Most of the criticism levied at the San Francisco 49ers (3-5) has focused on the play of their offense. On Sunday, it was the defense that couldn’t get it done.
Sure, the offense had a couple of fumbles from George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk that played a role in the loss, but the defense allowed 437 yards and 31 points to an Arizona team playing without its starting quarterback, two starting wide receivers, and lost a starting running back and offensive lineman early in the first quarter.
Let’s look back at some of the key defensive plays from Sunday’s game.
First Quarter, 3rd and 18, Arizona 12
This is a bad missed tackle by Al-Shaair, but where is Moseley going on this? pic.twitter.com/SIJonpKRN8— Jack Hammer (@JackHammer_NFL) November 9, 2021
Third and long situations have been the Achilles heel of the 49ers defense, and this was no different. With his wide receivers covered Colt McCoy dumps the ball underneath to running back James Conner, and that’s when the adventure begins.
San Francisco linebacker Azeez Al-Shaair has the opportunity to bring Conner down one on one for a short gain, however, Al-Shaair bites on a little stutter step and whiffs on the tackle.
While that’s bad, check out cornerback Emmanuel Moseley on this play. San Francisco is playing zone, and Moseley blows his responsibility by following the wide receiver across the field and not seeing what is happening in front of him. By the time he realizes where the ball is, Moseley is in the middle of the field. This allows Conner to pick up 16-yards after the miss by Al-Shaair before Moseley can get over to push him out of bounds.
More on Moseley later.
Second Quarter, 2nd and 9, Arizona 9
Two plays after Brandon Aiyuk fumbles deep in the Arizona red zone, the 49ers defense has Arizona in second and long until Colt McCoy hits Christian Kirk on a deep through route, beating Talanoa Hufanga for a gain of 50 yards.
In this play, San Francisco is playing two deep safeties and once the receiver goes in motion Hufanga’s attention needs to go to the #3 receiver, a third receiver from the sidelines, to watch for anything over the middle.
Hufanga sees the route and plays it correctly, the only problem is that Hufanga doesn’t have the speed to keep up with NFL receivers in open space like this and Kirk runs right past him like he’s standing still.
The 49ers rookie has the potential to be a solid box safety, but that puts limits on the secondary and Arizona did a good job of forcing him into a weak spot in his game.
Third Quarter, 2nd and 8, San Francisco 45
Arizona opened the second half with the ball and wasted little time getting into the endzone. On the third play of the drive, the 49ers would send Talanoa Hufanga on a blitz from the left side of the Cardinals offense. Unfortunately for San Francisco, Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury called the perfect play to beat the blitz, a screen to Conner on the opposite side. Once Conner made the reception, he was able to weave his way through the 49ers’ defense for a 45-yard touchdown.
The key here, other than the play call, is the poor pursuit angles taken by both 49ers’ safeties. Hufanga’s is too flat so he’s not in a position to make the tackle when Conner cuts inside. Hufanga’s fellow safety, Tavon Wilson takes a poor pursuit angle as well, overrunning Conner and allowing himself to be blocked by an Arizona offensive lineman.
Third Quarter, 1st and 10, Arizona 29
Arik Armstead gets washed down. The linebackers barely move before being blocked. Talanoa Hufanga is running around like his hair is on fire. James Connor runs right through the heart of the #49ers defense for 35 yards. pic.twitter.com/eMpV6A8T5w— Jack Hammer (@JackHammer_NFL) November 9, 2021
On the first play of the ensuing Cardinals possession, the 49ers’ defense allows another explosive play from Conner.
Arizona runs a simple zone read, a play the 49ers defense has seen hundreds of times in practice. Defensive tackle Arik Armstead gets washed down the line of scrimmage to open the hole. Linebackers Fred Warner and Azeez Al-Shaair barely move before being blocked, and Talanoa Hufanga is running around like Will Ferrell in that scene from Talladega Nights when he thinks he’s on fire.
Conner runs straight through the heart of the 49ers’ defense for a gain of 35, and Arizona would put the game away with a few plays later.
Earlier I said we would get back to Emmanuel Moseley.
It wasn’t just the interior of the 49ers’ defense that couldn’t make a play on Sunday. There were two touchdown runs that fall squarely on the shoulders of their cornerbacks.
On the first play it is Moseley’s job to fill the gap and make the tackle or force the running back inside to the rest of the defense. Moseley does neither, stopping his feet and then diving unsuccessfully at Conner who goes in for the first Arizona touchdown of the day.
The second play in this clip is the Cardinals’ final touchdown. On this one, Dre Kirkpatrick is responsible for filling the hole. The veteran corner steps into position but stops his feet and is run over by Arizona running back Eno Benjamin for a 21-yard touchdown.
The performance from the 49ers defense on Sunday was as bad as any I have ever seen from this organization. They looked outcoached, undisciplined, and sloppy throughout. If this continues San Francisco is in for a long ride the rest of the way through this season.