Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer breaks down this much anticipated Monday night match-up against the Arizona Cardinals. Get some pointers in this latest installment of Points of the Game.**
This off-season, what the 49ers coaching staff has been doing is going over and breaking down tapes from the Pittsburgh Steelers tapes. Ken Whisenhunt is their head coach, but he is also the one who installed the offense. They have an offensive coordinator, but it's still Whisenhunt's offense. Whisenhunt has always been the guy to do the passing game, while Russ Grimm has been doing the running game. So they will just look at those Steelers' schemes, with both of those guys being together in Pittsburgh for the last 5 or 6 years.
The first game is always tougher to game plan anyhow since teams make changes in personnel every off-season, which is one of the reasons why teams try not to tip their hand in the preseason.
The 49ers players in the past used to talk about how one of the worst match-ups for them was playing against the Arizona Cardinals and their offensive line. Now you are talking about 3 out of the 5 starters on that Cardinals front line being different. The offensive line before was just massive. Now it's probably more nimble than it was. So I don't think there will be such a huge size advantage for the Cardinals. Plus, having Aubrayo Franklin in the middle increases our size and having Isaac Sopoaga having improved dramatically this year will help. Having a quality rookie like Ray McDonald able to get into the rotation with Marques Douglas will also help the 49ers stand up better against that offensive line. Throw in outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain hounding on that o-line, and the 49ers are much more evenly matched up against the Cardinals offensive line.
It will be interesting to see what that line does in their rushing attack. Last year it seemed as though the Cardinals were trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The offensive line just wasn't capable of running that stretch play, which is the bread and butter play for Edgerrin James all those years back in Indianapolis. They tried to run it last year, but just didn't have the personnel. I am not sure what their personnel strengths are just yet, but I am assuming that this will be a more athletic offensive line. If that is the case, James will want to run more of the stretch plays in order to get the 49ers defense moving sideline to sideline. A guy like James has great vision and the ability to cut back.
Another difference could be what they do with a fullback. They'd didn't employ one very often last year, but that has always been a staple in Whisenhunt's offense. You will see more of the traditional pro set with a fullback and tailback, and so there will be some of the power running game as well. It will be the first time since high school that James has played in a two back set on a regular basis. So it will be interesting to see if he adapts to that style of power running game versus more of a stretch, hit your hole player like he was in Indianapolis.
I think Arizona will try to find an identity and go with what works for them. If they come out and run the stretch play well, they will stick with it. If they run a power blocking scheme and it's working, they will stick with that.
One of the big problems in the past has been the 49ers secondary matching up with a former rookie of the year in Anquan Boldin, and two former first-round draft picks in Larry Fitzgerald and Bryant Johnson. They would go three wide receivers in the past, and that would be a huge advantage for them. Now the 49ers have one of the most physical corners out there in Nate Clements, a Pro Bowl corner in Walt Harris, and a former starting corner who will come in as a nickel back in Shawntae Spencer. So it is a much better match-up than in the past for the 49ers. Then you get to the safety position and you have a former Pro Bowler in Michael Lewis who has faced big time receivers his whole career in the NFC East. He is a posing threat for any receiver going across the middle. Now the Cardinals receivers are going to have to think twice about going over the middle against us. So it should definitely be a more favorable match-up for the 49ers now.
Whisenhunt has been a guy who always liked running gadget plays, using them even in big games like the Super Bowl and AFC Championships. That's just who he is. So the 49ers have to expect at least one of those, especially with a former college quarterback in Boldin. It can make things difficult, because as a defense you have to spend an inordinate amount of time on things they might not even use. So that is a good strategy for an offensive coordinator, to throw in a gadget play every 2 or 3 weeks to keep teams honest. I expect the 49ers will look at films from the past three years to see what kind of gadget plays Whisenhunt has run in the past.
Our previous defensive coordinator is now with Arizona. It can be an advantage and it can also hurt guys depending on what they do with the information. Billy Davis obviously knows most of our personnel. A little bit of an advantage for the 49ers will be that there are 5 new starters on defense this year that he doesn't know about. But he does know the strengths and weaknesses of players like Marques Douglas, Walt Harris, and Mark Roman. The problem with that is if he goes to Matt Leinart and says, "Manny Lawson, former DE, is very good in man coverage, but in zone coverage doesn't quite have the awareness of a veteran guy. Let's pick on him." That could take Leinart out of his progressions on his reads or have him thinking there is something there that really isn't. It could help a little bit in terms of film study, maybe one play in the game it might help. Sometimes that stuff is overrated.
Defensively, it's interesting because they are kind of in the same position as the 49ers were the two previous seasons, which was trying to be a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense. It hurts them a lot that Chike Okeafor is injured and is now on IR, because he was going to be one of the starting outside backers that has played the defensive end position. So he was a good fit for that hybrid. Without him, it will be interesting to see if they can play a 3-4. It will be one of those things that during the game, they are going to figure out what is working for them and what isn't. Hopefully for us, whatever they are doing won't be working well on Monday night against us.
They are going to play eight men in the box, whether it is 4-3 or 3-4, with a Pro Bowl safety in Adrian Wilson up there. They are going to make Alex Smith beat them. They know who Frank Gore is and what he is capable of doing. They want to force the 49ers to throw the football. So it could be an exceptionally big day for Darrell Jackson or Vernon Davis.
You could talk about all the off-season acquisitions with the change in the starting lineup with Joe Staley, the improvement of Smith, but what this season really comes down to in terms of the success of the 49ers offense is Frank Gore. Frank was what made the offense go last year and he will be what makes them go this year. Even if he doesn't have a big game numbers wise, it will be the other team focusing so much on him, that it allows Smith, Vernon Davis, Arnaz Battle, and Jackson to have big games. So it is huge to get Frank back. I don't think he will be affected by not playing in the preseason. Stephen Jackson had zero carries in this preseason, had two or three last year and had a great year. Same thing with LaDainian Tomlinson. Guys who have been carrying the football since they were eight years old in Pop Warner, they know how to carry the football. Even though Frank hurt his hand, he has been able to keep up with his conditioning. You might see a little mix up in there with Maurice Hicks because of the conditioning, but for the most part it will be the same Frank Gore we saw last year.
They have a new punter who has never punted in a regular season game before. That could be crucial to field position. You think about Whisenhunt the past five years in Pittsburgh learning under Bill Cowher where ball control, great defense, and field position was everything. He has probably emphasized the field position game and that's an area where the 49ers could take advantage of with having a guy who has never punted before in a game. I could see special teams Coach Everest going after a first time punter early. Neil Rackers is an excellent field goal kicker, but with Joe Nedney there, it is pretty much a wash.