8:20 PM EST, FOX – Line: 49ers -8.5, Over/Under: 44
Division rivals headed in very different directions face off in a midweek clash in the desert, as the unbeaten San Francisco 49ers battle the Arizona Cardinals from State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Arguably the best story of this season has been resurrection of the 49ers (7-0 in NFC West), who at 7-0 are off to their best start since 1990. After two years unfortunately spent ravaged by injuries, all of the hard work that Head Coach, Kyle Shanahan, and General Manager, John Lynch, have put in is finally bearing fruit on both sides of the football, with a ground and pound Offense steamrolling opponents, and an aggressive Defense improving by leaps and bounds. So let’s start with the Offense, shall we? Long lauded as one of the top Playcallers in the league, we’re finally seeing Shanahan’s vision for this unit, with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo (69.8%, 1,489 YDS, 7.14 NY/A, 9 TD, 7 INT, 59.6 QBR) efficiently managing the game behind arguably the most formidable rushing attack in the NFL. Even with both of their Offensive Tackles, Joe Staley (Shin) and Mike McGlinchey (Knee), sidelined with injuries, the Ground Game has managed to trample the opposition to the tune of 172.7 Yards per Game (2nd Overall) on 4.4 Yards per Carry (12th Overall). It’s been very much a platoon-like approach in the Backfield, where Matt Brieda (84 CAR, 446 YDS, 5.3 Y/C, 1 TD) has been the home run threat, while Offseason Acquisition, Tevin Coleman (71 CAR, 332 YDS, 4.7 Y/C, 5 TD), has been the force between the Tackles, with the unheralded, Raheem Mostert (53 CAR, 309 YDS, 5.7 Y/C, 1 TD) gaining traction when called upon. In an era in which throwing the football has been the mandate across the league, this group has been a throwback, averaging a league-high 38.9 Rushing Attempts per Game (1st Overall), with their 272 Attempts standing as the most through the first seven games of the season since the 1987 Cincinnati Bengals. As a result, the Offense has managed to stay in very favorable Down & Distance, ranking Eighth Overall in Third Down Percentage (45.7%). Of course, this really made it easy for Garoppolo to slide back into his role with the club after missing all but two games in 2018 with a torn ACL, and while the statistics will tell you that he’s been little more than a very good Game Manager thus far for the Niners, the 28-Year Old has shown flashes of why Shanahan insisted on moving mountains to acquire him two years ago. Smart, technical, and accurate, the former New England Patriot, and the Offense as a whole, would benefit greatly from the addition of top-tier receiving threat, which is exactly what happened when Lynch went out and acquired the services of veteran Receiver, Emmanuel Sanders (34 REC, 392 YDS, 11.5 Y/R, 3 TD), from the Denver Broncos in exchange for 3rd and 4th Round Picks in the 2020 NFL Draft. At 31-Years Old, the two-time Pro-Bowler is already proving to be an upgrade for what has been a very underwhelming Receiving Corps, hauling in a Touchdown Reception in last weekend’s 51-13 trouncing of the Carolina Panthers. Out of their seven victories, this one may have been the most eye-opening for San Francisco, who absolutely annihilated what had up until that point been a red-hot Carolina team, trampling them on Offense to the tune of 232 Rushing Yards and Five Touchdowns on Thirty-Eight Carries, and snuffing them out on Defense, yielding a paltry 230 Total Yards on Twelve First Downs. Credit to Defensive Coordinator, Robert Saleh, who has fired up a sleeping giant, with his charges racking up Seven Sacks, Nine Tackles for Loss, Nine Quarterback Hits, and Three Takeaways. As he has throughout the term, Defensive Rookie of the Year frontrunner, Nick Bosa (20 TKL, 11 TFL, 13 QBH, 7.0 SK, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 INT, 1 PD), has more than validated his draft selection (No. 2 Overall), registering Three Sacks and an Interception of Panthers’ Quarterback, Kyle Allen. Reaching the midway point of the season, any lingering concerns of this team’s legitimacy are being quelled, for they’re exhibiting all of the traits of a Super Bowl contender. As we stated earlier, the Niners have ran the hell out of the football, averaging 181.8 Rushing Yards per Game (2nd Overall). Furthermore, the Defense has been dominant, ranking Second Overall in Points Allowed (11.0) and First in Total Defense (224.4), while limiting big plays; no team has allowed fewer running plays of 15+ Yards or passing plays of 20+ Yards this season (20). Lastly, they’ve forced a whopping Sixteen Turnovers (3rd Overall), already eclipsing the meager total of seven that they accounted for in 2018. A punishing Ground Game? Check. A dominant Defense? Check. A positive Turnover Differential? Check. That sounds like a recipe for success to us, folks.
Meanwhile, the rebuild in the desert is still in it’s infancy stage for the Cardinals (3-4-1, 4th in NFC West), who find themselves languishing at the bottom of a Division in which everyone ahead of them is over .500. After going winless in their first four games under the new regime led by Kliff Kingsbury, Arizona received a boost with three consecutive victories, in which their project finally looked like it was ready to take off. Of course, this is a franchise that made received a great deal of criticism after cutting ties with the previous Coaching Staff (which lasted just one season) and the No. 10 Overall Pick, Josh Rosen (who was promptly traded away to Miami), replacing them with middling College Head Coach, Kliff Kinsbury (who was very briefly USC’s Offensive Coordinator before his arrival), and the No. One Overall Pick in 2019 NFL Draft and reigning Heisman, Kyler Murray (63.7%, 1,988 YDS, 5.71 NY/A, 7 TD, 4 INT, 63.1 QBR). For all intents and purposes, this was always going to be a project, ladies and gentleman, with Kingsbury looking to implement his wide-open, Air-Raid scheme, which has become so prevalent in college, with a rookie Quarterback, lacking much of a Supporting Cast. Granted, the ageless Larry Fitzgerald (38 REC, 447 YDS, 11.8 Y/R, 2 TD) continues to marvel at the age of thirty-six with yet another Quarterback throwing him the football, while one of the league most versatile, yet forgotten, weapons, David Johnson (77 CAR, 300 YDS, 3.9 Y/C, 2 TD), provides dynamism out of the Backfield. The Cardinals have been a mixed bag on this side of the football, averaging just 21.3 Points per Game (19th Overall) on 365.0 Total Yards (22nd Overall), converting on 40.2% of their Third Downs (17th Overall), while ranking Dead-Last in the Red Zone, scoring a Touchdown on a scant 32.1% of their opportunities (32nd Overall). However, they’ve managed to take excellent care of the football, committing a league-low Four Turnovers (1st Overall), while proving effective when they’ve chosen to run, averaging a solid 4.8 Yards per Carry (9th Overall). This is where Murray has really provided a boost to the attack, with the Rookie rushing for 279 Yards and a pair of Touchdowns, though the team’s brass probably don’t want him LEADING the team in that department, particularly given the concerns over his size throughout the evaluation process. With that said, the Oklahoma product may very well surpass the aforementioned Johnson, who is expected to once again miss tonight’s contest with nagging back ad ankle ailments. As a result, Kingsbury and General Manager, Steve Keim, got busy at the Trade Deadline, acquiring the services of Tailback, Kenyan Drake (47 CAR, 174 YDS, 3.7 Y/C, 0 TD), from the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a conditional 6th Round Pick in 2020. The former Third Round Pick never quite found his niche in Miami, though at just 25-Years Old could no doubt stand to gain from a change of scenery, likely to find immediate work with his new club due to Johnson’s absence. This was very apparent in last weekend’s 9-31 drubbing at the hands of the New Orleans Saints, who snuffed them out on the ground, relinquishing a scant Forty Rushing Yards. Kingsbury’s troops couldn’t get anything going offensively, totaling a dismal 237 Yards on just Ten First Downs, all the while possessing the football for only 22:01. As you can imagine, Murray had a rough day at the office, completing just 19-of-33 Passes for 220 Yards, while rushing for another Thirteen Yards on Two Carries, suffering Three Sacks before making way for his Backup, Brett Hundley, to take over with the outcome all but assured. Defensively, the visitors didn’t fare any better, with the Saints welcoming back Drew Brees from a five-week absence due to injury, leading an offensive charge that racked up 510 Total Yards, Twenty-Eight First Downs, and held possession for a whopping 37:59, and that happened while LOSING the Turnover Differential 0-1. It was yet another miserable performance from a unit that has lagged behind the rest, ranking 29th Overall in both Points Allowed (27.9), Total Defense (407.1), and Passing Defense (277.0). Their Run Defense in particular will be tested in tonight’s matchup, allowing 130.1 Yards (25th Overall) on 4.7 Yards per carry (23rd Overall) thus far, including 137 in that defeat at New Orleans.