ReFo: Cardinals @ 49ers, Week 6
The 49ers pulled out a division win against the Cardinals, using a grind it out drive to end the contest late. Which performances made the difference though?
ReFo: Cardinals @ 49ers, Week 6
At times it was tough going for the San Francisco 49ers in this game, but they got what they needed in the end; a victory that keeps them a game behind Seattle in the NFC West and now riding a three game winning streak since losing consecutive games against those Seahawks and the Colts.
This was again far from the ruthless and brutal 49ers that we have become used to seeing in recent seasons, but in the pivotal, physical fourth quarter drive we saw the willingness from the coaching staff and the players to grind out a victory and put the game beyond the Arizona Cardinals. There were signs of last year’s 49ers with better execution in the deep passing game complimenting physical (if not always clinical) work on the ground and a defensive performance that hinted at more to come there as well.
For the defeated Cardinals this was also a mixed bag with some familiar problems at quarterback and left tackle paired with another encouraging display from Andre Ellington and a defensive performance that made the 49ers work for almost every single yard they grafted out of this game. The exception was the deep shots they surrendered that came through poor defensive matchups as much as anything else. The Cardinals now slide to 3-3, tied with the Rams in the basement of the NFC West with the chance for a statement win at home to the Seahawks on Thursday that could throw the division wide open.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
Still searching for the answer at left tackle
After struggling to find a starting left tackle last season the Cardinals came into the 2013 season without an answer. After trading away Levi Brown to the Steelers, their latest experiment, former Colt Bradley Sowell, isn’t off to the best of starts. A bit-part player with new head coach Bruce Arians in Indianapolis last season Sowell has started the last two games at left tackle and has surrendered 15 pressures (1 Sk, 4 Ht, 10 Hu) in those two starts. After a relatively quiet first quarter Sowell’s bad day really kicked into gear getting beaten quickly around the edge by 49ers’ rookie linebacker Corey Lemonier for a sack in the endzone which put up two points and gave San Francisco a lead they would never surrender from that point forward. In pass protection Sowell was beaten inside, outside and via bullrush, not really showing one real weakness to work on or strength to build a foundation from, as he struggled to get to grips with Lemonier (1 Sk, 2 Hu) and Justin Smith (2 Ht, 1 Hu) in particular. Working a lot on double teams in the ground game Sowell was nothing more than solid there with his poor work in pass protection highlighting a torrid first divisional start.
Two Tigers shine in San Fran
Much was made in the off-season of the relationship between Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu in shaping the start of the latter’s pro career and they each turned in one of their better games of the season against the 49ers this week. Peterson continued his fine recent form with a third straight game with a positive grade in coverage (+2.1) surrendering only two receptions on six targets for a meager 13 yards. All of those targets came against Anquan Boldin with Peterson stepping up to match and in fact out-do Boldin’s notorious physicality in the receiving game ensuring that, even though he didn’t reach the ball, he played Boldin strongly enough that he could prevent Boldin making catches when he was beaten to the ball. For Mathieu this was a strong showing in run defense (+2.2) registering four stops and showing no qualms of getting stuck in to the 49ers’ physical ground attack. He also added a pass defense in coverage on Boldin, yielding him just one reception for 15 yards and a first down on a whip route late in the second quarter. The only blot on Mathieu’s copybook was a petulant unnecessary roughness penalty on Kendall Hunter’s six yard score that established the 49ers’ two score lead late in the fourth quarter. Cardinals’ fans will be eager to see more performances like this from their LSU pairing.
Maddening inconsistency from Palmer
After his fine start to the season in St Louis it was assumed that Carson Palmer was going to settle the Cardinals’ quarterback situation that had been so turbulent in the hands of the likes of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley and the oft-injured Kevin Kolb. Since then things have not gone so smoothly and his start to this game was eerily reminiscent of some of the darkest days from the last couple of seasons. On his early passes he seemed more determined to give the ball to 49ers defenders than his own receivers. He succeeded in finding Eric Reid on the second drive, before Tarell Brown turned down his invitation on a slant, he then threw the ball to Carlos Rogers on the very next play with Rogers similarly in position to claim the pass on the post route through the entire duration of the play. Bright spots would follow, most notably his two touchdown throws, the first of which took advantage of San Francisco’s eagerness to jump short routes and the second a well placed throw to a corner route. He would also missed opportunities though, notably on a pair of overthrown crossing routes late in the third quarter. The good news is that Palmer is mixing the good with the bad but his start to this game was as bad as any we saw from Arizona’s tumultuous recent past at quarterback.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Grinding out the hard yards
Little more than a year ago we saw the 49ers show off their ground game at its clinical, brutal best against the Buffalo Bills. This was before the arrival of Colin Kaepernick and the read option, this was the 49ers’ power running game taking apart a Buffalo Bills’ defensive front laden with high draft picks. This year’s 49ers have failed to re-discover that kind of form but led by Frank Gore in this game the 49ers put in the hard work to get similar, if not as spectacular results. Gore only just topped 100 yards but ran hard all game long especially in the second half, racking up 3.4 yards per carry after first contact as the 49ers went to ground to put this game away. The 49ers haven’t displayed the variety of running they showed early last season before the read option was brought in during the second half, but they got good mileage out of their power plays drawing the backside guard around the tackles with Joe Staley (+2.6) and Anthony Davis (+4.1) doing good work to seal the edge. Inside the 49ers struggled to impose quite the same control, but still got some key gains with Mike Iupati laying some good blocks on short yardage. He fired into first contact on double teams to either drive defensive linemen back or just turn their shoulder off the line sufficiently to open a crease for the runners. The 49ers ground game is not at its fluent, pre-option bestm but both blockers and runners showed in this game the effort and willingness to re-find that form.
Backing up a primetime performance
It was a rookie who really kick-started things for the 49ers in this game after a sluggish first 20 minutes to the game, which saw them behind on the strength of a solitary blown play in their secondary. Third round pick Corey Lemonier registered his first career sack and put up points on the back of it, taking Palmer down in the endzone have quickly disposed of Bradley Sowell. Having racked up a hit and three hurries against the Texans on last week’s Sunday Night Football, Lemonier made it two straight games with four pressures snagging three hurries (two against Sowell, one against Eric Winston) and another that was nullified by a penalty after the sack and safety that sparked the 49ers into life. Lemonier also batted a pass late in the second quarter that started the ball rolling on a 15-second three-and-out for the Cardinals. In the absence of Aldon Smith the 49ers have been able to maximize Lemonier’s impact getting him on the field in obvious passing situations to simply let him attack. In the last two games Lemonier has played 80 snaps and rushed the passer on 54 of them (67.5%); excellent impact from Lemonier and excellent snap management by Vic Fangio and the 49ers’ defensive staff.
Re-igniting the deep ball
Notably absent from the 49ers’ offensive arsenal this season has been a productive and efficient deep passing game. Along with the paucity of the read option (and crucially the loss of Michael Crabtree) this has been one of the biggest reasons for such a slow start to the season for the 49ers this season. A year ago Colin Kaepernick went 25-of-49 for 779 yards and five touchdowns on deep balls, prior to this game he was 5-of-20 for 193 yards and two touchdowns. Helped in no small part by the Cardinals’ dubious decision to cover Vernon Davis with Yeremiah Bell, this ailing aspect of the 49ers’ offense re-emerged in this game, crucially so providing the largest part of the 49ers’ offense until their grinding fourth quarter drive. In this one game alone Kaepernick went 3-of-4 for 124 yards and two scores showing the sort of touch and timing on the deep ball to find the favorable matchups that was so common last season. With Crabtree still absent and such favorable matchups as Davis was presented with unlikely to show themselves every week this may not be a renaissance for the 49ers’ deep passing game, but a performance like this could breed confidence and will at least put into the minds of opposing defensive coordinators that they cannot go to sleep on Kaepernick’s deep passing threat.
– Snagging five pressures (2 Ht, 3 Hu) Justin Smith turned in his highest graded pass rush performance (+3.3) since Week 11 of last season.
– In spite of seeing his lowest snap total of the season (13) Jasper Brinkley registered another two stops against the run and leads all inside linebackers with a run stop percentage of 21.3% having registered 16 stops on 75 run defense snaps this season.
– Counter-balancing Lemonier’s pass rush heavy deployment, Dan Skuta has spent 36 of his 65 snaps (55.4%) in the last two games defending the run.
PFF Game Ball
After Lemonier sparked the 49ers into life it was Vernon Davis that fuelled the 49ers’ offense in the first half to give them a lead that the ground game secured and extended with a grueling fourth quarter drive.
Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.