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49ers run defense faces first real challenge vs. Cardinals

Rohan Chakravarthi
Sep 30, 2023 at 5:41 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers have dominated through three games this season, outscoring opponents 92-42 en route to a 3-0 record, which only has been matched by two other teams in the NFL thus far.

Through three games, the 49ers have started strong, forcing opponents to implement more of a pass-heavy approach, while their opponents haven't been strong rushing teams as well.

In Week 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers threw the ball 46 times, rushing just 10 times in a 30-7 loss to San Francisco. The Los Angeles Rams had 55 passing attempts and 22 rushes in Week 2, while the New York Giants had 33 passing attempts to 11 rushes in Week 3.

That strategy will likely flip in Week 4, when the 49ers face the Arizona Cardinals, who gashed the Dallas Cowboys on the ground in their 28-16 victory last week, rushing 30 times for 222 yards, with lead back James Conner leading the way with 98 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts.

In a way, the 49ers will face their first true test on the ground against the Cardinals and new offensive coordinator Drew Petzing, and head coach Kyle Shanahan seemed to agree on Thursday, acknowledging the threat that Arizona possesses on the ground.

"[Our run defense] has been good so far, but you're right," Shanahan said in reference to a reporter. "I don't think we've been challenged a ton in it. I think our biggest challenge will be this week and just what you mentioned going ahead, I think it'll only get stronger. So, we've got our work cut out for us, we're well aware of that. They've been committing to it, they've been blocking it well, and the runner has been running hard and they got a quarterback element that always makes it a problem. So we've got to be on our stuff this week."

The 49ers could see a significant transition in offensive approach from opponents in the coming weeks, as they face the Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys, and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks, who all operate with balanced or more run-heavy attacks.

Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks shared praise towards the Cardinals rushing attack as well, pointing out Conner's success this season, as well as the schematics that Petzing has utilized thus far on the ground.

"I think number one, Conner runs the ball hard, very determined guy, makes a lot of people miss after contact," Wilks said in reference to the Cardinals' strengths on the ground. "And again, the offensive line doesn't get enough credit. They do a great job with their gap schemes, opening up holes, getting on the perimeter, getting to the second level. So, they create a lot of problems."

While the 49ers enter the game as two-score favorites, they will need to mitigate the rushing efforts from the Cardinals to see the same level of success they've encountered thus far.

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