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2016 Regular Season
Preview: Cards @ Niners

Setting the Stage:
Cards made more mistakes than LA and lost a hard-fought physical football game 17 - 13. Niners lost to Dallas (aka Team Felon) 24 - 17.
Cards and Niners are tied for the cellar at 1 & 3.

Logically, Key difference between the two teams is that the Cards were hyped as Super Bowl contenders whereas the Niners - under new HC Chip Kelly - were considered a "team on the rebuild."

Both teams are expected to be clawing their way back into contention Cards - with QB Carson Palmer expected to be sidelined under concussion protocol - have their work cut out.

Opponent's Last Game
Niners took an early 14 - 0 lead in the 2nd quarter, but couldn't sustain it - Dallas RB Ezekiel Elliott glloping for 138 yards and a TD and rookie sensation Dak Prescott throwing for 2 scores to guide the 'Pokes to an eventual 24 17 victory. One key to outcome was Niner inability to stop long Dallas drives in the 4Q.

First Quarter
Dallas received, returning the KO to their own 31. They moved to the Niner 29 in 8 plays (longest gain being a 9-yd Prescott scramble), but Bailey's 47-yard FG attempt was no good. SF took over on their own 37 and scored a TD 9 plays later when Gabbert hit Kerley for a 33-yard TD.
Niners 7 - Dallas 0.

TB on KO. Dallas reachd their own 37 in 4 plays but had to punt. TB on the punt. Niners reached the Dallas 12- yd line in 9 plays as the quarter ended. (Longest play of drive was a 25-yard pass from Gabbert to Celek)

First Quarter Score: Niners 7 - Dallas 0.

Second Quarter
On the 3rd play of the quarter, Hyde circled RE for a SF touchdown. Niners 14 - Dallas 0.

TB on the KO. Dallas reached their own 43 in 7 plays before punting. Punt rolled out of bounds at the Niner 6. Niners reached their own 17 before punting, Punt returned to the Dallas 34. Dallas put together an 8-play TD drive, scoring on a 20-yard deep right pass to T Willliams. Niners 14 - Dallas 7.

TB on the KO. Niners held to 3 & out. Punt rolled out of bounds at the Dallas 42 with 1:50 on the clock. Dallas put together an 11 play TD drive to knot things up at 14. Niners 14 - Dallas 14.

0:12 on the clock. KO and a knee.

2nd Half Score: Niners 14 - Dallas 14.

Third Quarter
SF received. TB on KO. They opened with a 32-yard off RG by Hyde, followed by a 29-yard pass from Gabbert to Celek. Drive stalled at the Dallas 13. Dawson's 36-yard FG was good. Niners 17 - Dallas 14.

TB on KO. Dallas reached midfield but had to punt. TB on punt. Niners held to 3 & out and punted from their own 27. Punt returned to the Dallas 22. 'Pokes piut together a 10-play TD drive capped by a Gabbert run off RT for a 7-yard TD. Dallas 21 - Niners 17.

SF returned the KO to their own 22 and reached their 30 in 3 plays as the 3Q ended.

Third Quarter Score: Dallas 21 - Niners 17.

Fourth Quarter
SF reached their own 45 in 3 plays but had to punt. Punt fair caught at the Dallas 10. On the first play of the SF possession, Gabbert's pass over the deep midde for T Smith was intercepted and returned to the Dallas 34. Cowboys put together an 11 play 6:27 drive which ended at the Niner 4 where the 'Pokes couldn't punch it in and had to settle for a 22-yard Bailey FG. (Key play: a 26-yard run off tackle by E Elliott). Dallas 21 - Niners 17.

4:11 left to play. TB on KO. Gabbert reached the Dallas 35 in 6 plays but couldn't convert a 4th & 6. Cowboys took over at their own 32, completed one key pass to Beasley and ran out the clock.

Final Score: Dallas 21 - Niners 17.

Team Stats

First Downs - Niners 70 / Opponents 80

Third Down Conversions - Niners 24/60 / Opponents 25/58

Fourth Down Conversions - Niners 2/5 / Opponents 1/2

Offensive Yards - Niners 1,171 / Opponents 1,560

Rushing Plays/Yards/Avg - Niners 128/456/3.6 / Opponents 130/562/4.3

Passing Compl/Att/Int/Avg/Yds - Niners 69/119/4/6.1/728 / Opponnts - 86139/4/7.5/1,036

Sacks - Niners 7.0 / Opponents 3.0

Field Goals - Niners 4/5 / Opponents 8/9

Time of Possession -Niners 25:57/ Opponents 34:02

Turnover Ratio - +2

Key Player Stats

Passing: Gabbert - 69 for 119/58.0%/ Int %: 3.4%/YPA: 6.1/Sacked 3.0/Rating 73.1

Rushing: Hyde -73 for 299 yds (4.1 YPA)

Receiving: Kerley (18 for 202 & 1 TD). Patton (10 for 106). Celek 10 for131)D). T Smith (9 for 106 & 1 TD). Hyde (7 for 30). V McDonald 5 for 93 (& 2 TDs)

Field Goals - Dawson: 4 for 5 (missed one outside the fifty)

Punting - Pinion: 46.1 gross avg

Punt Returns - Kerley 4 for 14.3 avg

Kickoff Returns - C Davis 4 returns - 24.5 avg. M Davis 2 returns - 9.0 Avg.

Tackles - Bowman (35), Bethea (28), Reid (25), Buckner (21), Hodges (20).

Sacks -7 Sacks: Brooks leads with 2 followed by Bowman, Hodges, Armstead & Dorsey (1each) Davis, Blair 0.5 each) Gbbert's been sacked 3 times.

Interceptions - 4 Picks: (Bethea, Bowman, armestrong, Bellore have 1 apiece. Gabbert has been picked off 4 times).

Fumble Recoveries - Niners recovered 3 (Bowman, Bethea, Hodges 1 apiece). Opponents recovered 4).

Rosters/Match-ups

Niner Offense

WR......17 Kerley..............19 K Martin
LT.........74 Staley (A)........71 Theus
LG........68 Beadles (P).....65 Garnett         
OC       67 Kilgore (A).......66 M Martin             
RG       61 Tiller (A)    
RT       77 T Brown (P)
TE       89 V McDonald....88 Celek............84 Bell (P)          
WR      82 T Smith (P).....13 Burbridge                                            
WR     11 Patton (P)........81 Streator
RB      28 Hyde (BA)........24 Draughn........22 M Davis......32 DJ Harris.
QB......02 Gabbert (P).....07 Kaepernick....15 Ponder

PFF ratings in parentheses (P = Poor, BA = Below Avg, A = Avg, AA = Above Avg, HQ = High Quality)

Cardinal Defense

LDE      93 Campbell (AA) .....72 Stinson (P)
NT        98 Peters (A)..............69 X Williams ......72 Pierre                
DT        95 Gunter........)..........92 Rucker) ..........97 Mauro ...90 Nkemdiche
SLB     55 C Jones (AA).........57 Okafor               
ILB       20 Bucannon (P) .......50 G Martin           
ILB       51 Minter (P)..............54 Bartu                
WLB    44 Golden (A).............96 K Martin     
LCB     21 Peterson AA)                
RCB    41 Cooper (A)............26 B Williams ......28 Bethel              
SS       36 Swearinger...........27 Branch                
FS       32 Mathieu (AA).........22 T Jefferson (HQ)

PFF ratings in parentheses (P = Poor, BA = Below Avg, A = Avg, AA = Above Avg, HQ = High Quality) 

Matchup: Niner Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Chip Kelly's ("Oregon") offense is very much in play for the Niners - featuring an uptempo rhythm and reliance on zone-read plays which puts pressure on every defensive player - who have have to focus on stopping Gabbert and Hyde on the ground and TE's Celek and McDonald via the air.

T Mathieu claims to understand the key to stopping the zone read by blowing up the play in the enemy backfield at point of contact. It worked once vs. Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo, but, before that play, the Cards seemed to be sleep walking against it. Gabbert lacks the mobility of Taylor but that doesn't mean he's got feet of clay.

Two of the five Niner O-lineman have "poor" ratings by PFF. (The other three are rated "average"). Look for the Cards to attempt to flush Gabbert out of the pocket, but, to be effective, they wiil simultaneously need to blanket Niner receivers and avoid giving up cheap TD's.

T Jefferson pointed out that, although a defense may be picture-perfect for 80 of 83 plays, those three plays wll often kill you. While the Peterson/Cooper corner tandem looked a lot better than the original Peterson/B Williams combo, Cooper whiffed on an early open field tackle that allowed Quinn to break free for a long TD. Can't keep letting that happen.

Niners have only given up 3 sacks in their first four games, suggesting that Kelly's zone-read quick-throw offense makes it difficult for enemy pass rushers to get to Gabbert. Nevertheless, we expect C Jones and Golden to put pressure on Gabbert from the outside and T Mathieu to motor up the A Gap to blow up the QB-RB handoff (or fake handoff).

Key Matchups: C Jones and M Golden vs. Staley. Peterson vs. Kerley. Jefferson and Buccanon vs. Celek. and V McDonald. T Mathieu vs. Hyde

Matchup: Niners Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Arguably the Niner's most dangerous offensive threat is their RB Hyde. When the Cards were successful defensively last year, their mantra always was: "First, you have to stop the run." We don't expect anything difference Thursday night.

Hyde is averaging 4.1 ypc. Minter had a poor outing last week, and we expect him to rebound vs. the Niners - especially as a watchdog to contain Hyde. The big SF running back will kill you if you miss a tackle or prematurely vacate a gap.

Cards did do a better job containing Gurley last Sunday than they did vs. Bills runners the week before. Expect the Cardinal focus to be on maintaining gsap/contain discipline and containing Hyde.

In two of three games. Card front-three (Campbell, Peters, Gunter) haven't been effective penning up

Key Matchup: Hyde vs. Minter. Gabbert vs, Mathieu.


Cardinal Offense

WR1    11 Fitzgerald (HQ)...13 Jaron Brown
LT        68 Veldheer (A)........73 Wetzel                       
LG       76 Iupati (AA)                   
C         53 Shipley (..............70 Boehm                    
RG       69 Mathis (#22) ......78 Watford (P)...........61 Toner                   
RT........74 Humphries (A)
TE       .85 Fells ..................80 Momah      
WR2    15 M. Floyd (BA).....12 John Brown (A).....14 JJ Nelson        
QB       03 Palmer* (P).........05 Stanton     
RB       31 D Johnson (AA)..23 C Johnson*...........38 Ellington.......30 Taylor
TE        84 Gresham (P)

PFF ratings in parentheses (P = Poor, BA = Below Avg, A = Avg, AA = Above Avg, HQ = High Quality)

Niner Defense

LDT......91 Armstead (A)....99 Buckner (A).....98 Blair
NT........64 Purcell.............90 Dorsey
RDT.....92 Dial..................63 Jerrod-Eddie.....96 Hart
OLB....55 Brooks (P)........95 Carradine.....
ILB......53 Bowman..........50 Bellore (P)
ILB......51 Hodges (AA)....57 Wilhoite          
OLB....58 Harold (P)    
LCB....26 Brock (BA).......36 D Johnson.......33 R Robinson
RCB....25 Ward...............43 C Davis (P).....27 Reaser (A)
FS......35 Reid (AA)..........20 M Cromartie           
SS......41 Bethea (AA).....29 Tartt

PFF ratings in parentheses (P = Poor, BA = Below Avg, A = Avg, AA = Above Avg, HQ = High Quality)

Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Niners Pass Defense
It's unclear whether Carson Palmer (concussion) will play Thurs. night. Even when healthy, he's been prone to float his passes somewhat when under pressure and has lacked the consistency he had a year ago. If Palmer can't go, the Cards will have to rely on Drew Stanton. Although the Cardinal backup has been able to move the offense in past years, he's looked quite rusty and interception-prone in limited appearances this season.

Cardinal pass blockers have been OK when healthy, but vulnerable when Mathis has been replaced by Watford at RG. (Proof of the pudding - they didn't protect Palmer and Carson may have to sit this game out). .

He's got the arsenal - with Fitz, Floyd, both Browns and David Johnson to throw to. Which receiver has the hot hand depends on (a) who's open and (b) who's hot. Smokey Brown has recovered slowly from a concussion and caught 10 passes last week vs. the Rams. Floyd's talent is clearly visible, but so too is is inconsistency (two straight opening drives were KO'd due to easy drops of 3rd down passes by the Cardinal receiver.

Niners have been giving up more yards than their opponents have gained. When you review the PFF numbers, the thing that sticks out (compared to other teams we've played) is the lack of really high-rated Nine defensive players (i.e. you'd look at ratings for Bills and Ram defenders and be amazed at how many on each team were ranked in the NFL top 10. Not so with the Niners - Hodges, Reid and Bethea are rated "above average" (& we'd guess that Bowman - who mysteriously isn't rated at all belongs in that group) but that's about it

Niners seem to be average, below average or poor along both perimeters (DL, OLB or CB) so look for the Cards to attack both through the air (regardless of whether they play Stanton) and on the ground. (Note - Buckner's injury status is iffy).

Key Matchups: D Johnson vs. Bethea or Reid. Fitz, Floyd, the Browns & or Nelson vs. Brock, Ward & C Davis. Veldheer and Iupati vs. Armstead

Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Niners Run Defense
David Johnson is ranked #1 (or close to it) by PFF. And he's earning that rating in a number of ways - running between the tackles or around the flanks, powering for extra yards after contact or catching out of the backfield (either as a screen receiver or running regular routes as an extra WR).

At guard, Mathis blocks for the run better than he does protect the passer). His absence due to injury the last 2 weeks may have been the most underrated factor in the blowout by Buffalo and upset loss to the Rams. Iupati is the exact reverse of Mathis (i.e.. better pass blocker than run blocker) At LT, Veldheer is just a so-so run blocker but a sound pass protector. Humphries is still learning how to play RT.. Shipley has graded out surprisingly high at center.

The Cards got their running chops back in the 2H vs. Buffalo and vs. the Rams. C Johnson (groin) may not be able to go Thursday; which means Andre Ellington may see somewhat more playing time.

With Palmer likely out and Stanton in, expect the Cards to rely more on their running game - especially attacking the outside to exploit Niners position weaknesses.

Key Matchup: D Johnson vs. Brooks and Harold

Special Teams

Rams

K          04 Dawson                         
P          05 Pinion                        
H          05 Pinion  
LS        86 Nelson                             
KR       43 C Davis                    
PR       17 Kerley........82 T Smith

Cardinals

K          07 Catanzaro                             
P          09 Quigley                                   
H          02 Butler                             
LS        46 Brewer                                 
KR       38 Ellington              
PR        12 Jn Brown

Matchup: Pats Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
You could make the argument that, in each of their three losses, breakdowns on special teams cost us W's. Week #1 featured a missed snap on a likely winning FG. Last week on a deep punt, Justin Bethel got poked in the eye and failed to cover Tavon Austin who then broke a long return ( with a horse collar penalty tacked on)to set up the winning Ram TD. (I don't remember what happened in Buffalo - I've been able to shut off that bitter memory).

Cards added Quigley to handle punting chores until Butler recovers. Catanzaro is doing OK (though each FG and XP attempt remains a slight "adventure"). John Brown is beginning to look more comfortable returning punts. We wish Andre Ellington would simply take a knee in the end zone, because he'll seldom if ever get past the 25 yard line when he runs it out.

Dawson is 4 for 5 (his only miss coming from 50+ yards out). Pinion is averaging over 46 gross yards a punt. Gotta watch Kerley - he's averaging over 14 yards per punt return.

Key matchups: Campbell and Bethel vs. Buffalo kick and punt blockers. Kerley vs. Cardinal punt coverage team.

Coaching
SF: I've always been a Chip Kelly fan and was pretty surprised when things went south in Philly amid rumblings that the Chipster was inflexible and his insistence on "my way or the highway" (including an uptempo offense that often kept the Eagle defense on the field for too long) created problems in the locker room
. Kelly gets a second shot in SF, but has the additional burdeon of deal with Colin Kaepernick's "actions of conscience" plus the natural tension caused when you sit your talented first stringer in favor of a rookie QB).

AZ: BA has a deeper and deeper hole to dig his way out of. One advantage, the media-hyped Cardinal players should have run out of excuses by now and hopefully be ready to keep their heads down and grind away until they get back on the winning track. Possibly not having Carson Palmer this Thursday won't help any, but that's the way things work in the not for long league.

Last Word
Cards have dug themselves a hole that puts them squarely in the fist fight that each year involves a pile of competive NFL teams battling to reach the playoffs. Never before has the "one game at a time" mantra been so evident. When you start out 1 & 3, you become more vulnerable to the whims of the football gods (who can cause the football to bounce the wrong way, a key player to tear up an ACL or a well-intended attempt at a play-saving tackle to creep up into "face-mask territory").

Don't bother to try to game the schedule. Every game counts now - there's no more wriggle-room. Just put your head down and grind away.


 
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