How 49ers can beat Cardinals

Here is my column previewing the 49ers-Cardinals game.

Two things.

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

This article has 53 Comments

  1. With your connections to Jed York you should suggest that the missing piece of his organization is a coordinator coordinator to coordinate his coordinators. The Superbowl will be a cinch this year and next.

    1. Yes, htwaits, you are correct. Sometimes it is easier to see the trees in the forest if you are not in the midst of them. Would be intelligent for the Niners to have a “senior offensive consultant” who is not tied at the hip to the current staff and who can offer prescient commentary and concepts without concern for offending GR or JH. Also, by that suggestion, I don’t mean for Jim to bring dad back for a free weekend vacation. JH and GR need some fresh eyes and a different slant on offensive personnel and ideas.

      1. htwaits – Sometimes, as the great Sid Gillman once said, you have to have a coach to coach the coaches who then coach the players!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. I think you misinterpreted the comments from Grant about the Bear receivers. They were are one leg and the Cardinal receivers, collectively, should be better than the “limping Bears.” Fangio has to help Ward more than just saying he will do better with experience. You cannot take a 5-10 corner and grow him to 6-1 on game day to defend a 6-3 or a 6-4 WR. You can coach a lot of things, but you cannot coach height.

      1. Exactly. The Bears’ wide outs are gimpy. The Cardinals’ wide outs pose a greater challenge this week than the Bears’ wide outs posed last week.

        1. Grant

          It was a poorly constructed paragraph. If you can edit it, you probably should. The claim that Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd compare favorably to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery is simply not credible, perhaps even given the gimpy legs. We all saw that it was the sheer size of Marshall and Jeffery, gimp or not, that confounded the Niners. Fitz and Floyd are not as big.

          1. Ward gave up 3 catches for TDs from the slot in 1-on-1 matchups. He probably shouldn’t have been left alone against a big WR as good as Marshall, and he will get better as the season goes on.

            Aside from that the Bears WRs didn’t give the 49ers DBs much trouble at all.

        2. “Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, a healthier and better pair than Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, the gimps who dominated the 49ers last week.”

          By saying “healthier and better” the inference in the statement is that both points are independently true, that they are both healthier and better players. If it was “healthier, and as such better” the obvious meaning becomes that the reason they are better is their health.

          Anyway, regardless of the wording, you mean the latter. I’m not sure I agree though. Fitzgerald hasn’t done much this year yet, and hasn’t been as dominant a player under Arians as he used to be. Floyd came up big in the opener with some big plays, but was held in check by the Giants and the 49ers have been pretty good so far limiting the big plays. And Drew Stanton is no Palmer or Cutler.

          1. Yeah that’s how I read it as well. Regardless saying Stanton is “good” is just as silly as when he called Lance Dunbar “good” in week 1. Stanton’s stats last week 14-29 167 yards and he took 4 sacks against a Giants defense that got torn up by Stafford and the Lions the week prior. He has a career passer rating of 63.5. Let’s call a spade a spade here, I don’t even think you can call Stanton a good back up.

        3. Bruce Ellington running the ball key to Niners victory?

          I have never laughed so hard. Thanks for the Saturday morning humor kid.

  2. What is the story on Tank? Has he learned his assignments yet? I think lynch may overtake lemonier on the depth chart, but lynch needs to work on his fumble recovery skills. Just fall on the ball – dont try to pick up and run.

  3. Defensively the Cardinals will load the box and play a three deep zone out of it. I expect to see a lot of variations of Cover 3, while rolling the corner up in a cloud cover. Occasionally they’ll bring the Safety down and roll their coverage, with Bowen instructing his defenders to keep their eyes on Kaepernick at all times. If I were Roman, I’d come out in 4 wide receiver sets, and attack with 4 verticals, the seams and the flat where the back chips, and then comes open….

    1. The problem with vertical routes and SF is two fold. First, the line has to give Kaepernick enough time to actually make the throw. Which leads to the second problem. Kaepernick has to make the throw. He doesn’t do well with anticipation throws. He wants a receiver open before he’ll throw. (see Coswell assessment).

  4. The 49ers weren’t outcoached against the Bears.

    If Kaepernick doesn’t turn the ball over 4 times and the team doesn’t commit 16 penalties they win.

    1. True
      But they were in the second half, and that’s because they weren’t as aggressive with that lead.

      1. Were Roman/Harbaugh not being aggressive when they called a throw for Kaepernick on first down up 20-14?

        1. Depends on the route and play called. A throw isn’t an aggressive pass call just because they chose to throw.

        2. Are you saying they werent as aggressive in the second half? 20-14 is a whole lot different than 20-0. Why wasnt Ward switched after two burnt touchdowns? Why run the ball three times in the redzone with a lead? why run the ball more in the second half with a lead? They played as if it was over. You know it. And I know it. He refuses to put the foot on the throat.

          1. In the second half the best drive they had featured more runs than passes, but overall they threw more than they ran.

            The 3 runs in the red zone on the drive to go up 20-7 wasn’t a bad call. They had dominated to that point, and bleeding the clock made sense.

            The defense couldn’t stop causing penalties, and after the Bears narrowed it to 20-14 Kaepernick lost his composure.

            First down, pick returned inside the 10. Next possession pick. Ball game.

            The loss wasn’t about not being aggressive. It was about the players not getting it done.

    2. Absolutely.

      And gimpy or not, the only problem the Bears vaunted WRs gave the 49ers were from the slot in the red zone – 1-on-1 matchups that used a size advantage. Clean that up, and the Bears WRs would have done nothing all day. They gave up 176 yards through the air in total (excl. penalties). That’s it. They fared pretty well the week before against another good receiving group too.

    3. Had their sole sin been committing the 16 penalties they would have still won. They could have committed 16 penalties and 2 turnovers and probably still have won.

    4. If the refs don’t call the ghost holding call on Boldin it’s game over. The final two ints never happen.

    5. Leaving Ward in to guard Marshal after knowing they were targeting him stinks of arrogance.


  5. 1. We need a couple os wr’s who can get deep and catch the ball.
    2. We need an offense whose main objective is to
    score as mant points as possible, not run out the clock as our current offense-and for the last 3 years!
    3. To accomplish the above Baake needs to have scouts that can zero in on skill set offensive players. The other piece is Harbough has to change is attitude from worrying about losing to really going for it!!

  6. The San Francisco 49 Turtles have NO chance to win the Super Bowl this year if Greg Roman is not replaced mid season a la Cam Cameron.

    Roman doesn’t know how to utilize the speed component or the passing component to offense.

    Get Ellington into the gameplan immediately. Replace Brandon Lloyd with L’Damian Washington. It’s not that hard.

    1. Do you want to replace someone who didn’t play against the Bears with someone who isn’t on the 49er roster. If that will get us a Superbowl win this season I say go for it.

      All this GM, Head Coach, Coordinator stuff is “child’s play.”

  7. Well I’m ready to get slammed on this comment but Jack is right. The niners have always been about using the clock to their advantage when they have such a large lead and not allow the other team to get back into the game. As Jack points out 4 turnovers and 16 penalties does more harm than what the other team can bring.

    1. The Cardinals beat Seattle in Seattle with four turnovers, and the Chargers beat them last week by building a two to one advantage in time of possession. Playing the game counts for more than strategy. There is no way either team would have won with 16 penalties. “We didn’t execute.” tells the story.

      We controlled the clock against the Bears, but gave them short fields and constantly killed our own chances with penalties and turnovers. What brain trust will overcome that?

            1. Jack,

              I know I’m going to open up a crapload of crap but hey why not stir the kettle pot known as

              Do you know think it’s possible that maybe Alex Smith was more suited for Harbaugh’s philosophy and maybe it was Baalke’s decision all along to make the switch?

              Not saying he is a better QB, just that he didn’t turn the ball over, took the check down to a fault, and they controlled the tempo of the game.

              Whoah — before I get labeled Alex lover/Kaep hater, look past that and look at Harbaugh’s philosophy. He likes to play from ahead by two scores, then rely on patient ball control, milk the clock, and let the defense win game. He never piles it on intentionally.

              Under Harbaugh, Alex didn’t turn the ball over, seem to know the offense and how to call the right run play. Harbaugh knew what he had. While it may or may not have been enough to win the Super Bowl, it suited his conservative mentality. Once they had the lead, all the players had to do was execute and they win the game.

              You brought up the point that the Niners were playing for the win with the FG to go up 20-7. That’s what he did in his first year and no one on this blog, aside from the Kettle Potters complained.

              With Kaep there is a lot more unpredictability: Lots of upsides, lots of downside when he plays bad. And so far the body of work in close tight games when he has to make a QB read and play in the red zone, he’s come up empty. Like many beat writers, I would have no faith with the ball in Kaep’s hands to win the games. In that situation, there are so many other QB’s I’d rather have.

              They also changed the offense to best suit Kaep’s skills, i.e. Read/Option, Play Action, deeper routes. With Kaep we don’t see a lot of swing passes or screens, it doesn’t fit his game. Less ball control.

              Before we get into that sorry O-Line, that’s the sacrifice we made when we decided to pay Kaep as an elite QB.

              That’s why Harbaugh always looks so uptight.

              Looking back, they probably why they didn’t go with Peyton Manning when they had the chance, because he would run his offense, and not G-Roman’s power runs with 8 lineman.

              But think about it: In 2012, Peyton would have been throwing to Crabs, who is like Reggie Wayne, Moss, is the deep threat like Pierre Garcon, and Kyle Willams as his Wes Welker slot guy. I bet Manning would at least 50 catches to KW.

              No one knew if Peyton could perform at any level, sure he may still be a choker but I would take my chances with Peyton and that 2012 Defense over Alex or Kap to win the 6th trophy.

              1. Hindsight is 20/20. Most people figured Kaepernick would turn out to be a smarter quarterback as he gained more experience. Anyway I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure. Every time I see him in one of those press conferences with that sullen attitude with the giant headphones around his neck ,I think “damn, when is this guy going to get it?” Wish we had Russell Wilson instead of this clown.

          1. We are all rushing for Anthony Davis to get back into the lineup. Wonder what type of football shape he’s in….

  8. I was high on Dion Jordon coming out of college. But now hearing he is suspended again for substance abuse, I’m just disappointed. Reminds me of a TO situation. All the talent in the world and can’t get out of his own way.

  9. Off topic one more time, I don’t think Devon Hester is worthy of the Hall of Fame. He isn’t starting receiver caliber and while he is an electric returner, I don’t think it’s fair to enshrine him solely on special teams.
    Special teams are where people who aren’t as talented at their positions play. Shinning amongst the scrubs only makes you king of the scrubs. The people he is being compared to were truly the best on first team offenses and defenses. While he is a solid returner, he is the 4th receiver in ATL. He’s never had a 1000 yard season even in the pass happy bears offense.
    So, it’s irreverent to mention him in conjunction with HOF talent that actually soared above the best of the best.

  10. Fitz is no longer the wr he used to be. He’s slightly above average, at best. Floyd is the WR to fear now. With no Palmer the niners should win by double digits.

  11. Beat the Cards? It can happen. They should start with pressure up the middle against the QB, and perhaps only throw it to their own guys on offense. Seems reasonable.
    We’re all pretty sick to death with the DV stuff, but ESPN put together a decent timeline that seems to reveal who was covering what during the Ray Rice fiasco. John Harbaugh comes off a bit better in this view. The owner and the team Pres; not so much.

  12. Grant,

    So much to comment on. First off, Fitz and Floyd are not anywhere near “better” than Marshal and Jeffrey. Jeffrey did nothing. Our problem last week was repeatedly putting Ward in the slot on a guy (Marshal) who is 6 inches taller than him. All 3 TDs were exactly the same. Run, turn, throw higher than Ward can jump, TD.

    Next, to call our D line one of the “worst in the league” at pressure is just another attempt at you to make an annoying statement to rile folks up. I admit we have not pressured in the first 2 weeks nearly enough, but why do you have to exaggerate to make your point?

    Now I’m sure you just pulled out your copy of “Football for Dummies” and opened to the chapter where it describes “Fire Zone” blitzes. That’s cute. Heck, may even work once or twice. That is not the way to win. And you would also be the first person to accuse Fangio of being an idiot when one of the D linemen get scorched dropping into coverage in your newfound “Fire Zone” blitz.

    Finally, giving the ball to Ellington is not the answer here. Sure, maybe one a tricky little sweep he breaks a big one, but that is not the model to what our running game should be. Gore and Hyde will carry the ball. Funny how you think the key to victory is to hand the ball to someone who HAS NEVER TAKEN AN NFL HANDOFF.

    I hate myself for reading your articles every week, but I do. I don’t know why. Best guess is because it is like watching the Ray Rice elevator video…I’m appalled, but just can’t turn away.

  13. Why does anyone read any of this drivel? It’s like reading a high school version of Skip Bayless.

  14. What else could help that pass-rush.. taking reps away from Lemonier and giving them to Aaron Lynch, also putting Tank Carradine on the field on 3rd and obvious passing downs. Our two best young pass-rushers need to be on the field!

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