49ers' defensive line must dominate up front vs. Cardinals
Kyle Shanahan's squad gets a major divisional test to open the season, as they will look to slow down a surging Kyler Murray and Cardinals' offense that caused the 49ers a plethora of issues in their two contests last season.
Robert Saleh's dominant unit seemed to struggle when facing athletic, mobile quarterbacks who could evade the 49ers' defensive line. Russell Wilson, Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson averaged 54 rushing yards per game against San Francisco last season and put the 49ers' defense in predicaments with their maneuverability in the pocket.
Murray, the former No. 1 overall pick, was 41-of-57 for 391 yds, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also added 101 yards on the ground to keep the ball moving, but was sacked seven times in those two games -- with Nick Bosa not registering a single one.
The 49ers' head coach's thought on mobile quarterbacks this week was interesting:
That's always going to be a challenge. Anytime you’ve got guys who can run around like this one can in particular and how good of a thrower he is, that's always going to be a huge challenge. So, you get used to going against this stuff. We had it twice last year, but I know there will be a bunch of new wrinkles this time, especially with the first game and having all offseason to think about it. But, our defense knows what to expect from the personnel and you’ve got to be ready to react to the new stuff, but he's going to get some of his, and we’ve just got to make sure we get more.
But the 49ers' organizational philosophy of allocating more resources and capital towards the defensive line should greatly help their chances of slowing down these type of quarterbacks.
While the 49ers' depth at edge rusher isn't particularly great, with the loss of Ronald Blair III for the first six games, their interior rushing depth has improved from last season with the healthy additions of Kentavius Street and Kevin Givens.
Arizona's offensive line in 2019 was ranked 26th in pass protection, giving up an adjusted sack rate of 8.4 percent last season. Three out of the five offensive line starters will remain the same from last season, with center Mason Cole filling in the void for A.Q. Shipley and right tackle Kelvin Beachum stepping up this season as well.
Despite having poor pass protection, the Cardinals' offensive line held up against a terrorizing unit last season, only giving up 28 pressures combined in their two matchups. Defensive Rookie of the Year Nick Bosa was held pretty quiet with only eight pressures and no sacks on Murray.
As Shanahan mentioned, Murray is still going to be effective, just given his natural throwing ability and the core of receivers, including offseason addition DeAndre Hopkins (who will look to validate his new $27M per season extension). But the 49ers' defense should strive to limit his effectiveness outside of the pocket and contain the rushing lanes on Sunday.
Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek always believes in having the edge rushers trying to get up the field as quickly as possible. In games against mobile quarterbacks, this has come back to bite them, as the rushers get too far up the field and there's open lanes for players like Murray to escape through. It was generally correctable in the second halves of games, but I wonder if Kocurek will not be as aggressive with his rushers on the edge against the Cardinals on Sunday.
With an offseason that's allowed rusher Dee Ford to get fully healthy, the 49ers' front seven should control this game on Sunday. Through training camp and practices, San Francisco's defense was not allowed to tackle to the ground, so Week 1 will be the first chance for them starting hitting opponents.
Starting with Bosa, Ford and Arik Armstead, San Francisco's line needs to be able to control this game similar to many outings last season. The 49ers' defensive back field will not look pretty if they have to cover the likes of Larry Fitzgerald, Christian Kirk and Hopkins for a longer period of time.