San Francisco 49ers: How the pass rush can get back on track vs. Cardinals

GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27: Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals is sacked by Arik Armstead #91 and Tank Carradine #95 of the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals won 47-7. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
GLENDALE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 27: Carson Palmer #3 of the Arizona Cardinals is sacked by Arik Armstead #91 and Tank Carradine #95 of the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter at University of Phoenix Stadium on September 27, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. The Cardinals won 47-7. (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images) /

The San Francisco 49ers pass rush hasn’t been effective much of 2017. But an NFC West road bout with the Arizona Cardinals presents an opportunity for the Niners pass-rushers to have a serious game impact.

The San Francisco 49ers have three sacks so far this season.

That number is next to last out of the entire NFL, not exactly a top-tier ranking for a Niners squad that has invested so heavily in its defensive front the past few seasons.

It’s not a good look, but all that could change in Week 4 when the 49ers travel to take on the Arizona Cardinals.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers /

San Francisco 49ers

The Cardinals are coming off a 28-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday Night Football — a game in which Arizona gave up a whopping six sacks and 11 quarterback hits.

Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer was under duress, putting things lightly, and his offensive line had particular problems blocking Cowboys pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence, who sacked Palmer three times during the game.

So how does this present an opportunity for San Francisco?

In this article, we’ll break down some of the specific weaknesses Arizona’s pass protection had and, more specifically, how the 49ers can go about exploiting them in Week 4.

Breaking Down the Cardinals/Cowboys Film

The Cowboys had a lot of luck rushing only three against the Cardinals’ questionable offensive line Monday night.

On this 3rd-and-8 play, Arizona is backed up deep in its own territory. Notice the three Dallas rushers attempting to collapse the pocket around Palmer:

Sack 1
Sack 1 /

Arizona’s O-line will double team Dallas’ two edge rushers on this particular snap, leaving a one-on-one blocking battle between Cowboys defensive tackle Maliek Collins and Cardinals center A.Q. Shipley:

Sack 2
Sack 2 /

Collins turns Shipley with relative ease, converging on the pocket and bringing down Palmer for the first of two sacks by the defensive tackle.

Now in real time:

San Francisco’s equivalent to this particular play would be nose tackle Earl Mitchell, and we’ll get to that particular matchup in a moment.

While Collins’ two sacks were impressive, and it’s important to note Shipley’s pass protection, the Cardinals had particular problems blocking Lawrence.

With just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals were in obvious passing situations trailing by 11 points. Arizona lines up in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), and Palmer is in shotgun.

This leaves a one-on-one matchup between Lawrence and Cardinals right tackle Jared Veldheer:

Sack 3
Sack 3 /

Note the pressure on the opposite side, though. This successful collapsing of the pocket — again, with only three pass-rushers — is effective enough to keep Palmer contained.

Lawrence is able to beat Veldheer and brings Palmer down:

Sack 4
Sack 4 /

The blind-side pressure prevented Palmer from escaping that direction, and Collins’ presence prevented any attempt to step up in the pocket.

Overall, the Cardinals had serious difficulty guarding against the pass rush from both the interior and off the edges.

So let’s see how this translates over to what San Francisco will have to accomplish in Week 4.

Applying the Film to the 49ers Pass Rush

We can expect the Cardinals to utilize a lot of 11 personnel in Week 3 — formations designed to get wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald operating out of the slot, which is something head coach Bruce Arians loves to do.

So that puts the Niners in a lot of nickel packages, which likely negates the need for Mitchell to be a prominent interior pass-rusher. The 49ers didn’t sign him for that purpose anyway.

You can read more on how San Francisco deploys its nickel packages here, and the defensive line is going to need to play a vital role for any defensive success on Sunday.

Related Story: 49ers film room: Player fits in Robert Saleh's nickel packages

To get an idea how the Niners plan on exploiting Arizona’s O-line and creating pressure, let’s go back to Week 2 when San Francisco recorded its second of three sacks against Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

On this 1st-and-10 play, the Seahawks have four receivers lined out wide and one running back. Defensive tackle Tank Carradine, who is lined up at left defensive end, is the player to watch here:

Sack 5
Sack 5 /

The 49ers rush five in this particular play, which possibly forces the Seahawks to keep a running back in the backfield to assist with pass protection for Wilson.

Carradine is still able to get around his man, though, and brings Wilson down despite the quarterback’s efforts to escape the pocket:

Sack 6
Sack 6 /

Note the spy on Wilson, cutting off a would-be escape route.

Carradine had been one of San Francisco’s better defenders the first three weeks of 2017. Unfortunately, a high-ankle sprain resulted in Carradine landing on short-term injured reserve.

So this likely means an increase in snaps for rookie defensive end Solomon Thomas, whom the 49ers took at No. 3 overall in this year’s NFL Draft.

Thomas has been relatively inconsistent this season, posting a 48.6 pass-rushing grade thus far, per Pro Football Focus. So it might be in the Niners’ best interests to bump Thomas over to the right defensive end spot in nickel formations, allowing edge rusher Aaron Lynch to line up on the far left of the line.

Here’s how the formation would look in the nickel, according to PFF:


This lineup would exploit the Lynch-versus-Veldheer matchup — something the Cowboys were able to do with Lawrence regularly on Monday night.

And it would still give Thomas a chance to wreak havoc on the left side of Arizona’s O-line, which leads us to the role defensive tackle DeForest Buckner will have in Week 4.

Analyzing DeForest Buckner’s Role

As seen in the above film, the Cardinals had trouble with three-man pass-rushes from the Cowboys defense.

It’s not likely the 49ers will be able to generate the same sort of success rushing three, and one would likely expect Arizona’s O-line to double team Buckner as frequently as possible.

PFF’s Jeff Deeney tells you all you need to know why that’s important for the Cardinals:

Shipley usually has been solid in pass protection, notching a 71.8 pass-blocking grade through three weeks. But if Shipley is forced to take on fellow defensive tackle Arik Armstead, this would open the door for Buckner to see a lot of one-on-one matchups with former 49ers left guard Alex Boone.

Yet Boone might be forced to assist the left side of the O-line, as long as Thomas does his part to create blind-side pressure.

More from Niner Noise

Needless to say, Buckner’s success is going to be contingent on whether or not San Francisco can generate enough pressure off the edges.

Remember the first clips featuring Collins’ sack? That’s the reference point.

San Francisco’s pass rush has struggled early this season. But Arizona displayed a poor effort protecting Palmer on Monday night, so the chances are there for the 49ers to get this group back on track.

Effectively exploiting the edge matchups will require double teams from the Cardinals guards, leaving Shipley alone to guard against Buckner.

Next: NFL power rankings: Top-10 shakeups entering Week 4

That’s a matchup the Niners can win.