Playbook: Cardinals blitz stymies Smith

Throughout the season, the 49ers offense has relied on a steady running game and a quarterback who can get the ball out quick and on time versus the blitz. That’s all you need when you have a top-shelf defense.

But while Alex Smith owns one of the league’s top quarterback ratings versus the blitz (behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady at 114.1), the Cardinals found a way to pressure the 49ers quarterback in their 21-19 win on Sunday.

And they did it over and over and over again.

Out of the 49ers’ 58 offensive plays, Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton blitzed 35 times (more than 60 percent), sending variations of the Fire-X blitz with linebackers between the center and guard A-gaps while also mixing in defensive back pressures from the periphery. On numerous other occasions, where San Francisco rushed only four men, the Cardinals brought the illusion of pressure, walking a linebacker into the A-gap and dropping at the snap.

The strategy: Make the 49ers’ protection account for more rushers than you can block and make Smith get rid of the ball quick versus Arizona’s man coverage. Against that game plan, Smith had one of his least productive games of the season, completing only 18 of his 37 pass attempts and converting on only two of 15 third downs through the air.

It would be wrong to say that generally Smith struggles versus the blitz because of the numbers, but he certainly struggled against this particular blitz scheme. In the 49ers’ prior matchup with the Cardinals in Week 11, Arizona brought most of their pressure outside of the guards and at the tackles; mind you, San Fran left tackle Joe Staley was healthy and those blitzes were picked up, and Smith was able to step up in the pocket and make throws.

When rushed this weekend, however, Smith was unable to execute the quick throw with pressure coming right up the middle.  And when he got the ball out, he was inaccurate in tighter windows versus the Cardinals’ man-to-man coverage.

Heading down the home stretch and into the playoffs, the 49ers will inevitably have to win games versus prolific offense, for example, the Packers or Saints. That also means they will need an efficient pass game versus the blitz. Not only can Green Bay and New Orleans put up points, but they are No. 1 and No. 6 in bringing the blitz, respectively.

San Francisco has been great at discouraging defenses from loading the box with defenders against the run, if Smith can make pressure throws. They’ll need to get back on track in that department, and what better opportunity than next week, against Horton’s tutor in Pittsburgh, Dick LeBeau?

“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — airs Friday at 8 p.m. ET (AFC) and 9 p.m. ET (NFC) on NFL Network. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.

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