NFL Game Scripts Week 1: Arizona Cardinals @ San Francisco 49ers

The defending NFC Champions will be looking to make a statement early this season. However, so will Arizona, who will want to show they are ready to compete after a lot of promise in Year 1 under HC Kliff Kingsbury. In yet another divisional matchup, expect there to be lots of rushing yards in this one. How will the San Francisco 49ers and the Arizona Cardinals go about beating one another this week, and who will come out on top?

49ers Offense vs. Cardinals Defense

While the foundation of the 49ers offense in 2019 was their dynamic running attack, two of their best passing performances came against the Cardinals, Jimmy Garoppolo passing for 317 yards and 424 yards respectively, with four touchdowns in each game. 

This may be surprising when Arizona possesses CB Patrick Peterson and Safety Budda Baker, but they allowed the most passing yards of any team in 2019, and allowed the second most passing TDs. Doing little to improve their secondary, Arizona has maybe set themselves up to be attacked through the air once more in 2020.

The Run Game

While the 49ers will undoubtedly lean on the run once more in 2020, their season opener could see a more balanced approach as they hope to get Garoppolo’s confidence up early on. San Francisco may have let RB Matt Breida leave in the offseason, but they get Jerick McKinnon back from injury, and can be just as complex in disguising their formations with the versatility of their RBs and ability to move TE George Kittle and FB Kyle Juszczyk around. 

The 49ers will attack between the tackles with their RBs to reduce the impact rookie Isaiah Simmons can have, while also avoiding DPOY Candidate Chandler Jones. The Cardinals are vulnerable on the interior of their DL to this type of attack, but have the LBs to close up holes quickly. Softening up the defense, and keeping them honest should give Garoppolo the little bit of extra time he needs on passing plays. The RBs should see targets as the game progresses, especially on underneath routes such as curls, and have the potential to make players miss when given space.

The Passing Game

San Francisco 49ers Arizona Cardinals
Dec 8, 2019; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (10) celebrates while leaving the field after defeating the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

However, the 49ers will also be mixing in frequent passing plays to ensure they can move the ball as the game goes on. Kittle should be matched up against Baker frequently, and the 49ers could look to test the size difference early with some intermediate routes, while also throwing some short out routes and letting Kittle use his size and strength to add YAC. 

Backup TE Jordan Reed could also be used as a receiver at times, keeping Kittle in to block and double-team the likes of Collins. Being able to use Kittle as a blocker could allow the 49ers to get more matchups against nickel formations, as they can line up in 12 personnel and spread the Cardinals’ defense out, leaving space for the RB. 

Arizona doesn’t have the complete roster it needs to outmatch intricate offenses such as the 49ers, and blending the run and pass formations to exploit mismatches will happen often. San Francisco will use the same formations repeatedly in this one to keep Arizona guessing, and all the Cardinals can do is hope to win some one-on-one matchups to stay in the game.

The 49ers’ WRs shouldn’t expect to see too much action here. While Garoppolo was able to have strong performances last season against Arizona through the air, there won’t be too many targets deep or to the outside. Instead, putting the likes of Deebo Samuel, Kendrick Bourne and Richie James in the slot and having them run across the middle, with Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk blocking downfield, allows the 49ers to gain chunks of yards with little risk. 

The 49ers will want to get rookie Brandon Aiyuk involved early this season, but testing him out against Patrick Peterson may not be the wisest choice. Sending him on post and dig routes to give Garoppolo easier reads is the most likely way to use him outside of WR screens and jet sweeps, but the 49ers will want to utilise Aiyuk’s YAC abilities. While Peterson gives Arizona a defensive advantage, they still need fellow CB Byron Murphy to improve in his second season.

What should we expect to see on Sunday?

San Francisco’s offense is so diverse that they will force Arizona to pick their poison. If The Cardinals choose to attack the run, Kittle, Reed and the WRs will be targeted over the middle and given opportunities to run after the catch. If Arizona instead focus on the run and try to get to Garoppolo, the 49ers will be able to move pieces all over the field and place blockers for their RBs.

Cardinals Offense vs.49ers Defense

Although he won the OROY in 2019, QB Kyler Murray still has steps to make in his second season. As a dual threat QB, Murray will make it a little harder for the 49ers to completely close down the Cardinals’ offense. His effectiveness as both a runner and a passer, however, hinges on the OL improving, especially against the dominant DL of the 49ers. While Murray managed to have the second-most rushing yards amongst all QBs last season, against the 49ers he only totalled 101 yards from their two meetings.

The Passing Game

San Francisco 49ers Arizona Cardinals
Oct 31, 2019; Glendale, AZ, USA; Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray (1) throws a third quarter touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As much as Arizona will want to run the ball this season, they will be better suited moving the ball through the air against San Francisco’s mediocre secondary, especially with CB Jason Verrett again injuring himself. With the addition of DeAndre Hopkins to win contested catches, the Cardinals have a big-time receiver to fill the void left by an ageing Larry Fitzgerald.

Alongside Hopkins and Fitzgerald the Cardinals will have a combination of Christian Kirk, Andy Isabella and KeeSean Johnson spread out to force the 49ers into dime coverage. Richard Sherman plays exclusively the right CB position, and this allows the Cardinals to either free up Hopkins on the other side of the field, or try and win some one-on-one matchups, keeping the other WRs from being locked down, and thus more options for Murray to target. While the 49ers won’t give Murray much time to throw, he should be able to find Kirk, Fitzgerald and Johnson over the middle on slants, in and crossing routes, if not Hopkins and Isabella outside the hashes.

Further enhancing the passing game is the ability of RB Kenyan Drake to be a three-down player, as he can succeed not only as a rusher, but also as a receiver. Not only that, but rookie Eno Benjamin excels as a receiver out of the backfield, more than he does as a rusher. With Drake and Benjamin giving Murray the check-down option he needs in the flats, they’ll be able to use their speed to add yards downfield. 

The Cardinals will look to stretch the field with the speedsters Johnson and Isabella, giving room for Fitzgerald, Kirk and/or Hopkins to create separation in the middle of the field for 7-15 yard receptions, and Drake or Benjamin on short throws. With the ability to also move Benjamin out to a receiver spot, the Cardinals can use the full field and limit the 49ers from bringing extra pass rushers.

To counter the skillset of the receivers, the 49ers will need to get to Murray quickly with their pass rush, and have their LBs spread across the middle of the field in zone coverage so they can quickly get to the different receivers for short gains, or potentially disrupt passes. Bringing Safety Jaquiski Tartt closer to the line of scrimmage will also allow him to track the RBs as receivers out of the backfield, be used against the run, or occasionally be an extra blitzer. 

This isn’t a surefire strategy, but closing down some of the spaces just past the line of scrimmage forces the Cardinals to consistently win one-on-one matchups, or attack downfield more, which they didn’t do often last year, as they averaged 6.9 yards per attempt (17th in the league).

The Running Game

Having success in the passing attack will keep the defense honest, and allow the Cardinals to run the ball with fewer defenders crowding the line. Not only will Arizona’s RBs use their shiftiness and speed to hit holes (if they get opened), but by staying balanced they can continue to pass the ball into space. Arizona’s offensive scheme relies on the running and passing game working together – when one side works the other does too – but if one struggles, it makes the other harder too. Without a better OL, they can’t currently rely on one part of the offense to carry them if the other struggles.

The final part of Arizona’s attack will come from Kyler Murray’s legs. Whether they use designed runs, options plays, or allow Murray to scramble and use his escapability, it is the difference maker that will keep them in the game when all else fails. If Murray can get to the outside and into space, he has the potential to get a new set of downs, as his speed makes him hard to catch, and the 49ers’ defense will need to usher him towards the sidelines, instead of trying to make open field tackles.

San Francisco boast one of the best MLBs in the league in Fred Warner, who could be used to spy Murray, with fellow LB Dre Greenlaw used to contain Murray on one side of the field. While neither has speed to match Murray, they will force him towards teammates who can slow him and bring him down together.

Moreover, the 49ers’ DL could keep Murray in the pocket by not overcommitting on the pass rush, instead asking Nick Bosa and Arik Armstead to set the edge, trying to force Murray up the middle into the arms of Warner. While rookie Javon Kinlaw won’t immediately replace DeForest Buckner, being tasked with bringing pressure up the middle and getting to Kyler Murray is a good place to start. Between Kinlaw’s speed and Solomon Thomas’ size, the Cardinals’ interior OL will need to win their battles and keep Murray upright.

How will this game be decided?

Essentially, the 49ers’ versatility on offense will be too much to handle for the Cardinals’ defense. Not only that, but Arizona lacks the pieces they need to properly remove any of the 49ers’ chess pieces from the game plan. 

Likewise, although vulnerable in the passing game, the 49ers’ pass rush and defensive front is too good for the Cardinals, who will keep up early on in the game, but by the fourth quarter will need to make a comeback. Barring a meltdown from Garoppolo, the 49ers should win this one by more than a score.

Owen Ravenna

NFL Analyst