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Cardinals facing a dynamic 49ers running game in primetime matchup

San Francisco 49ers running back Tevin Coleman runs with ball for a touchdown during the first half of an NFL football game against the Carolina Panthers Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Cardinals went up against an offensive buzzsaw in the New Orleans Saints, even without their star running back, last week.

Things don’t get any easier with yet another top NFC contender in the San Francisco 49ers on the docket, who travel to State Farm Stadium on Thursday.

While a lot of the talk has been centered around rookie defensive end Nick Bosa and the team’s dominant defense, the 49ers’ offense has been running it down opposing teams’ gullets all season.

Averaging 40 rushing plays to just 20 passing per game, San Francisco is clearly focused on being a run-first team, using shifts and motions ahead of the snap to keep defenses on their heels.

“Those things make it impossible to gap it out and their reason is to un-gap you before the ball’s snapped,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph said ahead of practice on Tuesday. “That’s the beauty of what they do, so we have to do a good job of having calls that they can’t un-gap us before the ball’s snapped. We win the pre-snap and hopefully win the post-snap, that’s the goal.

“Their running game is primary, and their pass game is built off of that. Their runs and passes look totally alike, so for the safeties and the backers fitting the run and now chasing the pass, that makes it tough, but there’s ways to get it done and we have to do it on Thursday.”

Although running back Tevin Coleman missed three of the first four games due to injury, the two-headed monster of he and running back Matt Breida have rolled ever since his return in Week 5.

The duo’s combined for 529 yards and six scores on just 108 carries, while adding another 86 yards and two touchdowns on 15 receptions as pass catchers over the last four games both backs were featured in. Every play, there’s an opportunity for one of the two backs to get loose, with Coleman and Breida averaging 4.7 and 5.3 yards per rushing attempt, respectively.

Adding to the dominant running game has also been third-stringer Raheem Mostert.

Filling in the for both starting running backs as they dealt with injuries this season (seven games), the RB ran the rock 54 times for 309 yards (5.7 yards per carry) and a touchdown. He also caught four balls for 68 yards and a score. Among the NFL backfields, the 49ers trail only the Baltimore Ravens (1,429) and Minnesota Vikings (1,281) in yards with 1,268, while leading the league in rushing scores (13). Even when they put the ball on the ground, the 49ers have limited the damage, recovering three of their five total fumbles.

“This team shifts and motions 80% of the time, Baltimore was about 70%, so it’s going to be the same type of plan that we saw versus Baltimore,” Joseph said.

The Cardinals may dodge a bullet, or two, however, as both Breida and Mostert are dealing with injuries this week.

“They’re both banged up,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told Arizona media on Tuesday. “They’re not going to practice [Tuesday] even though it’s just walkthrough. We’re going to keep them in here rehabbing.”

“I know if they had to play [Tuesday], it wouldn’t be an issue if they were going Sunday I think, it’s a little bit risky with playing Thursday whether they’ll be ready or not, so hoping they are. Probably won’t know that until Thursday.”

If the Cardinals want to capitalize on the 49ers’ offense, opportunities await in the passing game.

The 49ers’ aerial attack, which hasn’t been counted on to win games like many had thought entering the season, has only accounted for nine of the team’s 24 scores. While QB Jimmy Garoppolo has completed 69.8% of his passing attempts, the signal caller has tossed seven interceptions compared to just nine touchdowns, sporting a 59.9 QBR and leaving the door open for opposing defenses.

Especially for a Cardinals defense with cornerback Patrick Peterson back on the field.

In two games, the CB has recorded 13 total tackles, an interception, a pass defensed and a forced fumble.

But what’s not shown on the stat line is the impact he’s had on his teammates. Before returning to the gridiron after serving his six-game suspension for PED use, the team had yet to register an interception. It only took 10 minutes into the first quarter of Peterson’s return for Jordan Hicks to come down with one. Some may say it was a coincidence, but the 49ers know what Peterson brings to the table.

“I could have used him being gone for a couple more weeks,” Shanahan said. “He’s been around for awhile, he’s been one of the best, if not the best corner in the league and he looks the exact same in these last two games.

“He looks fresh, he looks as talented as he always is and everyone knows how big of a freak he is athletically and stuff, but he’s an extremely smart player and he’s always a huge challenge when you go against him especially tied in with some of the guys rushing the quarterback.”

EXTRA POINTS

Joseph on linebacker Joe Walker’s uptick in playing time:

“We’re doing what’s best for our defense. I think Joe Walker right now has earned the right to play the base downs, and Haason [Reddick] right now is better at playing the sub downs. And in sub, his ability to cover tight ends and to run and hit in the blitz, we can use his natural traits.

“Joe Walker has played inside linebacker longer than Haason Reddick has, so in the base downs we’re playing Joe more because his experience with seeing the jets and the motions and the crosses and those things so we’re just doing what’s best for both guys, which helps our team play winning football.”

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