This is my Saturday column.
Forget the 49ers’ blowout loss to the Steelers last week. That has no bearing on this week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals.
I expect the Niners will hold their own against the Cardinals, a team that’s better than the Steelers. Arizona is flat-out elite — good offense, good defense, good coaching staff. This team has won 15 of their past 17 games with Carson Palmer at quarterback, and they scored 48 points last week on the road against the Bears.
Palmer still hasn’t gotten sacked this season. I expect that to change on Sunday. I expect the Niners will rough him up. I’m talking seven, eight hits. Big ones. And a few will be sacks. Each hit –—even the ones that aren’t sacks — will take its toll.
Palmer gets injured frequently and easily, and he’s 35. Breathe on him, and he goes down. Or he throws the ball to other team. I expect Palmer will throw a few balls to the 49ers on Sunday.
And I expect he’ll get outplayed by Colin Kaepernick, who always plays well against the Cardinals. In five games against them, his passer rating is 106.2.
I expect this will be a close game. But I expect the 49ers will lose.
Reason No. 1.
The Cardinals will shut down Carlos Hyde, like the Steelers did last week. Pittsburgh held him to 43 yards on 13 carries — 3.3 yards per carry.
Even though Hyde is a big, powerful running back, his best runs occur outside the tackles. That’s where he gained 114 of his 168 rushing yards against the Vikings Week 1.
Why could he run successfully around the outside Week 1 but not Week 2?
Because Week 1, he faced a 4-3 defense, and Week 2 he faced a 3-4 defense.
A 4-3 defense has four down linemen and three linebackers grouped together in the middle of the field, ready to stuff runs up the middle. But the linebackers are vulnerable against runs outside the tackles. Once the offense blocks the defensive end, the only other defender the offense has to worry about is a cornerback. In game 1 against the Vikings, the 49ers were able to outflank Minnesota’s defense.
A 3-4 defense has three down lineman and four linebackers. The two outside linebackers line up on the line of scrimmage next to the defensive ends. So, when a back tries to run outside the tackles, the offense has to block a defensive end AND an outside linebacker, which is difficult. It is hard to outflank a 3-4 defense.
“A little bit more challenging against a 3-4,” Joe Staley said at his locker Friday afternoon. “There are different challenges because the angles aren’t the exact same against a 4-3.”
I predict the Niners will give up on their running game early against the Cardinals.
Reason No. 2.
The 49ers’ offense is too methodical.
Opposing defenses do not fear the 49ers’ deep passing game. That’s because it doesn’t exist. Through two games, Kaepernick has thrown only four passes that traveled at least 20 yards downfield. As opposed to Palmer, who has thrown 12 passes at least 20 yards downfield.
This is not a knock on Kaepernick — he doesn’t call the plays. This is a knock on Geep Chryst, the offensive coordiator. He has done good things this season, but his offense has no quick-strike element. It’s all dinks and dunks.
When those dinks and dunks work, the 49ers string together drives of 17 or 18 plays. And they’re impressive drives, but ultimately hard to sustain. Too many bad things can happen during long drives, bad things like penalties, dropped passes and sacks.
I expect drives to break down. I expect the 49ers to go for field goals more often than they’d like. I expect Kaepernick will get sacked four or five times.
Reason No. 3.
The red-zone offense still stinks.
San Francisco has scored just three touchdowns in nine trips to the red zone this season – 33 percent. That ranks 29th in the NFL, one spot behind the Jaguars.
It gets worse.
Through two games, the Niners have run a whopping 45 plays inside the opponent’s 25-yard line, and scored just three touchdowns and two field goals. They’re stuck in neutral.
Red-zone play design has been a 49ers weakness since Mike Singletary was the head coach. Whoever runs the Niners’ offense seems to have no clue how to score in the red zone. You almost never see the 49ers call passes for tight ends, the biggest and best red-zone targets on the field. No, the Niners run the ball, throw quick, three-yard passes to wide receivers and then kick field goals.
I expect the Niners will score mostly field goals against the Cardinals.
Of course, I could be wrong. I don’t expect to be wrong, but I was wrong Week 1 when I picked the 49ers to lose to the Vikings. I hope I’m wrong again.
Stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.