3TFO: Cardinals @ 49ers, Week 6

In a battle between two teams tied for second in the NFC West, Roland Bardon writes that the punters could actually make a big difference in the game.

| 4 years ago
2013 3TFO arz@sf wk6

3TFO: Cardinals @ 49ers, Week 6

2013 3TFO arz@sf wk6The 49ers appear to have righted the ship the last two weeks after disappointing performances against both Seattle and Indianapolis. After disposing of the Rams in short order, they returned home for what looked like a tough matchup with the Texans. However, Matt Schaub’s troubles continued for the Texans against a stout 49er defense, and they ultimately cruised to a 34-3 victory, leaving San Francisco tied with Arizona (and a game behind the Seahawks) in the West.

The Cardinals won their second straight game themselves in much less decisive fashion, again thanks to an opportunistic defense that was able to overcome a mistake-prone offense. They needed all of their seven sacks, three interceptions, one fumble recovery, and some timely drops by Panther receivers to hold off Carolina at home. That was the same storyline as the previous week’s last minute win in Tampa, but that won’t work against the powerful 49ers on Sunday.

Carson Palmer vs. 49ers Cornerbacks

When the Cardinals traded for Carson Palmer last spring, they had hoped to finally put an end to the revolving door at their quarterback position. As we enter the second month of the season, however, instead of getting more comfortable in the offense, Palmer seems to only be getting worse. Even though it’s his first season with Bruce Arians, it is striking how often he seems to be on a different page from his receivers, despite having worked with them all offseason. It’s not like his receivers have been letting him down; Arizona receivers have been targeted 111 times, but only 67 have been catchable. Of those, they have only dropped two, which is tied for fewest among all receiving corps.

If the Cardinals are to stay competitive with the 49ers, they are going to have to establish some semblance of a running game, which they did in the second half against Carolina. Palmer uses play action on only 15.0% of his pass attempts, a reflection of an inconsistent running game no doubt. He has the fifth-highest difference in completion percentage using play action (66.7% with play action, just 57.5% without), so it is obviously an effective tool for Palmer when Arizona can run the ball.

Niner cornerback Tarell Brown has quietly emerged as one of the better cover corners in the league over the last couple of years, grading out at +16.3 in pass coverage in 2012. After slow start to this season, he has excelled in the last two weeks, grading in at +5.7 overall, with a very good 13.9 Cover Snaps Per Reception (13th overall in the league). Carlos Rogers, who has played both in the slot and outside with Chris Culliver and Nnamdi Asomugha out, is actually third overall with a CSPR of 17.7. Nickel back Tramaine Brock had two interceptions last week against Houston, including one where he came off his man to undercut a short out from Andre Johnson, taking it back for a touchdown. If they can bait Palmer into some early mistakes as they did Schaub, they could quickly put the game out for reach for the Cardinals.

Frank Gore vs. Cardinals Front Seven

This matchup will definitely be strength against strength for the Niners and Cardinals. Five weeks in, the San Francisco passing game has been generally ineffective. After bursting onto the scene in 2012, Colin Kaepernick has been struggling in his second year as a starter (-8.7) and the continued absence of leading receiver Michael Crabtree hasn’t helped. As a result, the Niners’ offense has been especially reliant on Frank Gore, ranking 31st overall in passing yards, but sixth in rushing. He has 376 yards on 78 carries, including a solid 163 yards after contact, and has forced 11 missed tackles. The Niners’ offensive line has not been as sturdy run blocking (just +2.3 combined among the starters) as it was last year, so Gore has been doing most of the heavy lifting in 2013. Expect that to continue this Sunday, as the Niners will try to get Gore going early, and let their defense do the rest.

After defensive coordinator Todd Bowles took over for Ray Horton, and with the departure of veterans like safeties Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes, there was a lot of concern that last year’s defensive success could not be replicated. While the lack of help from the offense hasn’t changed much, Bowles has managed to continue the success of last year’s unit. Rushing defense was actually the weak spot for the Cardinals last year, finishing 25th at -20.5. This year has been much improved, as our seventh-ranked run defense, grading out at +13.1. Perhaps Bowles’ best asset so far has been his halftime adjustments, as the Arizona defense has pitched second-half shutouts in three of its last four games.

Punters are People Too

Anytime you have a game where the defenses are stronger than the offenses, it’s often the “Third Phase”, as we like to call it here at PFF, which makes the difference. Cardinals’ punter Dave Zastudil (+7.8) has been having another great year, and continues to be an equalizing force for an offense that struggles to move the ball and change field position. Zastudil leads the league with 17 punts downed inside the 20 (and just two touchbacks), and has formed a dynamic duo with gunner and special teamer extraordinaire Justin Bethel. Bethel (+8.0) continues to make plays every week on special teams; check out Neil Hornsby’s breakdown of Bethel’s day against Carolina.

49ers’ punter Andy Lee has been one of the best in the NFL for what seems like forever, although he is having a slightly off year, at least by his standards. He has just seven punts inside the 20, with three touchbacks. His return percentage is high at 55.6%, which means his punt coverage isn’t necessarily getting down the field as fast as they should be. This increases the chance of a big return, although he has maintained a solid net-punting-average of 42.4 yards. So far, the 49ers’ top special teams coverage man has been backup safety Craig Dahl, who has a +2.0 in punt coverage.

Follow Roland on Twitter: @PFF_RolandB

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