The Arizona Cardinals are limping, lifeless and in last place in the NFC West entering Thursday’s game – which means the 49ers had better brace themselves.
San Francisco has served as a cure-all for ailing offenses in recent weeks. The Seattle Seahawks, for example, were missing running back Thomas Rawls and featured a gimpy Russell Wilson during their Week 3 matchup. The result: The Seahawks finished with season highs in points (37) and yards (418).
On Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys were without wide receiver Dez Bryant and two regulars on their offensive line. No matter: They finished with 428 yards, including 138 by rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott, the NFL’s top rusher after four weeks.
Now the Cardinals (1-3) will try to get on track.
Their starting quarterback, Carson Palmer, didn’t make the trip to Santa Clara after suffering a concussion in Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams, and vagabond Drew Stanton will make his first start since 2014. Another offensive weapon, running back Chris Johnson, was placed on injured reserve this week because of a groin injury.
To reverse their downturn, the 49ers first must tighten their run defense, which ranks last in the league and has allowed a 100-yard rusher the last three games. San Francisco is giving up an average of 140.5 rushing yards. The team that finished last in that category last season, coach Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles, allowed 134.6 yards.
What’s the problem? Defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil said it was a matter of tackling technique, which he said wasn’t a problem in the preseason but has been lacking the past three games.
“You’ve got to bend at the end. You’ve got to press the hip,” O’Neil said. “All the coaching points that we constantly give the guys. We’ve got to emphasize it. Even though we’re not hitting in practice, you’ve got to finish every play that way. We did some things the past couple weeks that were uncharacteristic of us technique-wise.”
Of course, the issues are deeper than that.
Opposing running backs have been finding open lanes in recent weeks, including on Elliot’s 23-yard run in the third quarter when there was a compact-car-size gap between left defensive end Arik Armstead and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
The defensive front was supposed to be a strength for the 49ers, especially after they drafted Armstead and DeForest Buckner in the first round the last two years.
But a shoulder injury has limited Armstead, and Glenn Dorsey, a first-round pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, is just now getting back into form after last year’s ACL tear. That has pressed Mike Purcell, who went undrafted in 2013, into service. Purcell has played 163 snaps this season, second to Buckner’s 244 among 49ers defensive linemen. Buckner injured his foot late in the loss to Dallas and will not play Thursday.
While Buckner’s injury is considered short term, the 49ers also must replace their top run defender, inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who suffered a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon Sunday. Nick Bellore likely will make his first NFL start Thursday at Bowman’s former position.
Bowman led the team in tackles through four games and, moreover, was the defense’s clear-cut leader. Asked who will fill that role, O’Neil cited safety Antoine Bethea, who at 32 is the second oldest player on the defense, and lineman Quinton Dial, who is in his fourth season.
Dial pointed to a lack of communication as the problem with the run defense.
“Sometimes we’ll be on, sometimes there’ll be one guy (out of place),” he said. “I just think we all have to be on the same page consistently.”
Bethea bemoaned the loss of Bowman.
“I can’t overemphasize what it’s like to lose Bo,” he said. “You can’t replace Bo. But we can’t go into panic mode. We’ve still got to grind. We’ve still got to fight. And we still have technique that we play. This game is still about running and hitting and making plays.”