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Seven things to look for in 49ers’ opener against Cardinals

Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Week 1 is upon us. The air quality in Santa Clara appears like it will be in the unhealthy range of 150-200 AQI, but forecasts no longer suggest the dire, 200-plus AQI necessary for a sustained period to postpone the game, though the league will continue monitoring that up until kickoff, as explained here. At the time of writing this, Airnow.Gov, one of the resources the league uses to monitor AQI, reads at 176 and forecasts unhealthy, but not the “very unhealthy” 200-plus AQI.

In other words, it looks like the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals (who have already arrived in the greater San Jose area), are on schedule to play their 1:25 p.m. affair on time. Here’s what to look for:

Big nickel or dime packages

I’ve been banging this drum all offseason after the 49ers flashed their willingness to use big nickel packages (three safeties, three corners) in the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs like to spread out their offense, and no team does that more than the Arizona Cardinals. No team in the NFL used four wide receiver sets more than the Cardinals, who did so at an astonishing, by far league-leading, 31 percent of the time. They used 11 personnel, with three wide receivers, 36 percent of the time. They used at least three wide receivers on the field a combined 74 percent of the team.

First of all, that’s absurd. It also may require a unique approach. The 49ers mainly stuck to their standard nickel, Cover-3 defense against the Cardinals last year. I have a hunch that they experiment with using more defensive backs on the field this year. In addition to the obvious coverage assistance it provides against speedy teams like the Cardinals who dink and dunk their way down the field, it gives the opportunity for some trickery. With three safeties on the field, there are myriad opportunities to show robber looks where safeties disguise their roles.

In a traditional Cover-1, man robber setup, both safeties will start fairly shallow before one commits themselves into the box as a quasi-linebacker and the other sprints back to cover the middle third of the field. When you have three safeties on the field, there are double the opportunities for disguised coverages. It also allows for the 49ers to exploit their preferred method of blitzing, which a corner coming off the edge, typically K’Waun Williams or Emmanuel Moseley or both. One sign that this may be in consideration, or traditional dime (two safeties, four corners), is that Dontae Johnson was promoted from the practice squad with Jason Verrett (hamstring out). If you’re going to go to lean heavier on your depth at defensive back, you need more depth.

Two tight end sets

This has been the topic on the tips of everyone’s tongue for good reason. I discussed it briefly in this week’s mailbag:

“Zach H. asks via Instagram: Will Kyle Shanahan lean more to double tight end schemes due to the injury-plagued WR corps?

I think the 49ers would have used two tight-end sets at a fairly high clip regardless of wide receiver injuries, but I don’t expect a cosmic shift from what worked so well last year, which was 21 personnel (2 RBs 2 WRs), which they used more than any other team. They used 22 (2 RBs, 2 TEs) personnel the second-most, about 11 percent of the time. In total, they used two or more tight ends roughly 31 percent of the time. I would expect that the usage of 12 and 22 personnel increase if Jordan Reed is healthy. The key is having Kyle Juszczyk on the field; Shanahan will evolve and play to his team’s strengths, but he’s not going to fall into a pattern of predictability by having Reed and Kittle constantly on the field together.”

I believe two tight end sets will be the key to the 49ers winning a Super Bowl this year. If Jordan Reed and George Kittle are healthy come playoff time (and throughout the run) I firmly believe this team will win the Lombardi Trophy. Now, I don’t expect a ludicrous rise in how the 49ers use two or three tight end sets from last year (a combined 31 percent of the time), but I do see it as being substantial. There’s a reason Shanahan pursued Hunter Henry and drafted a tight end; he didn’t just want George Kittle insurance, he wanted a deep tight end room and one which could be effective down-in and down-out.

The look of Ross Dwelley, Levine Toilolo and even Garrett Celek behind last year was not a favorable one. This is a much improved corps, and the result, I believe, will be using more tight ends to both bully teams more in the run game with athletic, domineering blockers (Kittle-lite in Charlie Woerner) and use the expectation of the run against teams to open up two of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL in Kittle and Reed. If they’re both healthy, I genuinely don’t know how teams will be able to slow that attack down, unless they have both an elite safety (or two) and nickel corner.

Isaiah Simmons’ usage

The Cardinals’ defense last year was wretched. With their wannabe Steelers 3-4 scheme but not enough consistent edge pressure, they just waste Chandler Jones in coverage. Too many unathletic non-coverage linebackers in coverage is not a recipe for success. Isaiah Simmons could change that, but he’s something of an enigma.

He should be used as both a safety and a linebacker, in almost a free role, but as a rookie, Arizona might just be inclined to keep him as a traditional middle linebacker. It wouldn’t be a horrid waste of his skillset (he can play EDGE, middle linebacker or strong safety), but it certainly wouldn’t be a model of maximum efficiency.

The Cardinals allowed the second-most passing yards (4,510) second-most passing touchdowns (38) and ninth-most rushing yards (1,922). They were, however, solid against preventing rushing touchdowns (9, which was sixth-best); though that might be a product of teams knowing they could beat them with ease through the air.

You don’t go from a near league-worst defense to serviceable by getting a middle linebacker. For their defense to improve from the shambolic one it was last year, Simmons is going to be have to be used as more than that, and Dre Kirkpatrick is going to have to rediscover his old self. If not, they’re going to get torched again by wasting linebackers in coverage and over-relying on an aging Patrick Peterson and Budda Baker. That recipe didn’t work last year and it certainly won’t work this year.


Part of what made the 49ers’ defense so intriguing and so dominant last season was that they stuck to their base personnel, dialing up blitzes just 20.9 percent of the time (fourth-lowest rate in NFL). When they did use a blitz, it was often with K’Waun Williams coming off the edge or Fred Warner coming up the middle. It tended to take teams by surprise.

At its core, I don’t expect that to change. Robert Saleh likes his scheme because it works, but offenses evolve. What makes Saleh great is that he, too, evolves. After the Los Angeles Rams ran the ball down the 49ers throat last year in their opening drive, Saleh isolated himself on the sideline, watching film alone for about five minutes before re-convening with defensive line coach Kris Kocurek and pass rush specialist Chris Kiffin, and making adjustments to the defensive line.

The 49ers defense won’t remain stagnant. The number one change I expect is an increase in those aforementioned dime and especially big nickel looks, which opens up the opportunity for exotic blitzes. When you adjust your formation from what the offense is expecting, you can pull off blitzes at an increased clip because they’re not quite sure what they’re looking at.

That may not the case against a Cardinals team which uses myriad screen plays, it should be the case in the long term. Without DeForest Buckner and with mountains of tape on this identical-besides-Buckner defense, a blitz uptick seems like it could be in the cards this season.

Wide receiver targets

As mentioned above, the 49ers are likely to use more two tight end sets assuming Jordan Reed stays healthy. But they can’t throw solely to tight ends. Dante Pettis will most likely play as Deebo Samuel’s replacement as the Z (flanker) receiver, and I expect Brandon Aiyuk will be on something of a pitch count in Week 1. That leaves the dilemma of Kendrick Bourne versus Trent Taylor.

Taylor is solely a slot guy, and Bourne mostly is too, though he has more positional flexibility and can be used outside of the slot more effectively.

If you go to a tight singleback formation, like Ace or Doubles/Double Flex (as they’re called in Madden, with two tight ends on either side of the formation flanked closely by two wide receivers), you give yourself options to utilize both Bourne and Taylor, which I have no doubt will happen at some point, though it’s pretty limiting to have two slot guys and two tight ends on the field, unless you flare a running back or fullback out wide, which Kyle Shanahan is prone to do. \

More likely is the use of bunch formations the 49ers showed an affinity for last year, where everyone is effectively a slot receiver and one of them may be a tight end.

Kendrick Bourne proved himself the 49ers’ third down ace in the hole last year, and I find it hard to imagine that changing. But I also expect him to play frequently on early downs, too, which makes it slightly tougher to get Taylor on the field. The issue there is that Taylor is probably Garoppolo’s favorite target. What I’m saying is, having both players out there is limiting, but it might have to happen, so it will be intriguing to see how Shanahan remedies that. It may be a hot hand situation.

I would not be surprised to see Taylor get the lion’s share of targets, but I think Bourne sees those on more key downs and has at least a touchdown. Pettis is likely to play more than most people might expect. I don’t want to sound bullish on him given what he saw last year (a lack of confidence and physicality) but he’s displayed a far improved mentality and willingness to be physical in training camp. If that translates to the regular season, he’ll have a consistent role and likely come close to targeting his rookie year stats.

Run game effectiveness

The 49ers’ defense only struggle last year was to contain the run on occasion. And they succeeded in running the ball against just about every team… except the Arizona Cardinals.

In the two meetings, the then recently-acquired Kenyan Drake had 15 carries for 110 yards and a touchdown along with four receptions for 52 yards, and 16 carries for 67 yards and 6 receptions for 13 yards, respectively.

Tevin Coleman, meanwhile (who I expect to, but may not sit due to air quality concerns), had 12 carries for 23 yards, 2 receptions for 13 yards and 12 carries for 14 yards and 3 receptions for 48 yards, respectively.

Combined, the 49ers ran for just 101 yards and 34 yards in their two meetings against the Cardinals year. That’s an embarrassment for the second-best rushing offense in the NFL last year. Shanahan, per Kyle Juszczyk, made the point that the Cardinals don’t know the 49ers as a dominant run team. While this could be a shootout and involve a heavy reliance on the pass game, expect the 49ers to be far more effective with Raheem Mostert as the lead back and something of a personal chip on their shoulder to get off the rushing schneid against Arizona.

Nick Bosa getting his first NFC West sack

Did you know Nick Bosa, widely-accepted bust, does not yet have a sack in the NFC West? That will change Sunday. No analysis here, just firing from the hip.

Okay, some analysis. The 49ers sacked Murray four times last year, with Dee Ford getting three. DeForest Buckner had two, and Arik Armstead had one, as did Dre Greenlaw and Jimmie Ward (both off linebacker blitzes). My bet is Ford collapses the pocket, forcing Murray into a Bosa bear hug.

Bonus: Predicted inactives

The NFL’s gameday roster size has expanded this year from 46 to 47, and really 48, with an additional spot for an offensive linemen. That means out of the 55 players (plus two practice squad players), you effectively have two extra roster spots, but the same number of inactives. With Deebo Samuel on injured reserve and, as yet, no active roster replacement, there will six inactives. The main in question are whether the 49ers keep Colton McKivitz or Hroniss Grasu (I think they opt for center depth), whether it’s Ross Dwelley or Charlie Woerner (Woerner is the better blocker and Jordan Reed is a receiving target). I expect Tevin Coleman to sit due to air quality concerns. If he doesn’t, Jeff Wilson Jr. may replace him on that list. That last one really comes down to special teams preferences, and whether you want five linebackers or the extra corner:

Ross Dwelley

Tevin Coleman

C.J. Beathard

Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles

Colton McKivitz

Jason Verrett


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