Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Positives and Negatives: What to make of 49ers’ loss to the Cardinals

Rohan Chakravarthi
Oct 12, 2021 at 7:00 AM--

Another week, another close loss, and another game with multiple missed opportunities for the 49ers.

It's been the same narrative during the 49ers' current three-game losing streak, and Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals now puts the team at 2-3 on the season as it heads into its bye week.

Huge news came Monday afternoon, as Kyle Shanahan noted that rookie quarterback Trey Lance suffered a left knee sprain and will be out for 1-2 weeks, leaving Nate Sudfeld as the only healthy quarterback currently on the roster.

But, we'll get to the future later. First, let's break down Sunday's loss with three areas of needed improvement and four positives that came out of the game.

The Problems (Yeah, I'm starting with the negatives)

1. Lack of Run Game

When looking at the box score, you may see that the 49ers rushed 28 times for 152 yards and say, "Damn, they pounded that rock."

In reality, the 49ers had a run game, but facets of it required to win the game were missing. For starters, Elijah Mitchell, who had extreme success when running in the direction of Trent Williams (4 rushes, 26 yards), received only nine carries, as opposed to quarterback Trey Lance's 16.

There are two problems with that: 1) Lance, who elected not to slide on many occasions, took a multitude of hits, which is never good for a quarterback, and 2) Lance's 12 designed runs resulted in 3.7 yards-per-carry, although his four scrambles led to an average of 11 yards-per-carry.

In total, Mitchell ran the ball nine times for 43 yards, while Lance had 16 rushes for 89 yards.

Earlier this week, in my keys for San Francisco to beat Arizona, establishing the run game was a priority, and there wasn't enough of it.

There were multiple scenarios where handing the ball off would've produced the same result with a running back as it did with Lance, easing the burden for the rookie. A positive to take from the run game: Lance generally made the correct read on RPO's, but there should've been fewer lackluster quarterback draws right up the gut and many more elusive Elijah Mitchell moments to express variety in the run-game.

It seemed like Arizona was blitzing for almost the entirety of the game with the amount of pressure Lance faced off the edge. The counter to that defensive strategy would've been to use Mitchell in running scenarios rather than having Lance drop back to deal with the ferocious defensive attack.

On the 49ers' first drive, Mitchell didn't see a single touch as San Francisco began the game with four designed passes, with the last one resulting in an interception.

Then, on the second drive, it was the exact opposite. Facing a 1st-and-5 at the Arizona 37 after marching down the field, the 49ers ran the ball four times in a row, twice with Mitchell and twice with Lance, and failed to convert on 4th down, losing a scoring opportunity with the lack of variety.

Was the run game necessarily a failure? No. But, Mitchell should've certainly been used more often, especially on earlier downs, so there could be easier conversion opportunities on later downs.

A part of the reason, however, that the run game couldn't establish even more was...

2. Offensive Line Woes/Penalties

This was, most definitely, the worst offensive line performance of the season for the 49ers.

The Cardinals set the tone on the first play of scrimmage, as Chandler Jones got into the backfield untouched, forcing Trey Lance to improvise and scramble, which he successfully did.

The entire offensive line struggled for periods of the game, with right tackle Mike McGlinchey being the biggest concern, especially in the third quarter, where he committed two holding penalties and a false start.

Penalties were one of my major keys of the week for the 49ers, and while they didn't happen as often defensively, they played a major role in the 49ers' strategy and lack of offense.

Trent Williams also committed two holding penalties in the third quarter, one of which was declined, as both tackles failed to contain the edge, resulting in eight total pressures for the Cardinals.

Of the eight pressures, four were tagged to McGlinchey, capping off his worst-graded game of the season with a 49.7 Pro Football Focus grade.

In addition, poor play calling and in-game decisions abetted the offensive holding issues.

Travis Benjamin, a relatively smaller receiver, was promoted to the active roster for Sunday's game, while Jauan Jennings was listed as a healthy inactive. Jennings, who has the bigger frame and better blocking ability, could've helped in multiple scenarios, like the one below.

Playing Jennings in favor of Benjamin would've certainly helped in this spot and other running opportunities as well, while opening up more playing opportunities for better deep threats like Trent Sherfield and Brandon Aiyuk.

Earlier that drive, Mike McGlinchey was tagged for an offensive holding call that took away from a Lance first down.

With questionable play calling and poor offensive line play, it wasn't really much of a surprise that San Francisco lost this one.

On the Cardinals side, J.J. Watt was dominant, compiling three quarterback hits, two tackles for loss, and one crucial pass batted down at the line of scrimmage.

The worst part of it all: the 49ers had four penalties on first down (three holding calls and a false start), setting up long-distance conversions, wiping out the run-game, and minimizing the offensive impact.

Regardless of down, the 49ers had offensive penalties that obstructed the game plan because the long downs prompted a lack of running opportunities, making San Francisco's offensive scheming much more predictable.

3. Wide Receiver Conundrum

I jumped on it earlier, but this wide receiver situation really needs to figure itself out.

I'm not talking specifically from a player's standpoint, but after the performance of Brandon Aiyuk Sunday, it's embarrassing that he's still playing on only 71% of the offensive snaps. Granted, he did run a route on 77% of those snaps, but he displayed that same talent that the world saw last year, and that type of skill is unmatched in this 49ers' room.

Aiyuk made an impressive one-handed grab off of pinpoint accuracy from Trey Lance, all while being closely guarded, to move the chains.

Earlier in the game, Aiyuk corralled another wonderful catch, this time diving away from the defender, who was draped all over him, to make the grab.

Looking at the snap counts for the wide receivers, Samuel led the team with 58 (86% of all offensive snaps). Aiyuk followed with 46 (71% of all offensive snaps). Then, Mohammed Sanu with 30 (46% of all offensive snaps), Travis Benjamin with 15 (23% of all offensive snaps), and Trent Sherfield with nine (14% of all offensive snaps).

It was fairly interesting to see Benjamin get more snaps than Sherfield, given that they're similar players and provide the same deep-threat ability, but also get snaps over Jauan Jennings, who presents as a bigger-frame receiver, which would certainly be of use in the running game.

It would've been nice to see Shanahan dial up those "big-time" plays for a player of Aiyuk's caliber rather than Benjamin, especially with the raw arm talent that Lance possesses. While that wasn't as available given the pressure by Arizona, I expect to see much more production from Aiyuk following this game.

But, shockingly, Week 5 has passed, and the second-year receiver still isn't getting highlighted enough in the game plan.

What Went Right

1. Defensive Line pressure

As usual, the defensive line starred for the 49ers as the Nick Bosa Show arrived once again. The third-year pass rusher accumulated his fifth sack of the season Sunday, and it couldn't have come at a more crucial time.

With 29 seconds remaining before halftime, the Cardinals were cruising into San Francisco territory. It seemed probable they would score at least a field goal, but Nick Bosa came through with a 15-yard sack to drive Kyler Murray and Co. out of field goal range, saving a score before the half ended.

D.J. Jones also had a sack in the game, and wow, did he look fast while doing so. The 49er nose tackle collapsed on Murray in the backfield on a 1st-and-10, killing the Cardinals' drive before it even began, and forcing them into a 3-and-out on that possession.

In addition, Jones had a tackle for loss in the game, along with Marcell Harris, and Nick Bosa, who had two.

Bosa ended the game with four total pressures, while Arik Armstead was second on the team with two. Overall, the 49ers had ten total pressures, two more than the Cardinals in the game.

A huge portion of the Arizona threat usually comes from the run-game and Kyler Murray's ability to maneuver in the pocket. Still, the 49ers limited him to one total rushing yard on seven attempts, minimizing his scrambling impact.

Overall, the 49ers only gave up an impressive 3.5 yards per carry, and even that number was heavily abetted by Rondale Moore's 26-yard carry early in the game.

Once again, the defensive line held their ground and much credit goes to DeMeco Ryans, who executed a brilliant game plan to contain Kyler Murray and this Arizona offense to just 17 points.

2. Deep Ball active

Over the course of the first four weeks, the 49ers, with Jimmy Garoppolo at the helm, had no "big-time plays," illustrating their reluctance to throw down the field.

Kyle Shanahan adapted for his new quarterback, as Trey Lance was a different story Sunday. Lance threw three completions of over 20-yards Sunday, which was more than Jimmy Garoppolo had thrown all season, sporting a different outlook than normal for the San Francisco offense.

Was Lance at all accurate down the field? No, not really. But, his arm power extended the field for the 49ers offense, providing them with more offensive opportunities, which they failed to capitalize on during Sunday's performance.

In recent years, we've seen that offenses that can stretch the field are more capable of moving the ball offensively, so it was a good sign that the 49ers attempted to play to Lance's strengths for at least a little bit of the game Sunday.

3. Trey Lance's pocket presence

I had to involve the rookie quarterback after making his first career start, and while there was certainly a fair share of up-and-downs, I was rather pleased by Lance's pocket presence at such a young age.

On the Chandler Jones clip above, you can see how Lance immediately gets a feel for the collapsing pocket and keeps his eyes down the field into open space to take off and gain 14 yards on the first play from scrimmage.

In areas where Jimmy Garoppolo may have succumbed, like he did last week on a sack against the Seahawks, Lance seemed aware of his surroundings inside of the pocket and was able to maneuver around.

Now, outside the pocket, Lance chose to tuck and run at times, but it's not like that happens every time. Look at this amazing throw, and equally impressive catch by Deebo Samuel for reference.

While there are inconsistencies with the accuracy, there is much to be excited about for the future, be it this year or next, with Lance at the helm.

4. Play calling Aggressiveness

For as long as he's been the head coach of the 49ers, it seems that one of Kyle Shanahan's main criticisms is the lack of aggressiveness in his coaching style.

That narrative changed Sunday, as Shanahan and his offense went for it five times on fourth down, albeit converting only once.

Was the play calling questionable on some of those plays? Most certainly. Just look at the Juszcyzk direct snap and the Trey Lance quarterback sneak on 4th-and-2 at the Arizona 34.

Four of those five opportunities seemed like chances to go for it, and Shanahan went all-in rather than kick a field goal, which is something you love to see from the fifth-year coach.

Why is the aggressiveness important? Well, like the deep-ball usage, the aggressive play calling forces defenses to think differently and counteract the San Francisco offensive strategy, opening up the playbook for all sorts of Shanahan tricks.

The only extremely controversial choice to go for it, in my opinion, was when the team had a 4th-and-4 from the Arizona 48-yard line while down just three points with ample time remaining on the clock.

A punt there, despite being in positive field position, could've positioned the defense better. However, Dontae Johnson luckily came up with a forced fumble on the ensuing drive, negating any damage.

If this is the Shanahan we see going forward, I'm all for it, as long as the execution comes along with the decision to go for it.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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