The San Francisco 49ers will try to prevent their 2021 season from spiraling out of control when they seek to stop a two-game losing streak this Sunday in Glendale against the Arizona Cardinals, and they will be doing so with Trey Lance making the start at quarterback.
Here are five questions to keep an eye on.
1. How will Trey Lance handle his first NFL start?
The rookie quarterback will be making the first start of his NFL career and his first start since 10/3/2020, his lone game of the 2020 season at North Dakota State, over 365 days ago.
Lance was a bit up and down throughout the second half last week against Seattle, however this was his first prolonged appearance as a 49er and his practice reps were limited due to be the backup.
This week Lance has taken all of the starting snaps during practice and will be operating a gameplan designed to suit his strengths. As long as the 49ers offensive line finds a way to block Chandler Jones, second in the NFL with 5, Lance should be able to make enough plays through the air to give the 49ers a chance to win.
Another key for Lance will be his ability to hold onto the football. Arizona has forced the third most turnovers through the first four weeks of the season. Lance famously went a full season in college without throwing an interception.
2. Can the 49ers defense contain Kyler Murray?
Murray has made four starts against San Francisco, his lone victory coming during the 2020 season opener. In that win Murray ran 13 times for 91 yards.
For the 49ers defense to have any chance of stopping the Arizona offense it needs to find a way to force Murray to stay in the pocket and beat them with his arm. To make this happened the pass rush must be able to maintain their rush lanes. And that still might not be enough.
3. How will the San Francisco secondary hold up?
Keeping Murray in the pocket is step one, figuring out how to stop the other weapons in the passing game is step two.
Arizona has averaged the second most yards per pass attempt in the NFL this season, 8.6 yards. A big reason for this is the Cardinals have perhaps the best skill position players in the NFL, and they are able to get them all involved.
Among that group are wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Rondale Moore, Christian Kirk, tight end Maxx Williams, and running back Chase Edmonds. Each of these players has averaged between 3.8 and 5 receptions per game. That type of distribution will make it very difficult for the San Francisco linebackers and secondary to slow down the Arizona offense.
Edmonds is listed as questionable for the game with a shoulder injury. If he is not able to go that would be one less player to worry about.
4. Will the 49ers hold the Arizona offense under 30 points?
Arizona has scored 31 points or more in each of their first four games to start the season. This has been made possible by a defense which has forced nine turnovers, along with the strong play of Murray and his weapons. If the 49ers are unable to put a stop to this streak on Sunday, it’s unlikely they will be able to pull out a victory.
5. Can the 49ers take advantage of Arizona’s run defense?
The area to keep an eye on with the 49er’s offense is their ability to get the run game going. The Arizona defense has allowed 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, second worst in the NFL. San Francisco has struggled to get their ground game on track; however, they were able to push Seattle around and average 4.9 yards per attempt, their best in a game for 2021.
Perhaps this is the perfect time for the 49ers to start a quarterback that has the ability to beat teams with his legs and make those around him better. Last week against Seattle the 49ers running backs averaged 5 yards per carry with Lance on the field compared to 4.7 with Jimmy Garoppolo.
George Kittle is listed as doubtful for the game. The tight end is a big part of blocking in the run game, so it will be on Kyle Shanahan to come up with a plan to minimize the effect if Kittle is not able to go.
49ers 27 Cardinals 23
My gut feeling was to flip this score with Arizona coming out victorious. The more I looked into the numbers the more evenly matched these two teams became. For example, the lack of run defense for Arizona plays into a strength of San Francisco. This, combined with not turning the ball over should reduce Arizona’s time of possession, and keeping that offense off the field is a major positive. And finally, the Arizona defense has only been able to average 1.3 sacks per game since week one, tied for lowest in the NFL over that time.