To win NFC West, 49ers will have to handle Fitzgerald . . . again

After closely following the NFL playoffs, including the Cardinals’ narrow loss Sunday to the Steelers in the Super Bowl, I was left wondering how they did it.

I mean, come on. Look at the incredible production Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald had against four very good teams – each of which was determined to stop him:

 

Vs. Falcons: 6 catches, 101 yards, 1 touchdown (long of 42)

At Panthers: 8-166-1 (41)

Vs. Eagles: 9-152-3 (62)

Vs. Steelers: 7-127-2 (64)

 

In four playoff games, Fitzgerald averaged 7.5 receptions for 136.5 yards and 1.75 touchdowns. So how the heck did they do it?

 

Fitzgerald and Kurt Warner? No, I know how they did it. Fitzgerald is the best all-around receiver in the game today, and Warner can still throw it as well as any QB in the league.

 

This is what I want to know: How did the 49ers manage to contain that duo during their two regular-season meetings?

 

In two games against the 49ers in 2008, Fitzgerald had just 77 yards receiving. Sure, he caught two touchdowns on short passes, but how could you possibly expect do any better than what the 49ers did against Fitzgerald?

 

Niners secondary coach Johnnie Lynn said the 49ers played Fitzgerald different than other teams because the Cardinals are a division opponent. Therefore, they could not afford to ever become predictable.

 

“We play him twice a year,” Lynn said. “If you play zone the entire game, they’ll kill you, so you have to change it up. We match up pretty well, and the people we have guarding him did a good job.”

 

Lynn said there was not one person responsible for covering Fitzgerald. My recollection and most of the notes I took from those games suggested that Nate Clements had a lot of the responsibilities. But Lynn said Walt Harris probably covered him more than Clements.

 

The 49ers have two physical corners who can disrupt receivers’ routes off the line of scrimmage and throw off the timing with the quarterback when they’re in press coverage.

 

“We try to be discipline,” Lynn said. “From an offensive standpoint, every play has the potential to go all the way. Defensively, there is a strength to everything you call. But you also have to know where the weakness is.”

 

Fitzgerald scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter in the Super Bowl when he beat Steelers corner Ike Taylor to the inside on a slant. Then, he split the two-deep safeties down the middle of the field.

 

“They allowed him to get inside and run,” Lynn said. “We’ll try to re-route them and make things difficult. And another thing with (Anquan) Boldin and Fitzgerald, you have to tackle them. We have good tacklers in our secondary.”

 

Lynn said a lot of responsibility is placed on the 49ers’ safeties to make adjustments based on the defense called and the formation the offense shows at the line of scrimmage. He gave a lot of credit to free safety Mark Roman for making the proper adjustments.

 

“We can make it harder for them to get some passes, but you just can’t stop some things,” Lynn said. “A year ago they called a ‘Hail Mary’ before the half, and Fitzgerald out-jumped everybody and came down with it. There are other plays when it comes down to making a one-on-one play, and he’s going to be difficult to defend on those plays.”

 

They did not allow him to burn them with the big play.

 

In that midseason Monday night game in Arizona, Fitzgerald had eight receptions – but he gained just 46 yards on those catches. His receptions went for 4, 5, 9, 5, 4, 5, 6 and 8 yards. Of his eight catches, only one resulted in a first down and one was a touchdown. Three Warner passes intended for him fell incomplete, including a failed two-point conversion.

 

Depending on what happens with Warner this offseason, the Cardinals are likely to open next season as the favorite to win the NFC West, and a leading contender to return to the Super Bowl. Their biggest strength will, again, be Fitzgerald.

 

What the 49ers did in 2008 against Fitzgerald will have little significance. They will have to do it all over again to give them a strong chance of knocking off the defending NFC champs.

 

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