• Travis Rapp

Game Plan: What the 49ers Need to Accomplish to go 8-0

Image Credit: Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

For Week 9, the 7-0 San Francisco 49ers will travel to Arizona to take on the 3-4-1 Arizona Cardinals. Fans will get to see the two players drafted first (Kyler Murray) and second (Nick Bosa) in the last NFL draft go head to head. Last week the 49ers beat the 4-2 Carolina Panthers 51-13 while the Cardinals lost to the New Orleans Saints 31-9. These two teams represent the top and the bottom in the NFC West. A Cardinals upset would be huge, and the 49ers haven’t beaten the Cardinals since 2014.

This 49ers team is doing a lot of things this year that hasn’t been done in a while, like leading the NFC in winning percentage, points against (with 77; next closest has allowed 122), point differential (an insane plus-130), and sitting atop the NFC west. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have been a meandering about .500 team whose rookie quarterback is improving, just got back their best player (cornerback Patrick Peterson), and traded for an All-Pro caliber running back in Kenyon Drake.

The 49ers’ biggest challenge on Thursday might just be themselves. Both Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert are banged up going into the competition, while Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey, Kyle Juszczyk, and Ahkello Witherspoon will continue to watch the team play from the sidelines. As long as the younger players like Emmanuel Moseley can continue to perform as the starters, the 49ers should not have too much trouble vanquishing the Cardinals further into the basement of the division.

The Cardinals hired Kilff Kilngsbury to run his Air Raid offense, and he handpicked the rookie Murray to run it. Murray will be the first real “mobile” quarterback the 49ers have faced, and he also is possibly the shortest QB they will face all year. With the twin mountains, Arik Armstead and DeForest Buckner, rushing the gut and Bosa, Dee Ford, and Ronald Blair III providing pressure of the edges, the team should be able to corral Murray before he hurts the defense with his legs.

49er fans have been watching Buckner flush Seattle Seahawks QB Russell Wilson out of the pocket, just to see him make a throw downfield to a wide open receiver. The only fear is that Murray is a bit like Wilson, and could hurt the defense out of the pocket, but that is where the brilliance in how this defense was built takes over.

General Manager John Lynch inherited Armstead and Buckner, but he brought in the edge rushers Bosa and Ford, who are destroying opponents’ QBs. With the edge rush coming in strong and fast, most QBs step up in the pocket to let that edge rusher run past them, and that is partially one of the reasons why Armstead’s sack numbers are so high this year. Murray won’t be able to step up in the pocket, because he won’t be able to see over the defensive tackles that the 49ers line up. If both defensive ends can reach the QB at close to the same time, Murray will be trapped. Unable to step up, unable to roll out, he will be forced to take the sack, go backwards, force the ball into coverage, or throw it away. Any of those options means lots of three-and-outs. Because of this, expect the Cardinals to run a lot of play action that rolls Murray away from Bosa’s side of the field.

The 49ers offense has been partially behind the defense’s ability to hold teams to such low scores, and they’ll need to continue the trend of sustaining drives. The 49ers keeping their offense on the field against any opponent will lead to more and more wins. It is no surprise that the team is among the leaders offensively and defensively when it comes to third down percentage. Whether it’s getting the first down themselves or keeping their opponent from getting a first down, the 49ers have owned third down this season. A big part of that has been early down wins.

The 49ers defense tends to force third-and-long a lot, while the offense seems to consistently see third-and-short downs. They will need to continue to win on those early downs to keep their offense on the field, and Murray watching the game from his booster seat on the sidelines. The 49ers will also need to continue to work on getting their wide receivers the ball. The trade for Emmanuel Sanders paid off with a first-quarter touchdown last week against the Panthers, and Deebo Samuel ran for a 20-yard touchdown out of the Wing-T formation, but overall the team has to continue to work the WR group. Just imagine how wide open the running lanes will become if teams have to start seriously defending the edges of the field.

Looking at the stats of this matchup and the players involved, it seems nearly impossible for the 49ers to lose to the Cardinals, but remember the Cardinals picked first overall in the past draft, and the 49ers lost to them twice last season. In order to break that streak, they must keep Murray contained and running for his life and make sure Drake sees nothing but arms and shoulder pads in the desert. It shouldn’t be that hard for this team, but surprises happen, even on Thursdays.

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