NFC Showdown: 49ers @ Cardinals

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.

Statistical Matchup

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)

Key Injuries

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.

Key Matchups

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.

Conclusion

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.

25 thoughts on “NFC Showdown: 49ers @ Cardinals

  1. This really boils down to Palmer, who seems unlikely to play. I don’t think Arizona has much of a chance without him, even at home. Coming off of a tough home loss, I don’t see the Niners laying an egg, which is what it will probably take for a Stanton-led Cardinals team to win.

  2. I feel the same way Stitch. Having seen both of the 49ers games, I believe they are very vulnerable defensively without Bowman and Smith, and a mess offensively because Kaepernick looks like the second-coming of Randall Cunningham: The Eagles Years. 

  3. You guys are serious that you would take a Stanton-QBd team in this matchup?  How is Arizona’s offense going to score more than 14 points in this game if Stanton is playing?  The offense only generated 13 points against the Giants last week (Arizona got 12 points from special teams/defense — a punt return TD, a fumbled kickoff that led to a FG, and a FG after the Giants turned it over on downs on their 20 yard line late in the 4th quarter), plus they lost Dwyer and Ellington is banged up.  
     
    Drew Stanton is the definition of replacement level.  He is 30 years old, has five career starts, and has a career ANY/A of 3.76.  He sucks.
     
    It’s really, really hard to beat anyone in the NFL with replacement-level quarterbacking, especially a good team like SF.  They beat the Giants because they won the turnover battle 4-0 (including recovering both fumbles), got those 13 special teams/defense points, and the Giants dropped a ton of passes (really one of the worst team receiving displays I can remember).  All of that seems unlikely to repeat itself against a better team. Arizona’s only hope if Stanton plays is that Kaepernick totally craps the bed again, which seems pretty unlikely, if only because SF will probably call a very conservative game, knowing that AZ will struggle to score.  Arizona’s defense is probably good enough to keep them in the game, but this seems like an easy 24-10 SF victory where SF never has to get out of second gear and has a 75/25 run/pass split in the second half.
     
    All of this is of course completely different if Palmer plays.  Then I would expect a very close game, much like last year’s result in this fixture (which SF won 23-20 in OT after blowing a 17-0 lead).

  4. You guys are serious that you would take a Stanton-QBd team in this matchup?  How is Arizona’s offense going to score more than 14 points in this game if Stanton is playing?  The offense only generated 13 points against the Giants last week (Arizona got 12 points from special teams/defense — a punt return TD, a fumbled kickoff that led to a FG, and a FG after the Giants turned it over on downs on their 20 yard line late in the 4th quarter), plus they lost Dwyer and Ellington is banged up.  
     
    Drew Stanton is the definition of replacement level.  He is 30 years old, has five career starts, and has a career ANY/A of 3.76.  He sucks.
     
    It’s really, really hard to beat anyone in the NFL with replacement-level quarterbacking, especially a good team like SF.  They beat the Giants because they won the turnover battle 4-0 (including recovering both fumbles), got those 13 special teams/defense points, and the Giants dropped a ton of passes (really one of the worst team receiving displays I can remember).  All of that seems unlikely to repeat itself against a better team. Arizona’s only hope if Stanton plays is that Kaepernick totally craps the bed again, which seems pretty unlikely, if only because SF will probably call a very conservative game, knowing that AZ will struggle to score.  Arizona’s defense is probably good enough to keep them in the game, but this seems like an easy 24-10 SF victory where SF never has to get out of second gear and has a 75/25 run/pass split in the second half.
     
    All of this is of course completely different if Palmer plays.  Then I would expect a very close game, much like last year’s result in this fixture (which SF won 23-20 in OT after blowing a 17-0 lead).

    I’m with you. There are teams that can expose the San Francisco defense minus Bowman and Smith, but a Stanton-led Arizona team isn’t one of them. He was 14 of 29 for 167 yards against the Giants. The Cardinals were losing the game in the fourth quarter before getting a punt return touchdown and a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff.

  5. Coremiller basically laid out the argument against Arizona (more specifically, against Drew Stanton).  It’s one thing for the Chicago Bears to exploit the weaknesses of the 49ers defense.  It’s another thing entirely to expect a 30 year-old journeyman who has had one good game in his entire career to do so.
     
    I think San Fran is vulnerable, sure, but they’re much better than I think Stitch and soxfan are giving them credit for.  They had a bad half of football, got flagged for a million penalties, then Kaepernick melted down.  But I’m not gonna write them off because of one bad half.  I’ll take the team that’s been to 3 straight NFC Championships over Drew Stanton every time. 
     
    Seriously, scroll through Stanton’s game logs.  This is his 7th year in the NFL (if you throw out his rookie year, which he spent on IR) and he’s completed 20 or more passes once in his life.  He’s thrown for 200 or more yards twice.  He’s never thrown more than one TD pass in a game.  Maybe he has a great game in him but it sure seems unlikely.
     
    Pity because I would really be looking forward to this game if both teams were at full strength.

  6. Well, I was wrong here. San Francisco’s defense looked terrible, and the offense couldn’t get much going in the second half. I think the 49ers should have gone with a Patriots-y “bend but don’t break” approach, making Stanton complete a bunch of short stuff and avoid the big play, but instead they dared Stanton to beat them deep and he did. Whisles were huge here, too, as penalties gave Arizona 30 yards on their go-ahead drive and pushed the 49ers back 30 yards when they were threatening to go ahead early in the 4th.

  7. I’ll be honest, I think there’s something going on with the team and Harbaugh.  I’ve read and heard in a few places that the Niners have tuned him out, and between that and the whole possible trade to the Browns thing it wouldn’t shock me.  Smoke, fire, etc.

  8. I have long thought that Harbaugh was kind of overmatched in the NFL. His rah-rah schtick worked very well in college, but I just think he’s not well suited to the NFL, and a surfeit of talent has masked that for a while.

  9. I’ll eat crow here as well. I wasn’t really buying the preseason whispers of discontent with the Niners but perhaps there is some truth there. The penalties are a telltale sign of a lack of discipline.

    Not much the defense can do but wait for bodies to return, which makes what’s happening with the offense troubling. The running game has been flatlined. If they need to rely on Kaepernick’s arm to win them games, they’re in trouble.

    I still think Arizona can’t succeed (in terms of making the playoffs) this season without a healthy Carson Palmer. The Drew Stanton story is nice for today but, again, he’s a 30 year-old career backup. It would be shocking if he suddenly turned into a viable starting quarterback. With Palmer they can make some noise.

  10. I’ll eat crow as well.  I only watched the first half, where I thought the game was going more or less according to plan from SF’s perspective, but it looks like the wheels totally came off in the second half.  I don’t have a problem with the running game issues yesterday, I think a lot of that has to do with Arizona having the best run defense in the league (Campbell is basically unblockable in the run game), which led to a pass-heavy game plan.  But the defensive breakdowns in the secondary and the penalties are just inexcusable.  They had over 100 yards in penalties again, and that doesn’t even include Culliver’s taunting that wiped out an Arizona penalty and a few other unaccepted penalties.
     
    By my count, Stanton had six completions over 20 yards + a deep DPI.  I agree with Super Nomario that it looks like they were blitzing a lot and daring Stanton to go deep.  If that’s the case, Fangio just got outcoached (which happens rarely).  Seems like he overreacted to the lack of pass rush last week against Chicago, and maybe he thought they would surprise AZ since SF is one of the least-blitzing teams in the league.
     
    The only good news is that the penalty issues at least should be correctible.  Of course I said that last week too, so who knows.

  11. I’ll eat crow as well.  I only watched the first half, where I thought the game was going more or less according to plan from SF’s perspective, but it looks like the wheels totally came off in the second half.  I don’t have a problem with the running game issues yesterday, I think a lot of that has to do with Arizona having the best run defense in the league (Campbell is basically unblockable in the run game), which led to a pass-heavy game plan.  But the defensive breakdowns in the secondary and the penalties are just inexcusable.  They had over 100 yards in penalties again, and that doesn’t even include Culliver’s taunting that wiped out an Arizona penalty and a few other unaccepted penalties.
     
    By my count, Stanton had six completions over 20 yards + a deep DPI.  I agree with Super Nomario that it looks like they were blitzing a lot and daring Stanton to go deep.  If that’s the case, Fangio just got outcoached (which happens rarely).  Seems like he overreacted to the lack of pass rush last week against Chicago, and maybe he thought they would surprise AZ since SF is one of the least-blitzing teams in the league.
     
    The only good news is that the penalty issues at least should be correctible.  Of course I said that last week too, so who knows.

     
    I think that I might start using this strategy going forward. It will make my Sundays far more enjoyable. Especially since the 49ers are playing the second half team of the year next week.

  12. Something is just not right with SF right now. Crazy how good they were for two drives at beating Arizona pressure and how terrible after that.

    Kaepernick was playing out of his mind on those two drives (and on the drive late that ended in the blocked FG). The first TD drive, Gore had 2 carries for 0 yards; all 80 yards were Kaepernick either throwing or running. He was something like 11 of 12 throwing with 8 runs for 44 yards on the two TD drives.

  13. Trent Dilfer agrees there are morale/discipline issues. He cites 17 first downs given up on penalties so far. I guess he lives in the Bay Area and has sources on locker room problems.

  14. Something is just not right with SF right now. Crazy how good they were for two drives at beating Arizona pressure and how terrible after that.

     
    The Niners lead the league with 59 points scored in the first halves of games this year. In the second halves? Three total points.

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