Setting the Stage
Niners are coming off a Super Bowl loss, leaving pundits and fans in a "cup half-empty/cup half-full quandary (i.e. Will this leave SF with a Super Bowl hangover? Or was reaching the Big Show indicative of how dominant the Niners really were)?
Then there's The Pandemic - Each team (including SF and AZ) entered a brave new world of testing, bubbles, positives and no preseason. II may get this wrong, but I believe the Niners will play ther first 2020 game without the benefit of home-field crowd noise. Clubs (without the benefit of preseason game-tape will have difficulty evaluating younger players (especially UDFA's). Some teams will favor keeping more draftees than UDFA's on their roster, because draft picks are more of a known quantity.
We, therefore humbly present a Lite version of Cardinals @ Niners Game #1 Preview. It will be long on opinion and thin on stats:
Most Recent Game
Last year's Super Bowl happened a half-year ago and should have little direct bearing on the outcome of this upcoming game due to the extraordinary times times we find ourselves dealing with. Each NFL team enters a brave new world and are on their own in finding newe ways of doing things (For example, different teams have found different ways of getting their players into "hitting shape", and we have no preseason game footage to gauge which teams have been most/least effective attaining this objective. We won't know until we see how each team operaties with "live bullets" flying overhead).
Niners Offensive Starters
(Italics = Injured, Opted Out etc). Note - Two key SF players - Samuel and Warner have been recently activated. Lesson learned: Expect Lynch and Shanahan to full last-minute "fast ones" with the IR and other active/inactive lists
QB ...10 Garoppolo
RB....26 T Coleman...31 Mostert
WR... 19 Samuel...18 Pettis.
WR .. 11 Aiyuk
LT....71 T Williams
Niners are set at starting QB. Garoppolo said to be locked onto his progressions, but still needs to have a better sense of what the defensive scheme looks like as a whole...
Mostert and Coleman (& the oft-injured McKinnon) provide work-horse depth; with the Niner running attack good enough to protect 4th quarter leads.
Star of the offense remains their TE (Kittle).
WR is less iffy today than it was yesterday - Samuels (foot) was said to be probably out for the year., but "surprise-surprise" he's reported to be a late activation. Bourne and the rookie (Aiuk) are not graded as among the League's top receivers. Pettis is next man up in the receiving ranks.
T Williams is considered an ugrade over the departed Staley. Compton and Brunskill will compete for the starting RG spot.
Niners Defensive Starters
RDT...93 DJ Jones, 55 Ford
WLB...56 K Alexander
FS....20 J Ward
LS....86 K Nelson
Most of the 49ers' well-respected defense returns. Up front, the first-round pick Javon Kinlaw should immediately take DeForest Buckner's place while pass rusher Dee Ford, (listed as a backup), should see plenty of snaps on passing downs. According to CBSports - the Niner defensive line remains supremely stacked. It's still among the league's best.
LB remains fluid - specifically whether Kwon Alexander beats out Dre Greenlaw on the weakside. Alexander is the safest bet to get that job next to Fred Warner. (Note - Warner opted out due to COVID-19 - and then opted back onto the active roster, so depth at LB becomes less of an issue. Whether or not Warner can shake off all of the rust becomes and interesting question).
The other interesting battle is at CB2 opposite Richard Sherman, where Ahkello Witherspoon was benched for Emmanuel Moseley in the playoffs.
01 Murray, 07 Hundley
41 Drake, 29 Edmonds, 26 Benjamin
WR - 11 Fitzgerald...17 Isabella
WR - 13 Kirk....19 KS Johnson
WR - 10 Hopkins 16 Sherfield
TE - 87 M Williams 82 Arnold 81 Daniels
LT- ...74 Humphries...66 Miles, 79 J Jones
LG - 67 Pugh 73 Garcia
OC- 52 Cole 65 Galliard
RG- 64 Sweezy. Murray
RT - 68 Beechum 71 J Murray
Murray said to address his 2nd year as a pro with more maturiity and a better understanding of opposing defenses. Add to this a Top 5 receiver (Hopkins) and a stabilized O-line and the Murray-led offense figures to come up with a couple more 2020 wins.
Cards are high on new TE Arnold - if he meets exoectation and the 2nd year Drake performs with better understanding of the offense, Card floor should be raised a bit and their ceiling could increase Cardinal "W"'s by another one or two games.
Defensive Interior Line
DT 94 Z Allen 95 Fotu
NT - 98 Peters, 92 Lawrence
DT RDE - 97 Phillips 92 Blackson
OLB - 55 C Jones 49 Fitts 45 Gardeck
ILB - ..59 Campbell 48 Simmons 47 Z Turner
ILB - 58 Hicks 51 Vallejo
OLB - 42 Kennard 43 Reddick
CB - 21 P Peterson...27 K Peterson
CB - 20 Kirkpatrick 33 Murphy Jr
S - 34 J Thompson 38 Banjo 28 C Washington
S - 32 Baker...35 D Thompson . 40 Tillman*
There were times when Cardinal offense could be several miles south of "frustrating" - Not stopping the run was one glaring problem. Losing their CB2 to injury was another. But even worse was its inability to get the defense off the field on third-downs.
Credit the Cardinal front office and DC Vance Joseph for (no pun intended) turning over the Cardinal defense - adding heft and juice to the DL - via veteran Jordan Phillips and rookies Rashard Lawrence and Leki Fotu.
Also experiencing a major overhaul was at LB where De'Vondre Cambell, Devon Kennard were joined by rookie "Swiss Army Knife" Isaiha Simmons
In the secondary, the Cards had hoped to get their CB2 (Alford) back from injury this year only to lose him to injury once again. Cards trolled the free agent waters for a veteran backup and came up with Dre Kirkpatrick (long on experience but questionable as to the amount of gas left in his tank. CB2 remains the Cardinals' biggest questionmark.
Matchup: Niner Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Niners can win football games with Garoppolo at the helm, but the Niners are weakest at WR. Samuels (ankle) was a surprise recent activation, but probably won't be 100%. Aiyuk an unproven rookie - which leaves Bourne, Kittle, a dinged up Samuel and Niner RBs to carry the load.is
Their TE (Kittle) and Samuel are the leading Niner receiving weapons, but Samuel figures to be at less than peak effectiveness.
Key Matchups - Samuel vs. P Peterson. (Just a guess) - Simmons vs.Kittle. (Note - Cards have kept SImmons role(s) under wraps. Whether early or later in the season, it seems like Simmons should be most vlaluable covering the TE...Cardinal linebackers vs. Niner RBs. PP21 vs. Bourne.
Matchup: Niner Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Pick your poison - Coleman, Brieda and Mostert. SF likes to use their FB Jusczyk as their lead blocker on inside runs. Addition of T Williams bolsters Niner OL run and pass blocking.
Key Matchups - SF "Three Headed Monster" behind Jusczyk...Niner D-Line vs. Cardinal Card Front 7.
Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Niner Pass Defense
Addition of Hopkins figures to put considerable pressure on the Niner pass defense. Sure, they can put Sherman on Hopkins, but that leaves Fitz and Kirk (and speedster Isabella to terrify SF pass defenders. We don't know how much the new TE (Arnold) will be a factor in the Cardinal passing game.
Cardinal pass blockers will have all they can handle in Bosa, Armstead and Ford. Expect the Cardinal passing game to emphasize shorter routes in order to protect Murray (but, should SF close off that option, look for KK to utilize Isabella and Benjamin to keep the Niner offense honest).
Hopkins vs. Sherman...Fitz vs. Mosely...Humphries vs. Bosa...Cardinal OL vs Niner DL.
Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Niners Run Defense
Question - Will Kenyan Drake be all the better with an off-season under his belt? Or will he follow David Johnson's example and disappear down a "RB's 'black hole'". We don't know. Our hope is that - with a healthier OL - Kenyan willl be even more productive than he was a year ago.
Warner (who exercized his op-out rights) at MLB opted back at the eleventh hour, so LB depth should be less of a problem
Drake vs. Warner. Cardinals OL vs. Niner Front 7.
Niner Special Teams
K ..09 Gould...xx McLaughin
P ..... 06 Wishnowsky
H 06 Wishnowsky
LS xx Nelson
KR .13 James Jr
PR 13 James Jr
Cardinals Special Teams
P - ...02 Lee
K- ....05 Gonzalez
H - ...02 Lee
LS - 46 Brewer
KR -17 Isabella
PR - 17 Isabella
Matchup Niner Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
I'll take Gonzalez over McLoughlin (though Gould is pure money). I like Lee over Wishnowski tp
Niners have a true point-grabbing weapon in their kicker, Gould. We like Lee slightly over Wishnowsky. Neither team seems locked into a punt or kick returner.
Coaching / Intangibles
HC/OC Kyle Shanahan...OC Pete Carmichael. DC Robert Saleh...ST: Richard Hightower. Shanahan contended for "Coach of the Year. Entering last season, I never saw it coming - the Niner coaching staff only took a year or two to completely transform their roster from doormat to powerhouse.
Given the unpredictable nature of this offseason, it's hard to get a grip on which teams/coaches are best organized, most prepared or able to make decisions "on the fly" to deal with unexpected circumstances. It will be interesting to see how different teams respond differently to unfamiliar "curve balls" thrown at them by the Panodemic.
How to Beat Niners
Last year, the Cards almost beat the Niners twice. They opened up the playbook in Game #2 and nearly walked away with a "W". Key question - Have the Cards improve their roster/play calling enough to close the gap with SF?