The 49ers looked like they could go toe to toe with the NFL-leading Philadelphia Eagles. Then the second quarter started and the injuries started piling up. Here are my three keys for the 49ers to bounce back and get their first win versus the Cardinals.
3. Contain one of the greatest receivers in NFL history
The 49ers secondary will need to contain WR Larry Fitzgerald. They actually did this during week 4 in Arizona. The secondary held him to 3 receptions for 15 yards for four quarters. With 32 seconds left on the clock in overtime, QB Carson Palmer went to his most reliable target for the only touchdown of the game. Not only did the 49ers drop another close game by five points or less, but Larry Fitzgerald reminded everyone why he’s headed to Canton someday.
This time the 49ers get their division rival at home. The big question isn’t if they can contain Fitz, but who will DC Robert Saleh trust to try and get the job done? If Fitz lines up on the outside (X or Y spot), I like Saleh will roll the dice and put rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon on him. Ahkello had has coming out game versus the Eagles (reminder: Eagles have the best record in the league), earning himself a spot on PFF Team of The Week with a grade of 88.1. Yes, he gave up a 53-yard touchdown to WR Alshon Jeffery, but he only allowed three catches on eight targets and notched his first career interception. His emergence also sent former starting CB Rashard Robinson to the NY Jets for a 5th-round pick.
If Fitzgerald lines up in the slot (Z or H spot), where he typically does most of his damage. He’ll have veteran CB Leon Hall (if K’Waun Williams doesn’t suit up due to injury) shadowing him. If I’m the Bruce Arians this is the matchup to exploit, but it won’t come that easy. Which leads me to my next key point in this matchup.
2. Putting pressure on QB Drew Stanton
Robert Saleh needs to unleash the blitz packages he has stuffed in his back pocket this week. Stanton has had 382 passing yards and two touchdowns since 2015 and Larry Fitzgerald has accounted for 40% of those yards and both TDs. He also has a career passer rating of 65.1, which is lower than Johnny Manziel (74.4), Tim Tebow (75.3), and even former 1st overall bust Jamarcus Russell (65.2). The DeForest Buckner lead defense will need to be aggressive from the get-go. They need to set the tone early and get to the quarterback. I expect Saleh to get creative with his defensive looks and send an extra blitzer every down if not two or more at times in the game. If they do, they will walk away with at least five sacks and two takeaways.
1. Run the ball
This is the game Kyle Shanahan needs to deploy the two-headed rushing attack. RBs Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida have shown to be a reliable one-two punch (when the team isn’t playing from a huge deficit, having to rely on the passing game). They aren’t Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman, but both have shown flashes in Shanahan’s offense. It looks like Hyde is finally past his nagging hip injury, but we didn’t get to see him produce versus the Eagles last week. He put up 25 yards on 12 carries. This just wasn't his game, but I expect him to find opportunities to get going this week. Matt Breida came in and produced 56 total yards of offense and a score. He took a shovel pass from QB C.J. Beathard to the house untouched from 21 yards out. I’ve really been impressed with Breida since he signed with the 49ers. He’s not your every down back but has a skill set that can be utilized as a pass catcher out of the backfield. Carlos Hyde is due for a big game and I don’t see the 49ers going pass heavy versus the Cardinals secondary. Ultimately, Kyle Shanahan will roll with the hot hand early. This could be a statement game for the rookie or for the contract-year running back. Let us know who you think will be the key running back in this game for the 49ers.