29 Oct 2012
by Andy Benoit
It almost feels pointless to analyze the Cardinals offense because their pathetic tackles simply don’t allow Ken Whisenhunt’s system to function. J.J. Cooper highlighted the shortcomings of rookie right tackle Bobby Massie a few weeks ago. Since then, the fourth-round rookie has only gotten worse. Massie’s footwork and hand placement are in major need of refinement. On the other side, left tackle D’Anthony Batiste has been nearly as bad. The thought of these two sparring with the likes of Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, and Ahmad Brooks should send chills down Whisenhunt’s spine.
Of course, if poor perimeter pass protection is preventing Whisenhunt from running his system, then Whisenhunt needs to tweak his system. It’s either that or replace the tackles, which is nearly impossible to do in the middle of a season. It’s stunning how willing the Cardinals are to put their overmatched blockers in unfavorable positions. Not only are the tackles frequently left on an island on five-and seven-step drops, but often you’ll see tight ends being asked to handle defensive ends one-on-one in the run game. And it’s not as if the Cardinals have stalwart blockers like Heath Miller or Daniel Graham at tight end. Their starter, veteran Jeff King, lacks raw strength. Their top backup, Rob Housler, is a pass-catching specialist who has only a vague familiarity with line of scrimmage mechanics. The Niners defense has been uncharacteristically vulnerable against the run during its last two games; expect that to change Monday night.
In the air, Kevin Kolb is not Arizona’s long-term answer at quarterback. Late-game "heroics" aside, Kolb still doesn’t have a big-time arm. Plus, as the film showed in the second half against Buffalo, he’s not a consistent anticipation passer even though he’s good at reading the field before the snap. That said, the Cardinals will miss Kolb if a rib injury keeps him out again. The strong-armed John Skelton is too stiff-legged to play behind a bad offensive line. Hence the seven sacks he took against Minnesota.
We got three paragraphs into this without even mentioning Larry Fitzgerald. That’s fitting. Both Cardinals quarterbacks have failed to treat him like a true No. 1 receiver this season. It’s a credit to Fitzgerald that he hasn’t publicly campaigned for balls to be forced his way. With the Niners being a man-based defense, Arizona can pick who they want Fitzgerald to face. They can align him outside to go against Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver, who are both beatable -- everyone is beatable when you’re Fitzgerald -- but those guys will get fantastic safety help. They can align Fitzgerald inside to face Carlos Rogers, who is more challenging but easier to exploit early in the down. "Early in the down" is when all of Arizona’s throws should occur anyway. Otherwise, this will be a sackfest.
After a loss to the Giants and an ugly ground-oriented win over the Seahawks, there has been some national discussion about whether Jim Harbaugh is trying to limit Alex Smith’s impact on games. Have people not been watching the 49ers closely the past year-and-a-half? Since day one, Harbaugh’s mission has been to limit Smith’s impact. And he’s succeeded, which is why the Niners have won and Smith has finally looked like an adequate NFL starter.
Harbaugh will certainly limit Smith’s impact in this game. He knows Smith processes information slowly, and he knows Smith doesn’t have a strong enough arm to drive the ball through tight windows on third-and-long. Harbaugh also knows that Arizona’s defense is perfectly designed for exploiting slow-thinking quarterbacks. The Cardinals do more second- and third-level blitzes than any team in the league. They’ll challenge a Niners offensive line that is rich in power but somewhat poor in agility. And with Patrick Peterson, they’ll be able to take one of San Francisco’s wideouts out of the equation.
The Niners can work around the Peterson factor. Most of their passing game will likely involve tight ends and running backs anyway. More than ever, the key will be allowing Smith to get the ball out quickly on defined reads: doing so erases the effects of Arizona’s delayed blitzes and hybrid coverages. Typically, the Niners like to take downfield shots on first and second down. Don’t be surprised if they do this less than usual Monday night, as their concerns about avoiding third-and-long against this defense should lead to more called runs.
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