Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer hits on some of the key aspects to this weekend's rematch against the Arizona Cardinals. **
The 49ers defense churned out a great pass rush effort last week against St. Louis which really set the tone for them, but it's a little tougher challenge this week in Arizona where the Cardinals offensive line has been the same all season long. That is a big help in terms of continuity, and having given up only 13 sacks all year long makes them one of the better units in the league. Cardinals Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt is making a conscientious effort to have Kurt Warner, who reads things so well, take a lot of three step drops and have quick routes which makes it really tough for teams to get to him. One of the worst things to happen with Kurt when he was with the Rams was he was just getting battered because they ran a lot of deep routes. What you see with Arizona is a lot of quick stuff and play action passes where he is well protected. With play action passes you can have anywhere from six to eight blockers. Knowing Kurt is not a mobile guy, Whisenhunt has done a great job tailoring the offense around him. It's one of the reasons they haven't given up many sacks.
Having a run game that's been much more effective this year than last is another reason the Cardinals have been able to protect their quarterback. One of the knocks against Edgerrin James was that he was not going to be able to run in a two back system because he didn't have a fullback his entire career with the Colts. Looking back at his collegiate career however, he did run behind a full back in the I formation. It's something that Maurice Carthon, the Cardinals running backs coach, has been working on with James and it has been very successful for them.
One fortunate thing for the 49ers defense is that Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin has been dealing with a hip injury the past three games now. He has admitted it's going to be something he will have to deal with for the rest of the season. What it's doing is making him less explosive. His whole thing was he was always able to run those short slant routes and turn them into big gains because he was such a big, strong, physical receiver who would just run over defensive backs. He hasn't been able to do that this year because of that injury, and he's not getting his yards after the catch which made him such a danger.
What you will probably see is Nate Clements matched up against Larry Fitzgerald instead of Boldin. Clements was matched up against Boldin in the first meeting because of Boldin's size and physicality and he did a good job on him. The Cardinals will probably run a lot of three receiver sets with Bryant Johnson, who also has had a pretty decent year. Leonard Pope is a big tight end who already has four touchdowns. The 49ers haven't seen that production from a tight end yet that they have faced.
Arizona is really a team that is relying on their defense right now. The defense has been playing extremely well. They did lose Bertrand Berry for the second time in two years with a triceps injury. Berry wasn't having a great year in terms of sacks but he did get off the ball quick. They have replaced him with Joe Tafoya. Tafoya is comparable in size, but doesn't have the same pass rush skills as Berry. Arizona is also using Darryl Blackstock to replace Berry, an outside linebacker. When they had Berry, it was more of a 4-3, but now they will have a combination of Tafoya and Blackstock making it more of a hybrid 3-4 defense. Blackstock would be a better cover guy in that role.
The strength of that defense is Adrian Wilson. Wilson was inactive last week however with lingering soreness to his right heel, Achilles, and calf. Those are all key injuries that affect his ability to run.
The guy who has been real surprising this year has been Calvin Pace who was really a flop at the defensive end position. They tried to move him to the outside linebacker a few years ago and then moved him back to the defensive end and now back at linebacker he is second on the teams in tackles and sacks.
Another guy who is having a great year for them is Darnell Dockett. His eight sacks at the defensive tackle position is leading the league as far as interior linemen go, so that's a big deal. That means they are getting a lot of pressure up front.
Wilson has been a big problem for the 49ers in the past because he would always be coming on blitzes, whether off the edge or up the middle. They really haven't had to do that because of the fact they have been getting more production from the guys up front, achieving 25 sacks without blitzing all that much.
People have been daring the 49ers to throw all season. I thought that Trent Dilfer did an excellent job of trying to beat those one on one match ups last week against the Rams. Both of the corners were excellent, but our receivers had opportunities to beat the coverage but dropped too many balls. The 49ers need to improve on that to win, because teams are going to take away one thing and make the 49ers beat them with something else. They are going to bring blitzes and put eight guys in the box, and the Cardinals are going to challenge the receivers to win those match ups. The Cardinals have a pretty good corner in Antrel Rolle who had a couple interceptions last week and returned two for touchdowns. Roderick Hood and Eric Green are also a couple of good corners, so the 49ers have their work cut out for them. Normally you would say the match up of Vernon Davis against Adrian Wilson is a good one, but Wilson has been hobbled by that lower leg injury. So that could be an area where the 49ers could exploit.
It's been frustrating to see the 49ers struggle with short yardage conversions. The first thing you have to do as an offensive line is re-establish the line of scrimmage. There has been way too much penetration in the run game. Not only do the 49ers have to eliminate that defensive penetration, but they also must establish that line of scrimmage to give the running backs a hole to run through. They are going to have to change things up as well. I would like to see the 49ers spread the defense out on a 3rd or 4th and short and see what Frank Gore can do with that. A lot of times you see when we have three tight ends in the game and a full back, defenses put ten guys in the box, and it's tough to run on that. So whenever we split Vernon Davis out, it seems to open things up. Split Davis out and if he is in one on one coverage, take advantage of that. If there are two guys over there, a corner on him with a safety over the top, then you've got what you wanted, which is less guys in the box and the 49ers should be able to run against that. So changing things up and spreading the defense out is one way to combat 3rd and short problems.
Another way to do it is to use play action pass. Trent Dilfer is a heck of a lot more mobile than Kurt Warner is. Kurt has only been sacked nine times and one of the reasons for that is he is great in looking over his progressions and only taking one to three step drops. The same thing can happen with Trent. Being able to use play action on 3rd down will give Trent a little more protection and give something else for the defense to defend and think about.
This is the first time the Cardinals are at .500 this late in the season since 1998, so they are going to be fired up. It's going to be a raucous crowd inside their stadium. It will be something offensively that the 49ers didn't have to deal with in the first game. It changes things up, because one of the things the 49ers have been trying to do to combat pass rushing and blitzing is to change the snap count up and go on a hard count. That's really tough to do on the road. The 49ers will have to go on a quick count or no snap count at times. Those things are tough and you end up having more penalties a lot of times because of that, so that will be an interesting dilemma the 49ers will be facing.