Article Title: Knocking out the champs.
The anticipation was overwhelming for me as I waited for this opening game against the Arizona Cardinals inside the University of Phoenix mega-dome in Glendale, Arizona. The 2009 San Francisco 49ers stared into the face of the National Football Conference Champion Arizona Cardinals and never blinked from any sort of fear. Mike Singletary had instilled a mindset that was clearly showcased on this late afternoon inside this arena overflowing with hostile Cardinal fans.
Although one of the most unconventional victories ever obtained, it was a victory that elevated the persona of every 49er athlete to a higher level once the dust had settled with the 49ers defeating the mega-offensive juggernaut in Kurt Warner’s Arizona Cardinals 20-16. This victory was an honest sign of the hard work both mentally and physically done throughout Camp Singletary and the billboards posted throughout the Bay Area with Mike’s stern-like face peering down on you.
The 2009 Arizona Cardinals had a definite game plan in store for Mike Singletary’s 49ers. And at various moments inside this game especially within the second half they almost succeeded in shifting the momentum towards their favor by mere fractions when they went up 16-13 following a Neil Rackers 43-yard field goal just into the fourth quarter of play. The game by its own design was a high-powered prolific aerial offense pitted against a smash-mouth tenacious defense, in that Kurt Warner was the difference-maker in sheer experience and versatility. Our San Francisco 49er defense broke down those perceptions and bruised and battered him into a sense of reality that we are not at all what we were from last season.
Nothing was as special to me as the timeout called by San Francisco with 1:32 left to play in the third quarter and the Arizona Cardinals were perched on our very own 37-yard line. It was there at that moment the game was hanging right in the balance in that the sense of a turning point was at hand for the Arizona Cardinals to take control. Mike Singletary assembled his entire defensive unit around him one-third out on to the field of play and with the stature of a relentless football evangelist he motivated the unit to stop the ensuing tide before them. It was without question a moment where all 49er die-hards can rejoice at the union he has created between the coach and the team.
The Shaun Hill miracle drive of 15 plays and 80 total yards started from our very own 20-yard line following the Arizona field goal that gave them the lead for the first time in the game. The drive was a series of short to intermediate quick passes that set-up the 49ers on the Cardinal three-yard line and culminated with a short uncovered pass to Frank Gore who walked in for the touchdown that sealed the game’s entirety.
It was a drive unlike any other throughout the game, as Shaun Hill was pressured, battered and sacked for a total of four times and a loss of 27 total yards. He completed 18-of-31 passes for 209 total yards and one touchdown. His quarterback rating came in at a conservative 89.3% but he never threw an interception against the ball-hawking defensive backfield of the Arizona Cardinals and did just enough to help turn a critical victory on the road against the Cardinals.
San Francisco 49er offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye stood by the rushing attack philosophy of trying to certify the notion that we will run the ball despite all attempts to stop it. The Arizona Cardinals effectively suffocated the running attack by shutting down Frank Gore over the entirety of the game with him carrying the ball 22 times for 30 total yards and 1.4-yards per carry average. A pathetic percentage encased in an ideology that we had to run the ball no matter what the cost, in that more first downs would’ve been inevitable had we made some better decisions in applying the run or pass in some impossible situations.
Twice within the game the San Francisco 49ers ran the ball three and out, once deep into their own territory at the three-yard line. It was enough to send you into cardiac arrest thinking, “what are they even thinking?” Here you have a pressing moment to get the ball out away from your own end zone and you do that by handing off the ball three consecutive times knowing that all throughout the game the run has been virtually ineffective against the Arizona defense.
Frustration takes place even in my mind, as to the mindset of this play calling under offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye being that a third down conversion on third-and-seven from your own five-yard line needs to send off alarm signals to you that a play from your quarterback is the absolute best way to move forward.
Beyond the maddening scenario I just described, I will say that I was impressed with the genius play calling of defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in that heat and pressure came from all kinds of various directions in throwing the kitchen sink at Arizona Cardinal Quarterback Kurt Warner. Most notably the pressure and sack mastery came from 49er veterans Justin Smith, Parys Haralson and Ray McDonald. But the entire defensive unit applied consistent and unwavering pressure on Warner’s ability to get away with his normal quick release.
Of course all of this was helped by a 49er secondary that was elite in its coverage skills against a variety of Cardinal lethal weapons in Larry Fitzgerald who was blanketed most of the day catching 6-of-11 passes for 71 total yards and one touchdown. In all the Arizona high-flying circus was limited to 288 total passing yards and a healthy respect for both Nate Clements and Patrick Willis of whom each came away with game interceptions.
Outside of the 80-yard miracle drive, Shaun Hill was as harassed as Kurt Warner was in every sense of the word in that he made mental errors in a lot of his passes either under-throwing some and even over-throwing others. The in-your-face heat the Arizona Cardinals applied proved to be most effective in rattling his senses. I was wondering why Shaun seemed compelled to stay within the pocket as much as he did versus breaking outside the pocket to gain leverage on surveying the field or just taking off using the feet he did so well with last season.
Still even more visible was the number of wide receivers that were wide-open while he was under pressure and could’ve used just a tad bit more time to hook on to some accomplished and profitable targets that were pressing him for his attention. Between these instances and the annihilation of our running game all seemed so lost, until the philosophical state of mind dictated a change in being anal and methodical in running the ball, we might have well lost this opening game.
Our keen ability to keep Kurt Warner grounded and limit their third down efficiency to just 29% were factors. The defense played an integral role in creating and triumphing on turnovers and well as good field position. We outlasted Arizona in time of possession by 31:37 to 28:23. One other important lesson learned was the devastating 12 penalties incurred by the Arizona Cardinals at a cost of 82 total yards and so much more.
There were notable mistakes in pass protection and run blocking by the offensive line the area of most concern being the right-side of the line where Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder anchor at. Winning those battles at the line is crucial if you are to try and develop a productive rushing attack. Obviously there is a lot of work to do on the line’s part in eradicating the current fears that we will not be able to sustain a great rushing attack should the line continue playing at this level.
But the Arizona Cardinals came and came and came, lining up with eight-man fronts and even blitzing on first and second downs to orchestrate upheaval in our ability to command the line of scrimmage. So don’t go up to Mike Singletary and tell him congratulations on winning the game even though it was an “ugly win.” He will want to hear nothing of the sort. In fact he will admonish you for even allowing the words part your lips. “It was beautiful for us,” he said.
What is interesting and we’ll see as the season progresses is how well Jimmy and Mike change things up as indicated briefly here in this game when all seemed utterly lost at most points in the game. A ratio of 60%-40% run and pass has to be subject to immediate changes based upon any certain given situation. I applaud the efforts to run the ball, it should be continued. However we have to be more conclusion-minded to revert to what is working sometimes rather than to stick to the scheme that is not working and is failing right before your eyes. Mike’s conception that the defense would help save our victory was warranted when the final minutes passed and the Arizona Cardinals stood dazed and confused at what had just happened in the confines of their beloved dome.
I’m convinced that we have a legitimate chance to be a division contender this year should we maintain our motivational rebirth from where we were under Mike Nolan to now. I am also in awe at the inspirational following happening within the Bay Area and beyond in reference to Mike Singletary bringing back the kind of hope that has not existed within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge since the coaching incarnation of Bill Walsh himself.
Sources of Information: Mercury News.com, SF Gate.com, Inside Bay Area.com, NFL.com and my own personal analysis and opinion.