Here is my column previewing the 49ers-Cardinals game.
One, the 49ers have to blitz. Two, Bruce Ellington has to carry the ball. Otherwise, the 49ers could lose to the Cardinals.
Ideally, 49ers’ defensive coordinator Vic Fangio wouldn’t have to blitz. Blitzing comes with risk, involves rushing a fifth or sixth defender. Better to rush with four and cover with the remaining seven.
Fangio doesn’t have that option. Without Aldon Smith, the 49ers have one of the worst four-man pass rushes in the league. Corey Lemonier, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks generate no pressure on most pass plays.
If Fangio gives the Cardinals’ quarterback time in the pocket, even if the quarterback is Drew Stanton, the backup, he will beat the 49ers. Stanton is good, a product of Michigan State, a quarterback factory. Three former Michigan State quarterbacks won last week – Stanton, Kirk Cousins and Brian Hoyer.
Stanton has a strong, accurate arm and good receivers. You know them – Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, a healthier and better pair than Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the gimps who dominated the 49ers last week. If the 49ers couldn’t cover them, how can they cover Fitzgerald and Floyd?
Fangio has to choose what blitz to call. He can blitz one guy – Jimmie Ward or Patrick Willis or Antoine Bethea, etc., and play “Man-Free” pass coverage – man-to-man single coverage by the cornerbacks and linebackers. That’s a good idea, but the 49ers cornerbacks – Perrish Cox and Chris Cullver – may not be good enough to cover Fitzgerald or Floyd one on one.
There’s a better option – a “Fire Zone” blitz, a blitz that involves zone pass coverage. In a Fire Zone, two linebackers blitz and one defensive lineman drops into zone coverage.
Fire Zones often involve overloading one side of the opponent’s offensive line with three rushers against two offensive linemen, the left tackle and the left guard, for example. Difficult for the opposing offensive line to cope with. Fire Zones force the quarterback to throw the ball sooner than he wants.
If you see a 49ers defensive linemen backpedaling from the line of scrimmage this Sunday, you’ll know it’s a Fire Zone blitz and you’ll know Fangio is calling a smart game.
How can offensive coordinator Greg Roman call a smart game, too?
By running the ball outside. By finding a speed complement to the 49ers’ inside running game.
Frank Gore rushed 13 times for 14 yards in Arizona last season. Every time he ran, he followed a fullback into a hole. Slow, predictable runs. To stop Gore, the Cardinals simply followed the fullback. If the fullback always leads the defense to the football, it’s easy for the defense to crush the run.
Roman must break that tendency. Here’s how.
Line up Bruce Ellington in the slot. Send him in motion from one side of the formation to the other before the snap. As Ellington picks up speed and approaches the backfield, fake an inside handoff to Gore. Then hand the ball to Ellington. The defense will gravitate toward Gore, allowing Ellington to pop a big-gainer around the edge – a “Jet Sweep.”
Last week against the Bears, Roman tried to make Colin Kaepernick the 49ers’ outside running threat. Kaepernick fumbled and hurt his back. Kaepernick will take too much punishment if he’s the 49ers’ main outside runner on Sunday. Ellington has to be that guy. He can add speed and deception to the 49ers’ offense and the threat of his outside runs can create bigger holes up the middle for Gore.
Roman didn’t give the ball to Ellington once against the Bears. Faked it to him twice. That’s it.
And Fangio called just one blitz. Jay Cutler turns the ball over when he faces a heavy pass rush and Fangio made no attempt to create one. He let the guy off easy.
It’s almost like Fangio and Roman thought the 49ers could beat the Bears without showing anything. No blitzes. No fancy runs. No imagination. No guts. Run on third-and-long in the red zone. Kick field goals. Save the clever stuff for the Cardinals, the undefeated division opponent.
Didn’t work. The Niners got outcoached by the Bears and lost a game they should have won.
Fangio and Roman probably won’t call the basic stuff two weeks in a row. This is the week to show creativity, to show something. Fangio and Roman know that. That’s why I’m picking the 49ers to win.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at email@example.com.