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cardinals outmanned on defense; breaking down what happened on crucial fourth-quarter third down

Howard Balzer Avatar
October 3, 2023

It’s difficult enough to face the 49ers offense with all the bullets in your defensive gun.

It’s quite another when a team is on the road and has as many missing players as the Cardinals now have on defense. That was glaring Sunday as the 49ers scored touchdowns on five of their six possessions (punting once) in their 35-16 victory. The possessions don’t include kneeldowns at the end of the first half and the game.

In Week 1, safety Budda Baker played 100 percent of the snaps. On the defensive line, Jonathan Ledbetter played 58 percent, L.J. Collier 52 and Carlos Watkins 46. Inside linebackers Josh Woods played 55 percent and Krys Barnes 27. Woods suffered an ankle injury in that game and has missed the last three games. Barnes played 82 and 72 percent of the snaps in Week 2 and 3, but played only five special-teams snaps Sunday because of a finger injury suffered against the Cowboys.

With both Woods and Barnes unavailable, Ezekiel Turner played 69 percent (39) of the snaps. During his first four seasons with the Cardinals, Turner played 33 defensive snaps while playing 107 (11 percent) in 15 games last season.

None of the others were available against San Francisco. Baker, Collier and Watkins are on reserve/injured, while Ledbetter was inactive because he injured a finger against Dallas.

Asked Monday if there is a chance Woods and Ledbetter will play Sunday against the Bengals, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “I think so. We’ll see. They’re trending the right way, but we’ve got to go through the week of practice and see.”

Both Woosd and Ledbetter were on the field Wednesday morning suriong the portion of practice open to the media.

On the defensive line, rookie Dante Stills was inactive in Week 1, but his snaps have gone from 26 percent in Week 2 to 41 in Week 3 and 60 against the 49ers. Eric Banks, elevated from the practice squad for Sunday’s game, played 49 percent, while Roy Lopez, who was signed to the active roster last Monday, played 36 percent. Banks played 22 percent (15 snaps) in Week 2 against the Giants.

Asked Monday to evaluate the line, Gannon said, “I think collectively coming out of meetings today they know they’ve got to play a little bit better and a little bit cleaner. I talked to them today (and told them) the effort is there, the motor is there, but our pad levels have got to be a little bit better. We’ve got to put our hands on the right people all the time and get aligned right all the time, but I thought they did a good job.

“They came in and battled. We were down Led, but I thought honestly Dante probably had his best game in my opinion. That’s a tough scheme for a defensive lineman to go against because they put you in some conflict and do some different things, but I thought they did a good job.”

The Cardinals battled back from a 21-3 deficit Sunday and made it a one-score game at 21-16 late in the third quarter. A defensive stop would have given them the ball with a chance to go ahead for the first time since the opening possession of the game.

It was not to be. The 49ers almost effortlessly went 75 yards in eight plays to forge ahead 28-16 with 14:22 remaining in the game. Their first four touchdown drives traversed 62 yards and 75 three times on a total of 30 plays with clock time of 4:16, 5:09, 2:52 and 4:50. The final one ate up 7:14 and went 77 yards in 14 plays.

What Rallis believes

Defensive coordinator Nick Rallis was asked about several of the players that had roles larger than usual, including the decision that resulted in Banks being elevated instead of Stille.

Without being specific, he said, “We talk about it a lot, just the roles for the week and it can change and whatever skillset we felt that was best that’s how we collectively made a decision. Myself, JG, Monti (Ossenfort), the thole organization, so that’s something week to week you look at as far as matchups, the scheme, what we have to do to win the game. Adaptability.”

On Lopez: “Extremely impressed. He’s intelligent; he’s a pro. You can tell that he’s about football. Very pleased with his ability to come in in such a short time and really knew everything very well and did some good things on Sunday.”

On Stills: “He’s gotten better. This last week his snaps probably increased more than they’ve been against a really good opponent. And I thought he did a really good job. Obviously, there’s things that he can improve on, but there’s some stuff that really shows you that this guy is going to be good at this level. I was pleased with some of those snaps where he was in there doing a good job whether that was technique or knowing his assignment. Very pleased with that and excited about what he’s going to do going forward.”

On Turner: “Zeke did good. I wasn’t surprised by that at all. He’s an extremely reliable guy and he’s a good football player. I knew with him stepping into that role that he was going to go out there and execute and play good.”

On outside linebacker BJ Ojulari playing only five snaps (nine percent): “He’s still a rookie that didn’t get a lot of snaps early on in training camp, so his development is really gonna still continue to take off and increase over the course of the season. But that is a deep room and like we talk about, everyone that has a jersey is going to play; anybody up front, D-line and outside ‘backer, so the flow of the game can determine a little bit how the reps go, but I think he’ll continue to improve throughout the year.”

There has been no commitment Monday to when Williams will begin practicing, but Rallis is looking forward to when that happens, saying, “He’s a pro, he’s extremely smart, he loves the game and he works his tail off.”

The Cardinals opened the practice window Wednesday for Williams and Gannon said prior to practice, “You’re a rookie playing for the first time in the NFL and haven’t lined up once. Haven’t played in a practice for us once. So he’s in a little bit of a different spot as far as experience and things he needs to get done — technique, fundamentals, schematics. We will have our eye on him.”

As for a realistic timetable to activate him, Gannon said, “We’ll see. It depends on how he functions out there. We’ll get some practices under his belt and see how he’s doing physically and mentally and evaluate it day-by-day … He’s very intelligent and detailed. He’s excited to get back out there and I’m excited for him.”

Everyone loves Paris

On the offensive line, right tackle Paris Johnson Jr. played all 71 snaps despite being listed as questionable after injuring his ankle in practice Friday. Gannon said there was never a concern that he wouldn’t play.

He said, “He had a little tweak in practice, but I thought he was going to be good to go there.”

As for Johnson’s performance in the first four games of his career, Gannon said, “I think that everything that we’ve asked him to do on and off the field, he has done that and probably more. I guess if I say it like that, he has exceeded some expectations, but he was taken where he was taken for a reason. He plays a premium position and he’s played well.

“(It was) a good learning experience for him, but he’s played winning football for four weeks here now, so he’s in good spirits. He was yelling at me after meetings, ‘On to Cincinnati.’”

Meanwhile, Trystan Colon might be making a move to take over left guard from Elijah Wilkinson. Colon, who was claimed on waivers from the Jets on Aug. 30, played 14 snaps (23 percent) and Wilkinson 47 percent (77) against Dallas. Sunday, Colon played 25 (35 percent) and Wilkinson 46 (65 percent).

The crucial play

Colon also played the final seven snaps at center during a fourth-quarter possession that ended with a sack of quarterback Joshua Dobbs on third-and-10 from the San Francisco 35-yard line after Hjalte Froholdt was removed from the game to be evaluated for a concussion. That was the possession after the 49ers took a 28-16 lead.

On the second play, a drop by tight end Geoff Swaim, Froholdt was removed from the game by a spotter who determined he should be evaluated for a concussion.

Froholdt said Monday, “I didn’t really understand it, but obviously, the league has their protocols and someone saw something from upstairs and they decided to take me out of the game. And, it’s good those protocols are in place. They’re here to save me and help me and help everyone on the playing field. So frustrating moment, but in the end, it’s a good thing.”

After the game Sunday, Gannon had said, “That was more precautionary, which is a smart thing that the league does. He got up a little wobbly, but he was fine. They had to go through the protocol and then he came back in and finished.”

Asked what had happened, Froholdt said, “I kinda got hit, rolled over my ankle a little bit, kinda bent over, shook it off and they identified it as something … so it is what it is.”

What it was turned out not so good for the Cardinals.

They did move from their own 29-yard line to the 49ers 35, first with a third-and-6 seven-yard pass to wide receiver Michael Wilson followed by a 14-yard pass to Hollywood Brown, a 3-yard pass to Wilson and a 12-yard run by Dobbs.

It got to third-and-10 thanks to Dobbs not gaining anything on a first-down run and then on second down overthrowing tight end Zach Ertz, who was open at about the 15-yard line.

As the play-clock was nearing zero on third down, right guard Will Hernandez raised up and leaned over to say something to Colon, whose shotgun snap was low and appeared to come late. The timing was off and Wilkinson was beaten quickly by defensive tackle Javon Hargrave and the 8-yard loss prevented the Cardinals from going for a first down or a long field goal on fourth down.

“He (Hernandez) was co-signing the call there about which way he was going, but we were up against the clock,” Gannon said. I was standing next to the ref and (offensive coordinator) Drew (Petzing) said, ‘We’ll be fine. We’ll get it off.’ That’s why I didn’t call the timeout, but I thought we got out of the huddle OK.

“A little bit of miscommunication, but they fixed it on the fly. San Francisco made a good play. That was a big play in the game though because it was a two-score game there and we ended up having to punt. I wish we could have got a chance on third down or fourth down there, but they did a good job and covered and sacked us.”

Tuesday, Petzing explained, “There was a lot of communication right up until the snap point, which certainly at the end of the day is going to be on me. We gotta get in and out of the huddle; we gotta be effective at the line of scrimmage. They gave a look that was kinda unique and we had to communicate and make sure we were all on the same page.

“Certainly, there’s a play-clock element to that and then it’s one of those, hey, we check, they check, they’re communicating, we’re communicating and trying to get everything off on the right snap. Obviously, that was an unfortunate end result of that play, but I do think we did a nice job of trying to get on the same page before the ball was snapped.”

It probably would have been prudent to call a timeout to get everyone settled and make sure there was a better chance for a positive play.

Busy roster juggling

On Monday and Tuesday there were several roster moves by the Cardinals, with more likely to come.

On Monday, the contract of cornerback Kris Boyd was terminated, while cornerback Christian Matthew and offensive lineman Ilm Manning were waived. Boyd and Matthew had played only on special teams in the first four games, while Manning, who was claimed on waivers from the 49ers the day after the cuts to 53, was inactive all four games. Defensive lineman Jacob Slade’s practice-squad contract was also terminated. There were reports that Matthew is signing with the Bears practice squad.

There are currently four cornerbacks on the roster, including Starling Thomas V, who was also a waiver claim in late August and hasn’t been active for any games. Bobby Price and Divaad Wilson are on the practice squad, while Williams is now practicing.

Also eligible to return to practice are quarterback Kyler Murray, who is on reserve/phsycaolly to perform and outside linebacker Myjai Sanders, who is one reserve/injured. When players return to practice, they don’t count against the 53-man roster until they are activated. Daley was designated for return from reserve/injured Wednesday. He and Williams had their 21-day practice window begin.

Gannon said Daley “was playing good football for us. We have a role for him that we were going to use on game day. But for all these guys, we have to see where he is. A big guy coming back from an ankle, we will see where it goes this week.”

As for Murray, when asked if he is disappointed about not being able to practuice yet, Gannon said, “I don’t think there is any disappointment. We knew his timeline, where he is at, and that’s kind of a day-by-day thing with all the guys coming off an injury. He actually has been very upbeat the whole time, but this last couple of weeks I have seen a little bit of a different bounce in his step. He’ll keep going day-by-day and when he’s ready to get out there, we’ll get him out there.”

The following day, one hour after special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers had his weekly talk with the media, the Cardinals announced that punter Nolan Cooney had been waived and replaced by Blake Gillikin. They also signed safety Joey Blount from the practice squad and signed defensive lineman Phil Hoskins to the practice squad. That left two open spots on the 53-man roster.

Cooney’s final punt went only 20 yards at the end of the possession examined earlier. In 13 punts this season, he averaged 46.4 yards with a net of 41.4, one touchback and two inside the 20.

Gillikin punted for the Saints the last two seasons before losing his job to rookie free agent Lou Hedley. In 2021, he punted 83 times for a 47.7-yard average, 42.0 net with four touchbacks and 29 inside the 20. Last season, those numbers were 77-46.4-41.4-7-32.

Most important is that kicker Matt Prater will now have only a few days to get accustomed to a new holder.

Said Gannon on the decision to make a change, “We look at everything—the whole body of work after each game and we just felt like this was the best decision for the team. Blake has punted at a high level for a pretty good amount of time. I’m excited to get him into the fold.”

The Cardinals also had tryouts this week for running backs Jermar Jefferson, Jerrion Ealy and Jacob Saylors; wide receivers Keke Coutee and Malik Turner and quarterback Anthony Brown.

The quote

Rallis on the performance by 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey Sunday: “The ball happened to find him.”

It sure did.

Charting the snaps (snaps/percentage; starters in bold)

*Indicates player that did not play from scrimmage, but participated on special teams

OFFENSE (61 snaps, 18 players)

Quarterbacks: Joshua Dobbs (71/100)

Did not play: Clayton Tune

Reserve/physically unable to perform: Kyler Murray (eligible to return)

Running backs: James Conner (44/62), Emari Demercado (25/35)

Did not play: *Corey Clement

Inactive: Keaontay Ingram (injured)

Wide receivers: Marquise Brown (67/94), Rondale Moore (54/76), Michael Wilson (50/70), Zach Pascal (21/30), Greg Dortch (1/1)

Tight ends: Zach Ertz (54/76), Geoff Swaim (20/28), Trey McBride (19/27)

Inactive: Elijah Higgins

Offensive linemen: LT D.J. Humphries (71/100), RG Will Hernandez (71/100), RT Paris Johnson Jr. (71/100), C Hjalte Froholdt (64/90), LG Elijah Wilkinson (46/65), LG/C Trystan Colon (32/45)

Did not play: C/G *Keith Ismael, T Kelvin Beachum

Inactive: T Carter O’Donnell, T/G Ilm Manning

Reserve/injured: G Dennis Daley (eligible to return)

DEFENSE (55 snaps, 19 players)

Defensive linemen: NT Leki Fotu (42/76), DE Dante Stills (33/60), DE Kevin Strong Jr. (30/55), DE Eric Banks (27/49), DE Roy Lopez (20/36)

Inactive: DE Jonathan Ledbetter

Reserve/injured: DE L.J. Collier (eligible to return after Week 5), DE Carlos Watkins (eligible to return after Week 6)

Linebackers: ILB Kyzir White (55/100), ILB Ezekiel Turner (38/69), OLB Zaven Collins (28/51), OLB Victor Dimukeje (27/49), OLB Dennis Gardeck (20/36),OLB Cameron Thomas (19/35), OLB Jesse Luketa (15/27), OLB BJ Ojulari (5/9)

Did not play: ILB *Krys Barnes, ILB *Owen Pappoe

Inactive: ILB Josh Woods (injured)

Reserve/injured: OLB Myjai Sanders (eligible to return)

Defensive backs: S Jalen Thompson (55/100), S K’Von Wallace (55/100), CB Marco Wilson (54/98), CB Kei’Trel Clark (54/98), S Andre Chachere (27/49), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (1/2)

Did not play: CB *Christian Matthew, CB *Kris Boyd, S *Qwuantrezz Knight

Inactive: CB Starling Thomas V

Reserve/injured: S Budda Baker (eligible to return after Week 6)

Reserve/non-football injury: CB Garrett Williams (eligible to return)

SPECIAL TEAMS (22 snaps, 31 players)

LB Jesse Luketa (20/91), CB Christian Matthew (19/86), CB Antonio Hamilton Sr. (17/77), WR Zach Pascal (15/68), LB Victor Dimukeje (15/68), LB Owen Pappoe (13/52), LB Dennis Gardeck (13/59), CB Kris Boyd (13/59), WR/RS Greg Dortch (11/50), LB Ezekiel Turner (11/50), TE Geoff Swaim (9/41), RB Corey Clement (8/36), K Matt Prater (6/27), P Nolan Cooney (6/27), LS Aaron Brewer (6/27), TE Trey McBride (6/27), LB Cameron Thomas (6/27), NT Leki Fotu (5/23), DE Eric Banks (5/23), LB Krys Barnes (5/23), LB BJ Ojulari (5/23), CB Marco Wilson (5/23), S Andre Chachere (4/18), S Qwuantrezz Knight (4/18), G Elijah Wilkinson (2/9), C Hjalte Froholdt (2/9), G Will Hernandez (2/9), T Paris Johnson Jr. (2/9), C/G Trystan Colon (2/9), C/G Keith Ismael (2/9), WR Michael Wilson (1/5)

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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