With Arizona out to a quick 2-0 start and early losses by Seattle and San Francisco (1-1), the Cardinals have taken an unlikely early lead the NFC West race. That makes this first divisional game for both teams an important one and an opportunity to begin the playoff race in late September. An Arizona victory would provide them a leg up on a potential tie-breaker for playoff seeding over the 49ers. With Seattle playing Denver at home, the Cardinals could open up a two-game lead over both of their main competitors for the division crown.
Arizona opened the season with a one-point home win over the San Diego Chargers (18-17) and followed it with a 25-14 road victory against the New York Giants. The Chargers also defeated Seattle in Week 2, giving the Cardinals another bit of tie-breaker leverage over the Seahawks. San Francisco opened with a dominant win at Dallas, 28-17, followed by a surprising 28-20 loss to the Bears (on opening night at their new home field, Levi’s Stadium) despite taking a 13-point lead into the 4th quarter.
|Offense||Arizona||San Francisco||Arizona (2013)||San Fran (2013)|
|Pass Yards/Gm||218 (17th)||212 (19th)||250.1 (13th)||186.2 (30th)|
|Rush Yards/Gm||116.5 (18th)||128 (12th)||96.3 (23rd)||137.6 (3rd)|
|Total Yards/Gm||334.5 (18th)||340 (16th)||346.4 (12th)||323.8 (24th)|
|Points/Gm||21.5 (18th)||24 (16th)||23.7 (16th)||25.4 (11th)|
|3rd Down Conversions||11-26 (42.3%)||14-25 (56%)||35.2% (22nd)||36.5% (18th)|
|Turnover Differential||+3 (5-2)||0 (4-4)||-1 (30-31) 17th||+12 (29-17) 7th|
|Defense||Arizona||San Francisco||Arizona (2013)||San Fran (2013)|
|Pass Yards/Gm||249 (22nd)||212.5 (14th)||84.4 (1st)||95.9 (4th)|
|Rush Yards/Gm||66.5 (3rd)||86.5 (7th)||233 (14th)||221 (7th)|
|Total Yards/Gm||315.5 (10th)||299 (6th)||317.4 (6th)||316.9 (5th)|
|Points/Gm||15.5 (7th)||22.5 (18th)||20.3 (7th)||17.0 (3rd)|
|3rd Down Conversions||12-27 (44.4%)||8-18 (44.4%)||35.3% (11th)||34.1% (6th)|
Arizona – QB Carson Palmer (shoulder)
Arizona – RB Andre Ellington (foot)
San Francisco – TE Vernon Davis (ankle)
San Francisco – MLB NaVorrro Bowman (knee)
San Francisco – DT Glenn Dorsey (bicep)
San Francisco – OLB Aldon Smith (suspended)
Having suffered an injury to his throwing arm, Palmer might be replaced by 30-year-old backup Drew Stanton. This would be Stanton’s second start for the Cardinals and just the fifth of his career, having previously been the understudy for Matthew Stafford in Detroit. If he gets the call, Stanton must improve on his 48% completion percentage (14-for-29) from last week for Arizona to stand a chance on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the 49ers offense is hampered by the loss of Davis, one of the premier pass-catching tight ends in the league. As quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s favorite target in the passing game, Davis’s absence simplifies things for the Cardinals defense. San Francisco’s walking wounded on defense looked befuddled and overmatched against the Bears, and the absence of their star middle linebacker (Bowman) will affect them again this week.
Arizona Running Game: With news that running back Jonathan Dwyer has been de-activated for Sunday’s game due to domestic violence allegations, the Arizona backfield corps is quite thin. With running back Andre Ellington likely limited due to a foot injury, depth is lacking with Stepfan Taylor and Robert Hughes as his backups. Balance between the running and passing games will be essential to keep pressure off of the QB, especially if Stanton gets the nod over the ailing Palmer.
49ers Passing Game vs. Arizona Secondary: The Niners have the opposite problem from Arizona this game. A strong passing attack is needed to keep the Cardinals from keying on the effective ground game that is such an integral part of their game plan. The Cardinals have one of the best secondaries in the league, led by with All-Pro Patrick Peterson and including free safety Tyrann Mathieu, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and strong safety Tony Jefferson. Kaepernick has been erratic thus far (61% completion rate) compared to last year (69%). He played extremely well against Dallas (16-for-23 for 201 yards and 2 TD), but that effort came against a Cowboys defense widely projected to be terrible after finishing last in yards allowed in 2013. He then turned the ball over four times to the Bears, fumbling once and throwing three picks at a defense that’s allowed even more total yardage than Dallas this season (719- 633). Kaepernick will have a mostly healthy group of wide receivers, but as noted above the potential absence of Davis is problematic. The big tight end would be the most likely candidate to provide production against an excellent Cardinals defensive backfield.
Arizona Offensive Line vs. San Francisco Pass Rush: Arizona had one of the worst offensive lines in the league last year and they undertook a major rebuilding effort in the offseason. The Cardinals signed left tackle Jared Veldheer to a lucrative five-year deal and imported former Patriots draftee Ted Larsen to play right guard. Thus far, Veldheer has been a significant improvement over Bradley Sowell, who was awful in that position last season. San Francisco’s pass rush has been slow out of the gate this year, registering only four sacks in the first two games. It is clear the Niners miss OLB Aldon Smith, whose suspension will last through their Week 10 game in New Orleans. Justin Smith, still playing extremely well at age 35, has 3 of the team’s 4 sacks. The Niners have to find a way to get to the quarterback without blitzing, since their corners aren’t exactly confidence-inspiring and leaving them in 1-on-1 coverage would be playing with fire.
Special Teams: Both teams have dynamic return men. Arizona has former 49er Ted Ginn Jr. handling both punts and kickoffs, and he has seven career TD returns to his credit. The Cardinals can also use Mathieu or Peterson in this role but have chosen to limit them to defensive snaps. San Francisco has rookie 4th-round pick Bruce Ellington (cousin of Andre) handling the majority of their returns. His 4.45 speed is a major threat for big runbacks. Whichever team handles their coverage better will likely win this game.
With both teams strong defensively and neither offense performing particularly well of late, expect this to be a defensive struggle ‒ or, alternatively, a really crappy game. If Palmer plays ‒ and is not too hampered by injury ‒ that likely gives the edge to the Cardinals given the unreliable play of Kaepernick and the loss of his TE receiving option’s ability to create mismatches. Otherwise, though, it is not at all clear that Stanton can keep the San Francisco defense honest against what figures to be a weak running attack, pushing the edge to the Niners.
This piece was written by Dan Graulich.