49ers Vs. Cardinals: A Must Win For Both Playoff Contenders
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By Jerrell Richardson
Arizona Cardinals (3-2)
Head Coach: Bruce Arians
Players to Watch: Carson Palmer, Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Karlos Dansby
The verdict is still out on the Cardinals. They enter this game with a winning record, on a two-game winning streak, and on their resume is an impressive win over a legit Detroit Lions squad. However, they also suffered a Week 1 loss to the Rams, and outside of the Lions have only beaten Tampa Bay and Carolina, two teams that have combined to win one game this year.
Arizona has a stout defense and one major offensive weapon that make this far from a cake walk for San Francisco. However, despite identical records, the 49ers are by far the superior team, and due to the fact that they will be playing at home will have to suffer a major letdown, or completely underestimate Arizona to lose this game.
When San Francisco Has the Ball: Advantage 49ers
On paper, the Cardinals have a Jekyll and Hyde defense that matches up perfectly against the 49ers. Against the pass, despite star defensive back Patrick Peterson lined up against their opponents best receiver, as a team, Arizona is ranked 19th, giving up over 250 yards per game. Statistically, they are among the stingiest in the league against the run though, where as a team they are allowing just 79 yards to their opponents. With the 49er passing game still a work in progress, and their running game as the only means to move the ball consistently, this does not bode well for the home team. But a closer look reveals that Frank Gore and the running game are primed for a big game.
The Cardinals ability to stop the run has just as much to do with their opponents as it does them. The Rams, Lions and Saints are all passing offenses, while Tampa Bay and Carolina are just bad teams. Arizona has been great against the run, but has yet to face a running attack like the one they will see this Sunday.
The most interesting match-up of the game will be Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson against 49er wideout Anquan Boldin. In the past Peterson has struggled to contain Michael Crabtree, but Peterson continues to improve his play, and with Crabtree out, Peterson will be asked to blanket Boldin. Peterson has ball skills that are second to none, as evident by his three interceptions already this season, and Boldin is known to make catches when he does not look open. Does Colin Kaepernick trust his newest receiver to out fight Peterson for the ball? Or will the 49ers avoid Peterson all together?
If unable to throw to Boldin the passing game will again fall on one of the new receivers to step up. Currently the 49ers passing attack is dead last in the NFL, and due to injuries, the next man up is Jon Baldwin.
The passing game can be effective in this game, but for the third straight week will not be needed. The running game will give the 49ers ball control, and wear down the Cardinals. After having success against the number one ranked Texans defense, confidence and momentum are now in San Francisco’s corner, along with a blueprint for success.
When Arizona Has The Ball: Advantage 49ers
The Cardinals finally got all-world wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald someone to throw him the ball. Quarterback Carson Palmer though is still working on his chemistry with his newest weapon, as Fitzgerald’s stats are down, and Palmer is having a bad season so far. He is tied with Matt Schaub for second in the league with nine interceptions, and out of his five touchdowns, three have gone to Fitzgerald. Despite the shortcomings of Palmer and Fitzgerald this season, number 11 is still a threat and will demand a lot of attention from the 49er secondary. This will force Palmer to look to wide receiver Michael Floyd when they are passing, and hope that the running game can keep them in manageable down and distances.
Unfortunately, Michael Floyd is no superstar, and Arizona’s running game does not exactly strike fear in their opponents. Running back Rashard Mendenhall has battled injuries that have limited him to a woeful 176 yards this year. While he has struggled, the team has turned to rookie Andre Ellington as of late. Ellington has a knack for big plays, but neither he nor Mendenhall can expect to have a big game, even against a 49er defense missing Patrick Willis.
Numbers Can Lie
On paper this could be a close game. The Cardinals are almost the best in the league against the run, and that’s the only thing the 49ers have been able to do as of late. However, part of the reason for San Francisco’s lack of a complete offensive attack is that the running game and defense has been so dominant, and a win is a win.
What will happen when the 49ers pass is a mystery as injuries continue to decimate the receiving core, and now it’s Jon Baldwin’s turn to compliment Boldin. If San Francisco can get anything from the passing game they will win easily. If the running game and defense are asked to carry the load again, the team will still win, it will just take longer to get separation on the scoreboard.
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Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.