingsbury won both of his matches versus Robert Saleh and his top ranked defense.