Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

How the 49ers can beat the Arizona Cardinals with Trey Lance

Rohan Chakravarthi
Oct 9, 2021 at 2:15 PM--

The time has finally come: Trey Lance, the third overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, will be making his first NFL start against the daunting Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in a division game that certainly should be a crucial one for both parties involved.

Lance will be the sixth quarterback to start a game in the 2021 quarterback class, as Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Davis Mills have all made their first career starts as well.

Those quarterbacks haven't had much success yet. They've gone a combined 3-14 during their starts, so Lance will be looking to change that narrative, although he faces a tough opponent in the Cardinals.

With Lance being the focal point of the offense, instead of Jimmy Garoppolo, let's look at the four keys in winning Sunday's game.

1. Establish the Run Game

Well, this should be a key for the 49ers every week, given Kyle Shanahan's offensive scheme, but establishing the run game is an absolute must against this Cardinals team.

For starters, the 49ers are getting back their top rookie on the running back depth chart in Elijah Mitchell to complement Trey Sermon, who started the past two games in Mitchell's absence.

Mitchell, who rushed for 104 yards in his NFL debut, provides San Francisco with the ability to make explosive plays, like Raheem Mostert, and should see a significant amount of action should he be active on Sunday.

But, more importantly, Arizona currently ranks last in the NFL in yards per carry allowed at 5.4, and they have given up at least 85 yards to a rusher over the past three weeks, showing their inability to defend against the run.

On the season, San Francisco has run the ball on 44.62% of their plays, good for ninth in the NFL, which is more than Arizona is used to, as they've been rushed against on only 39.76% of their defensive plays. Expect the 49ers to run the ball early and often to set the tone and develop their game pace, especially with a dual-threat quarterback starting in Lance.

Arizona has yet to face a mobile quarterback this season with the athleticism and build of Lance, providing them with a new challenge in Week 5, adding to an already-struggling run defense. In addition, the lack of film of Lance as a runner will make it harder to schematically prepare for the rookie.

The 49ers have only averaged a mediocre 3.9 yards per carry on the season, which is 20th in the NFL, but with a healthier backfield, they must establish their run game if they want to have a chance at beating the undefeated Cardinals.

2. Limit Penalties

Penalties, penalties, penalties. So far, that's been the theme for the 49ers, especially on the defensive side of the ball.

While the 49ers only average six penalties per game, which is 10th in the NFL, they give up an inexplicable 75.8 penalty yards per game, which is 3rd-to-last of all teams.

The primary reason for this: defensive pass interferences.

The 49ers have eight defensive pass interference penalties this season, which is the most of any team in the NFL, and have given up 153 yards on those eight penalties, which is a whopping 60 yards higher than any other team.

That stat has attributed to their league-high 12.6 yards-per-penalty, which is just unacceptable and will be exploited should it continue Sunday against Arizona.

And the worst part of it all? The 49ers are giving up three first downs a game due to penalties, which is also the worst in the NFL. Against this high-paced Arizona offense, they cannot give back three extra opportunities for Kyler Murray and Co. to move forward.

With DeAndre Hopkins, A.J. Green, Christian Kirk, and Rondale Moore making up Arizona's explosive receiver corps, the 49ers' defensive backs have to be disciplined, as they were last week, in order to compete with this offense that leads the league, scoring 35 points per game.

Last season, when the 49ers faced the Cardinals, DeAndre Hopkins had 151 yards off 14 receptions during Arizona's 24-20 win in the first of two matchups between the teams.

With talent all across the board for this Arizona team, the 49ers need to limit the amount of penalties to give themselves a shot at winning this game.

3. Converting 3rd downs

Another key staple for success in the NFL is converting 3rd downs. Why? Because it keeps your defense off the field and allows them to recuperate, which will certainly be needed Sunday in order to contain Kyler Murray, one of the league's best dual-threat quarterbacks.

On the season, the 49ers have only converted on 37.5% of their third-down opportunities, which is good for 21st in the NFL.

Despite that sub-optimal third down rate, the 49ers have managed to keep possession of the ball for 51.25% of the time, because they've only faced 12 third downs per game, which is 20th in the NFL, meaning that they've converted well on 1st and 2nd downs.

To piece it all together, converting on 3rd downs will keep the offense rolling and re-energize the San Francisco defense, which is key against an Arizona team that holds on to the ball for 55.53% of games, good for 6th in the NFL.

Looking at possession percentage over the first half of games, the 49ers have tended to struggle in gaining rhythm early, as they are 26th in the NFL with a 45.21% possession share.

In each of the past two weeks, the 49ers have scored only seven in each first half, although both games displayed separate narratives, as San Francisco failed to get a rhythm against the Packers, but dominated for much of the first half against Seattle last weekend.

Ultimately, the team that controls the pace and general flow of the game will come out on top, and converting on third downs will not only put the 49ers in that position, but also will give Trey Lance more rhythm and confidence as he gets the feel of the NFL in his first career start.

4. Win the Turnover Margin

Turnover margin has been an issue for the 49ers ever since Kyle Shanahan took over as the head coach. San Francisco has turned the ball over 115 times since 2017, while generating only 75 turnovers in response, for a turnover margin of -40.

This season, the 49ers are 29th in turnover margin per game at -1.2, as they've primarily failed to force turnovers against opposing offenses. For context, San Francisco has only one turnover all season, which was Dre Greenlaw's interception return for a touchdown in Week 1, and that ranks 31st in the NFL, ahead of only the lackluster Jacksonville Jaguars.

Arizona has been the opposite story this season, as they've generated a turnover margin of 1.2 per game, which is good for 3rd in the NFL so far.

With the turnover margin being vastly different with the two teams, it will be important for the 49ers to control turnovers on both sides of the football, which will help them control the pace of the game as well.

In fact, defensive end Nick Bosa spoke on the lack of turnovers generated after San Francisco's loss to Seattle, attributing some of the problem to luck, while encouraging his team to keep continuing with their work.

"I think we played pretty well," Bosa said, following the game. "I think we came with the right mentality and we were running into the ball, trying to get turnovers and we were close to a few of them, but sometimes it's luck with turnovers and we can't seem to get them right now, but we just have to keep going."

DeMeco Ryans was asked about the topic as well during this week's preparation against Arizona and was rather proud of the effort to look for them against Seattle, noting the multiple times that San Francisco punched the ball out.

"To create more takeaways, I think guys just have to keep plugging," Ryans said. "I think we got two balls out this past Sunday, forced two fumbles but the ball landed right back into the opponent's hands. So, guys just have to keep doing what they're doing. Have a mindset to go after the ball. When the ball is up in the air, have the mindset to go up and pick the ball off. Be aggressive from that standpoint. So I think turnovers, they'll come. Guys just have to keep playing with the effort that they're playing with, keep attacking the ball the way they've been doing. And it'll bounce our way."

Limiting and generating turnovers will certainly be a key for both teams Sunday and could very well change the outcome of the game, as it did last weekend against Seattle for the 49ers.

After two straight home games, the 49ers are traveling to Arizona this weekend for a Sunday showdown at 1:25 PM PST for their final game before their bye week.

With Trey Lance making his first NFL start, it will be interesting to see how the play-calling favors the rookie's skillset, especially in the deep-ball game, where Lance has looked more comfortable in his limited action.

With a win, the 49ers would move to 3-2, and just one game behind in the NFC West, but a loss would push them under .500 and a crucial two games back in the division as they head into their bye week.
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