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The 49ers’ long, grueling quest in their hopeful return to the Super Bowl begins on Sunday. Then, they’ll play at home against the division rival Cardinals and a thorn in their normally elite defense; Kyler Murray.
Outside of their two games against their Phoenix desert foes, the 49ers defense only allowed 18.5 points per game and 374.57 yards per game. Against the Cardinals, that changed to per game averages of 25.5 points and 426.5 yards allowed in those two games. The team allowed more than that in a couple of scenarios (notably the Saints game), but were surprisingly unable to constrict a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line.
Murray in those two games completed 71.93% of his passes for 391 yards, four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 114.0 passer rating. He was also able to add 101 rushing yards off 13 carries and a touchdown on the ground. Suffice to say, he’s already a thorn in San Francisco’s side.
Now let’s add DeAndre Hopkins to the equation, and suddenly it looks a little scarier for the 49ers defense. Luckily, Kyle Shanahan is leading one of the league’s most well-rounded teams, with few holes to worry about, but Murray’s skill set has managed to deal some massive blows to a top two defense in 2019, and with Hopkins at his side there’s more for the defense to cover.
The Niners already play in a division where they have to worry about a mobile, deep passing freak in Russell Wilson. With Murray inches away from his sophomore season, that presents them with another mobile, deep passing freak. So to examine what they can do to shut Murray down to the best of their ability, we must take a look at how he was able to beat the defense in both matchips and what they can do to limit his talents.
In the Week 9 matchup at Arizona, Murray struggled early thanks to the all-around heroics shown by the 49ers defense. But later in the game, he was able to pick up on San Francisco’s tricks, leading an incredible near comeback that forced Jimmy Garoppolo and company to close the game on some key third down conversions.
It would be easy for Murray to toss this on the run without a platform to fall back on (after all, he has the arm talent to make it happen), but he decides to set his feet and make the throw a little easier for himself. Now, let’s look at how this went through the power of full motion.
In this instance, Murray didn’t need to create out of the play structure, since this was a designed quarterback bootleg. But just that he’s able to recognize the need to set his feet and calmly throw KeeSean Johnson open is great to see from a rookie quarterback, just not on the side of a Bay Area fan.
On Murray’s second and final touchdown of the evening, he’s up against a second and eight in his own red zone. Two defenders have been arrowed as the quarterback is able to outsmart both of them on this play.
The previously arrowed linebacker (yellow arrow) drops back to spy on Murray as he surveys the field with a clean pocket. The corner guarding Andy Isabella (red arrow) is not too far behind the then rookie, and with the linebacker spying on Murray, the quarterback stares him down...
...before turning back to Isabella, creating a throwing lane in the process.
Arizona’s offensive line does a nice job of affording Murray precious time, and he’s able to reward his pass blockers with a slingshot laced with incredible accuracy. This is well defended from the corner, but the amount of mustard and precision is just barely able to beat it, and that doesn’t go without mentioning the intelligence of Murray to manipulate the linebacker over the middle with his eyes.
Arizona made things even closer in the Week 11 matchup, even grabbing a late lead before the 49ers offense came to save the day once again.
Murray is a very smart pocket passer, and as aforementioned he’s a very creative player outside the pocket. Combine this with elite arm talent and you’ve got throws like this one to Pharoah Cooper.
This third down throw is remarkable because of how Murray just casually launches it off balance while the left guard gets beat. Not only is it as pure of a fastball as you can find, it’s also right on target to the mitts of Cooper. These are the plays where a talented quarterback almost always has the edge over great defense, and it’s not a good sign when it’s already being done in Murray’s rookie season.
Now, it probably goes without saying that Murray is also great on the ground, but let’s discuss it anyway.
Murray isn’t alone in the turnaround of the Cardinals offense, as head coach Kliff Kingsbury gave him college concepts that were blended to work in a pro level offense. This allows him to use his speed on the run in a number of ways, such as this option play. Murray isn’t the level of runner that Lamar Jackson is, but he’s pretty damn good in his own right.
What makes Murray as lethal on the ground as in the air is how he’s able to slightly contort his body to change running angles without slowing down a hair, making his wheels on the run all the more terrifying. Kingsbury is able to give him a platform to do so and on a regular basis.
The Cardinals were a screen heavy team in Murray’s rookie season as well. Really, they had a mix of deep shots and dump offs to the flat, which worked well enough to keep the Niners on their toes. That’s something to keep in mind even as the addition of Hopkins threatens to further enhance the team’s vertical passing game.
Smart pocket passers can be stopped if you’re able to shutdown all of their reads with an elite defense. Smart pocket passers with incredible mobility are a different story, as they’re more difficult to pin down due to the fact that they can more easily make plays outside of structure.
However, Murray can be stopped, it’s just going to need to take more skill to do so.
Here, take note of Murray and Nick Bosa (far right).
Bosa gets somewhat of an upper hand on the left tackle, and while he’s not completely on Murray’s skin, he is able to make him drop his eyes and climb up the pocket.
Murray is able to reset himself and look back up the field, but Bosa’s movement reveals an unsettled pocket passer on this snap.
Quick pressure combined with tight coverage is the only way to put Murray out of his comfort zone (a testament to how gifted the young Cardinals signal caller is), and Bosa’s quick pressure forces a slightly inaccurate back shoulder toss that falls incomplete.
Finally, D.J. Jones (blue arrow) is the key player on this snap.
Jones is able to show off an incredible burst off the line of scrimmage, and his swarming presence forces Murray to scramble like a headless chicken. Miraculously, Murray is able to avoid Jones and stay put, but additional pressure and good coverage down the field dooms him, as he eventually falls to the turf for a sack.
Kyler Murray is a sensational talent with an impressive blend of creativity and intelligence for a quarterback entering his second season. It will not be easy for the 49ers defense to contain him, more so with the arrival of DeAndre Hopkins. It will be easier for San Francisco’s offense to score on an Arizona defense that still needs help, so it’ll likely take another shootout between both offenses for the Niners to start out 1-0.
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