For the most part, the Arizona Cardinals have been the team we expected them to be this year. They rank first in the league in pace of play (and 11th in pass play rate — a ranking that would be even higher if not for all the Kyler Murray runs), and they rank 31st in time of possession while allowing the most opponent plays per game.
The 49ers, meanwhile, have been an even better version of what we expected — with an ultra-stout defense allowing them to rank 25th in pace of play and first in rush play rate, while ranking second in time of possession and allowing the fewest opponent plays per game. When these teams met two weeks ago (I will never understand why the schedule-makers do this…), the Cardinals were able to ride Kenyan Drake and a big play from Andy Isabella to give the 49ers a run for their money. Vegas isn’t buying, as the 49ers enter as 10.5 point favorites at home.
The big news on the 49ers’ side of the ball is the absence of George Kittle and the potential absence of Emmanuel Sanders, as Kittle has recent target counts of 8 // 5 // 7 // 8, while Sanders has gone 5 // 9 // 4 (injury) since joining the team. These two combined for 17 targets in the last game against the Cardinals, with Manny popping off for 112 yards and a touchdown while Kittle went 6-79-1. The Cardinals have allowed a whopping 12 notable stat lines to pass catchers this year (1.33 per game) with an additional four allowed to running backs.
The clearest setup for the 49ers is at tight end, where Ross Dwelley played 76 of a possible 83 snaps last week (compared to 12 and 10 for veteran blocking complements Levine Toilolo and Garrett Celek) — and while he hauled in only three catches for 24 yards, he saw seven targets. Dwelley has been a developmental project for the 49ers (signed as an undrafted free agent last year; time on the practice squad; etc.), but the knock against him coming out of college was that he’s a strong pass catcher but can’t block. This is enough to keep him off the field for a regular role right now — but with Kittle out, he’s soaking up snaps, and his lack of blocking ability doesn’t bother us.
The next piece that jumps off the page here, of course, is Deebo Samuel, who (as everyone in the DFS community is surely aware) saw 11 targets on Monday night against Seattle (turning these looks into 8-112-0). Samuel played 70 snaps last week, and he saw seven targets against Arizona in Week 9 with Kittle and Sanders on the field. He’s also a favorite of Coach Shanahan’s — which especially stands out against Dante Pettis, who has been in Shanny’s doghouse all year, and Kendrick Bourne, who has made some costly mental errors.
Speaking of Bourne: he saw eight targets last week and is a quiet bet for steady involvement if Sanders misses. At the very least, Bourne will spend almost the entire game on the field if Sanders misses, after playing 71.1% of the snaps last week.
Now that we have explored all that, it’s also worth exploring the other side of the coin: the fact that Jimmy Garoppolo threw the ball 46 times last week (and threw it 37 times in the close game vs Arizona in Week 9), after failing to crack even 30 pass attempts in five of his first seven games (and failing to top 33 pass attempts in any of those first seven games). Jimmy’s lowest-attempt games are fairly easy to account for (27 throws in a two-touchdown win at Tampa in Week 1, with this team desperately trying to get the “road win” monkey off their back and allowing Jameis to walk into mistakes all game rather than asking Jimmy G to get aggressive || 25 attempts in a 41-17 blowout win over the Bengals || 29 attempts in a 31-3 blowout win over the Browns || 21 attempts in the bad weather “mud game” at Washington || 22 attempts in a 51-13 blowout win over the Panthers). The Cardinals don’t make a habit of being blown out (six of their nine games this year have finished with six or fewer points separating the two teams), but they have lost by 17+ three separate times, and “at San Francisco” is not an easy spot. The likeliest scenario in this spot has Jimmy G throwing 30 to 33 times — but the risk of a 25-or-fewer attempt game should not be entirely discounted; and with how hot the field should be for this cheap passing attack, that risk is obviously very much worth thinking about as you work your way through the ways you want to handle this game.
It never made sense to me that everyone got hyped up to play Tevin Coleman after he topped 100 yards and scored three touchdowns…on 11 carries — and he has followed up that game with 12 and nine carries (14 and 13 touches). With that said: a matchup against the Cardinals almost implores you to roster at least one player, as it has just been too easy for offenses to pile up production in this spot. Before this stretch of lower-target games, Coleman had seen touch counts of 16 // 20 // 22. Matt Breida is looking likely to miss (current reports have him missing a couple weeks — though if Breida ends up playing, it wouldn’t be the first time…or the second time…or even the third time that he’s been expected to miss, only to show up active on Sunday), and if this proves to be the case, it should be Coleman seeing about 60% of the snaps // RB touches, with Raheem Mostert seeing the rest. The 49ers have been hesitant to use Mostert or Breida near the goal line, so Coleman (15th in the league in red zone carries in spite of missing several weeks) will be the best bet for both production and touchdowns, while Mostert will have to hit on efficiency or longer plays (or will need one of his rare red zone touches to pay off). The pass game role for both of these players is merely dumpoff-driven, so you’re building primarily around yardage and touchdowns if grabbing one of these two. A lower-volume game from the 49ers’ passing attack would almost certainly mean a higher-volume game from Coleman and Mostert.
Arizona has a fairly impossible matchup in the air against a San Francisco team that is allowing the second fewest fantasy points per game to quarterbacks and is one of only three teams with more interceptions than passing touchdowns allowed. San Francisco is shaving 16% off the league-average aDOT and 10% off the league-average catch rate — each of which ranks second in the league (a nearly impossible combination to pull off, as most teams force a shorter aDOT by “giving up underneath throws and taking away the downfield portions of the field,” thereby boosting catch rate). They have allowed the fewest wide receiver receptions and the third fewest wide receiver yards, and outside of John Ross and Tyler Boyd both topping 100 yards in this matchup deep into a blowout, the highest yardage total through the air against them came from Andy Isabella, on his one-catch performance a couple weeks back. No team has allowed fewer pass plays of 20+ yards than the 49ers. It’s just throwing darts to try to pick on this pass defense.
On the flip side: we entered this season exploring the reasons why we should expect the 49ers to be much better against the pass than most were expecting, but to struggle against the run — and they proceeded to shut down both the pass and the run for the first several weeks. But this has all finally begun to come around, as the 49ers rank first in DVOA against the pass, but 17th against the run, while allowing 4.47 yards per carry to enemy backs. Unfortunately, that pretty much ends the “good news,” as San Francisco has allowed the second fewest receiving yards to running backs and the second fewest touchdowns; and given how thoroughly they control their games, only six teams have faced fewer running back rush attempts. The Cardinals are also splitting looks between Drake (43 snaps last week) and David Johnson (29 snaps last week), with Kliff Kingsbury talking this week about how they are trying to figure out how these pieces fit together moving forward. As Drake showed in Week 9: it’s not impossible for a running back to hit in this spot — but if we played out this slate a hundred times, his Week 9 outing would obviously prove to be the outlier, rather than the norm.
JM’s Interpretation ::
The Cardinals’ side of the ball is fairly easy to figure out, as the likeliest scenarios don’t have any player on this average- to below-average team posting a “have to have it” score on the road against one of the three or four toughest defenses in football (and a “have to have it” score would be pretty necessary to justify the low floor a play from the Cardinals exposes you to). There are ways in which a player from this squad could hit for those who want to chase, but most tributaries for this game don’t make the Cardinals particularly useful.
Unfortunately, the fact that the Cardinals are in such a tough spot here makes the 49ers’ side a bit more difficult to figure out, as our best path to volume on this passing attack is the Cardinals keeping this game competitive — with a blowout opening potential for another “25 or fewer” pass attempt game from Garoppolo. If Sanders plays, it will be Sanders // Deebo // Dwelley as the primary targets, and if Sanders misses, it will be Deebo // Bourne // Dwelley. In the first scenario, Sanders and Deebo are both tourney options in this great spot — with a strong chance for each to see at least six targets, and with some obvious paths to more — and Dwelley will be an intriguing salary saver in all contest types (primarily on DK/FDraft, of course — where tight end pricing is less condensed). If Sanders misses, Deebo is almost certainly too cheap to not play in cash, where his big game on national television (after pricing was set) will draw massive ownership his way — and he should pay off his cheap price with six to eight targets in a likeliest scenario, making him a player to keep in mind in tourneys in spite of his status as sure-to-be-chalk. If choosing to fade Deebo (who went 4-40-0 on seven targets when these teams met two weeks ago), your best bet is to not do so in a vacuum, but to instead pivot over to a different player from the 49ers, as one or two strong stat lines are likely to emerge from this team, and these players are far too cheap for the matchup. Dwelley // Bourne // Coleman are all solid bets to post the top score on the 49ers, with Mostert having an outside shot as well. Deebo will have a good shot at hitting if Sanders misses; but given how high his ownership is likely to climb in that scenario, his actual chance of hitting for a “have to have it” score will be lower than the percentage at which he is owned.