Last Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers faced off against the Los Angeles Chargers as double-digit underdogs. They were without their franchise quarterback, Jimmy Garoppolo, and their backup quarterback, C.J. Beathard, had played poorly in the preseason.
Statistically, Beathard proved the doubters wrong by nearly leading the 49ers to an upset win. The offensive line also allowed the fewest sacks so far this year. What lies beneath the surface of these impressive statistics is the dark reality that the 49ers offensive line is a group of walking wounded.
Both offensive tackles and their center could be out this week due to knee injuries. Beathard was only sacked one time but he was hit a total of nine times and nearly had to leave the game with an injury.
These are trying times for the 49ers offensive line. With the injuries piling up so early in the season, this will undoubtedly test their mental fortitude and depth at home against the winless Arizona Cardinals.
Preview Versus The Cardinals
The Cardinals feature a 4-3 alignment with some adjustments on the edge. Markus Golden and Chandler Jones are making the transition from outside linebacker to defensive end this season. What makes this switch so unique is that both are used in a hybrid role.
Golden is coming off an injury-shortened 2017 campaign when he tore his ACL and has been limited this season as well with that knee. He only has two tackles in 2018 but his pass rushing prowess should not be overlooked. He had 12.5 sacks in 2016 as an outside linebacker.
Jones has had 28 sacks the past two seasons with Arizona and is a matchup nightmare for offensive tackles. He is still adjusting to his new role as a defensive end but has recorded three sacks in four games. His long arms (35.5”) are always a weapon in passing situations to bat balls down.
Robert Nkemdiche has slowly gained playing time with the Cardinals. He has started in all four games for the team in 2018 and has recorded the first two sacks of his career. He has long, massive arms (33 7/8”) which can be useful in the pass rush. He is questionable, though, with a foot injury.
Corey Peters is the least known defensive lineman on the Cardinals roster but he has proven to be a tackling machine in 2018. He already has 13 tackles but has yet to record a sack. He is dealing with a balky elbow and is also questionable.
The Cardinals bring a lot of pressure from the outside with safeties Budda Baker and Tre Boston. Baker has been used in this role before but with a new coaching staff, his time on the outside has escalated. He already has half a sack for the season and can be a problem for offensive tackles with his speed.
Boston is a backup at free safety but is used as a pass rushing nickel back. He does not have any sacks but can cause confusion along the offensive line.
The Cardinals feature shutdown cornerback Patrick Peterson who has also been used on blitzes. He only has one sack this season and three for his career but can make the most of a mistake made by the offensive line.
Review Versus The Chargers
The 49ers offensive line was pretty banged up at the end of the game. Two of their starters, Weston Richburg and Mike McGlinchey were able to finish the game but are questionable against the Cardinals. Their resiliency was admirable throughout the course of the game as the Niners nearly pulled out a win.
The 49ers did not enjoy much of a performance in the running game. However, Matt Breida provided a strong run on the first offensive play for the 49ers. At the snap of the ball, Breida ran behind Joe Staley who immediately hunted down a linebacker to block.
Denzel Perryman used every fiber of his 5-foot-11, 240-pound frame to try and stop Breida from getting away. Staley was magnificent in keeping his footing and preventing Perryman from making the stop. Breida rumbled for a quick 12 yard gain which started the 49ers first scoring drive of the game.
On the next play, the 49ers completed a pass for another first down. The left tackle Staley was matched up against Melvin Ingram who is one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL.
Ingram tried to draw Staley far outside of the pocket. This strategy has frequently led to sacks against the 49ers this season. Unlike most of those plays, Staley was able to stay with his man the entire time and the 49ers were able to get another first down.
The Chargers only recorded a single sack in the game but they were able to bring a lot of pressure and made some alarmingly hard hits on Beathard. Much of this had to do with the Chargers strategy. The 49ers have struggled with delayed blitzes this season and the Chargers decided to expose that weakness.
Rookie safety Derwin James waited for the 49ers offensive line to be preoccupied with their various assignments before blasting through a wide open gap in the line. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was covering the edge of the line while James rushed down the middle and did not come close to slowing him down. The pass was completed but it was the start of a long day for Beathard who was constantly hit throughout the game.
The Chargers’ lone sack of the game exposed the 49ers injury issues along the offensive line. McGlinchey was briefly out of the game but eventually returned. While he was out, Eric Magnuson filled in and faced off against Melvin Ingram.
This matchup proved to be too much for Magnuson as he was clearly caught off guard by Ingram’s determination and speed. As a result, Beathard was forced out of the pocket Derwin James was waiting. James had to back away from his blocker in order to get the right angle on the quarterback to make the play.
Late in the game, the 49ers were trying to mount a comeback. However, they were without their star left tackle, Staley. Garry Gilliam filled in and battled against defensive end, Chris Landrum. He allowed Landrum to run right by him in the middle of the line. Beathard was heavily pressured from the left side and threw the ball into traffic where it was intercepted to end the game.
The NFL is a copy-cat league. When a team has a weakness it has failed to correct, other teams pounce on a similar strategy which has been effective against the weakness. This can be a real thorn in the side of a team, especially with the offensive line.
The Chargers were able to copy some of the same strategies the 49ers offensive line has been struggling with during the season. The Cardinals employ a number of various fronts, similar to the Chargers, and can use that to expose the 49ers offensive line’s vulnerabilities. They also blitz defensive backs at opportunistic times. Either one of these weaknesses can be exposed against the Cardinals.
Injuries along the offensive line are a huge factor against the Cardinals. Staley, McGlinchey, and Richburg are listed as questionable. This puts the 49ers in a precarious position because this is over half of their offensive line.
The defensive line they are facing is extensive in their schemes and has the athleticism to make those schemes lethal to an offense. The health of the 49ers offensive line may determine the outcome of this game.