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While the emergence of the Cardinals’ young tight ends has been a positive development as the 2023 season approaches its conclusion, the recent disappearance of the wide receivers led by Hollywood Brown has been troubling.
Because of a pesky heel injury, Brown played 53 percent of the snaps against the Steelers before the bye and then only 32 percent last Sunday against the 49ers.
Since being limited on Wednesday of the Week 12 game against the Rams, Brown has been limited in two other practices and did not practice in eight, including the first two this week. He has no receptions in the last two games and the remainder of the group hasn’t picked up the slack.
Michael Wilson had no receptions against the 49ers after returning from missing four of the previous five games, while rarely used receiver Zach Pascal had four targets and no catches in that game with some attempts downfield, which is a telltale sign of the unit’s issues.
To add misery to the situation, Greg Dortch missed the first two practices this week because of a shoulder injury.
In the last two games, wide receivers have been targeted 22 times with only six successes for 45 yards.
When asked immediately after the game last Sunday about the lack of production, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “A lot of times, again, concept-driven versus a team that plays a lot of zone like that and they do a good job of trying to take away your perimeter guys. There’s going to be some plays being made. So, I don’t know what Hollywood’s stat sheet was, but he’s affecting the game in a positive way because how you have to defend him and that opens up some other guys to do some things.
“When you play shell defense because you’re worried about the receivers and the run game should come alive a little bit, which I thought we ran it pretty good today.”
The following day, he admitted, “I think we need to get the receivers more involved. I would say this: every game plays differently so I’m not a huge guy of, ‘Oh well, this needs to happen or this needs to happen.’ Just because I think you need to be intentional and deliberate about how you’re trying to attack an offense or a defense.
“That’s why when I talked to you guys yesterday, I didn’t even know that stat truthfully. It didn’t hit my brain like that as I’m watching it. I saw us move the ball up and down the field. We’ve got to score more points in the red zone, that’s what hit my brain, and protect the football. With (that being said), yes we have to maximize our guys’ touches and opportunities in the pass game, and that’s all 11 guys doing that together.”
Meanwhile, quarterback Kyler Murray said he “definitely” knows when the wideouts aren’t getting the ball.
“I notice who I’m throwing it to,” he said. “I may not know how many yards somebody has. That’s definitely a possibility, but no. I definitely understand what he’s saying though. He’s just worried about the offense moving the ball. I know who hasn’t touched it. I understand all that and I feel it too. It’s frustrating, but we’ve got to find ways to not necessarily spread it around, but get those guys touches because they’re playmakers.”
After the game, Murray said, “I feel it (frustration), too. I keep trying to find ways to get those guys the ball. That’s something I can be better about. As an offense, find ways to get those guys the ball because I know it’s frustrating. Hell, I’m frustrated for them. I’m not used to that, so we’ll be better.”
As for how Brown’s absence is affecting the offense, Murray said, “Right now, I’m sure he’d probably tell you it’s not affecting it at all just because of the frustrations of not getting the ball, but not having him out there is definitely; you got one of your best receivers not out there. A playmaker. That’s definitely a hit on the offense.”
Offensive coordinator Drew Petzing said there’s a balance between focusing on getting the ball to wide receivers with the ability to find the tight ends, especially ret McBride.
Petzing said, “There is a moment when it’s more like, ‘Hey are your top guys touching the ball, are they impacting the game?’ In the course of the game, we might have that conversation, ‘Hey let’s call these two plays and try and to get him the ball.’
“Sometimes it goes there, sometimes it doesn’t. Kyler is doing a nice job of making sure the ball is going where it is supposed to and not forcing the ball.”
Wide receiver Rondale Moore, who has five targets with three receptions for 11 yards in the last two games, said Thursday, “Sometimes the nature of the business is the ball doesn’t come to you” and added, “I encourage you guys to go watch the tape. I speak for myself and these other guys. They have the ability to win.”
They’re simply not doing it now and there are serious questions whether they will be able to in the final three games.”
The eye test
After Sunday’s game, Gannon was asked if 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey being so wide open on a 41-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter was because of a miscommunication.
McCaffrey was so wide open, he was back-pedaling for the ball, fell down, and was still able to get to his feet and score.
“Yeah, that’s on coaching,” Gannon said, “Anytime a guy is wide open, it’s completely on coaching.”
McCaffrey ran through the line of scrimmage on the play and was running at safety Jalen Thompson, who seemed to look at something else and McCaffrey ran right by him.
When asked Monday about that play and another one where wide receiver Deebo Samuel went in motion to the left and also ended up wide open for a 12-yard touchdown in the first quarter, and if it was truly coaching or execution, Gannon explained, “We’ve got to make sure we’re coaching our guys to put their eyes in the right spot (on) those two plays.”
Tuesday, defensive coordinator Nick Rallis went into more detail about Gannon’s focus on the eyes.
“Ultimately, it always starts with the coaching,” Rallis said. “Whether it’s a schematic thing or it is a detail thing within the scheme of how do we execute it better. A combination of all those things. It’s how can we make the scheme better? How we can make the rules better so that sort of thing doesn’t happen. Or, ‘Hey man, we should have been good there.’
“How do we get the player to be able to recognize that and put themselves in position to make that play. But, ultimately, we gotta be better as coaches to get that corrected and players gotta go execute it.”
Rallis then explained that the “eyes are really the start of your process. That’s one part of processing is what you see with your eyes. Obviously, there’s things that are tactile and are things that you feel that help you process especially when you get down in the trenches. But everything starts with your eyes as far as what is my assignment.
“What is the offense doing and how do I need to respond to what I’m getting. So when he’s talking about eye discipline, he’s talking about did we see what we needed to see correctly in order to trigger the correct response within what our scheme is versus what they were giving us. So eyes are the first part of our sensory process that triggers our actions that carry out what we need to do within the scheme.”
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday that on the McCaffrey play, they liked what the Cardinals were showing.
“I was so stressed because we knew we had the look and it was something we knew would take a long time to develop, but we felt if we could hold on it would be there,” Shanahan said. “Then we knew Christian got to the spot, but we didn’t think we were going to be able to hold on. Then Brock (Purdy) did a hell of a job buying some time so he could get away from the internal pressure. Then right when he threw it, I was like, ‘all right, perfect, we pulled it off.’
“But you could tell Christian didn’t pick up the ball right away. So the whole time it was in the air, it just looked like he was going to stumble or it was going to go over him. But then when he caught it, we knew we were all right because we knew he was alone. It was a cool deal and I was pumped they were able to pull it off.”
Shanahan also said on the Samuel play, “It was just some things we saw on tape and just trying to make things tie together. We thought some things that showed on tape could maybe play out that way and we got the right look and it played out well.”
However, when told about Shanahan’s comments, Rallis said, “Those were two brand new, unique plays.”
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