GLENDALE, Arizona: Round 2 of this NFC West fight has slightly more on the line than the last time these two teams met, a Week 11 victory for San Francisco, 23-7. Arizona (5-7) hosts the 49ers (10-2) and hope to defy the odds once more and pull off an upset, keeping their ever-slim Playoff wish alive.
They need much help from a handful of NFC teams in front of them in the playoff standings, but controlling what they can control is the only thing they can do at this point. And what they can control is focusing on the opponent literally in front of them Sunday.
Keys to a Cardinals’ victory
Play your game
In the loss to San Francisco on November 20, Arizona was forced out of its comfort zone after falling behind. If they find the misfortune of trailing once again, they must keep to the game plan. While the game plan is not known for Sunday, it can be assured that the plan in San Fran was not to throw the ball 35 times with John Skelton and Richard Bartel.
Feeding a hungry Beanie Wells—who needs just 84 yards for 1,000 on the season—needs to be the plan of action against the 49ers' defense. Though Wells gained just 33 yards in the previous match-up with the NFC West juggernaut, it was on only eight carries, for a 4.1 YPC average.
With the injury to his knee being accepted and played on as if it were 100 percent, Wells has averaged 23 carries per game in the three most recent tilts with exception to the San Francisco debacle.
The high prospect of 49ers’ defensive leader Patrick Willis missing the contest Sunday should help that cause, especially since Tavares Gooden - while certainly talented - will ultimately not be able to fill his All-Pro shoes.
Bring the house
Arizona was allowing 26.1 points per game while at 1-6 after the defense blew a 24-3 first-half lead to lose 30-27 at Baltimore in Week 8. That includes a stretch of four consecutive 30-point games surrendered in October.
Since then they have been superlative, giving up only 17.2 PPG while winning four of five. And they are coming off their most impressive defensive performance of the season in terms of pressuring quarterbacks.
Dallas QB Tony Romo went down five times—by five different Arizona defenders—a week ago in the Cardinals' 19-13 overtime triumph, and they were coming from anywhere at any time.
Experience and comfortability in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s play book have helped the crew increase the pressure recently.
“The more you know the better you will be,” said linebacker Clark Haggans. “If I know where Dockett is going to fit, that’s good for me. If he knows where I fit, that’s better for Adrian (Wilson). If Adrian knows where (linebacker) Paris (Lenon) will fit, that makes everyone learn it conceptually and makes us play faster.”
Understanding the layout of every player’s assignment makes rushing the passer successfully a much easier task.
Rookie linebacker Sam Acho said, “We know now what gap we are supposed to get, where our help is. It helps.”
If they can pressure quarterback Alex Smith as Baltimore did Thanksgiving Night—they sacked him nine times—the cards may just fall in favor of Arizona. Frank Gore will get what he gets on the ground; Arizona is solid against the run. It’s the passing game that gets the defense in trouble. The 49ers are No. 28 on the Offensive Hog Index
, while the Cardinals rank No. 12 on the Defensive
side of the stat. There will be opportunity to get to Smith; but those chances cannot be wasted.
Bring your lunch
No matter how you look at it, San Francisco has played much better football throughout the course of the 2011 season. It will take a hard day’s work by every player on the roster for Arizona to emerge victorious for a fifth time in six weeks.
The 49ers have a distinct edge in our Quality Stats
. Common sense would suggest that the Cardinals don’t have a chance in this very important game.
San Francisco is No. 1 in Bendability
, which means they give up plenty of yards but manage to keep teams off the scoreboard (they are also No. 1, giving up only 13.4 points per game).
They also rank No. 3 in Scoreability
, meaning they score points without gaining gobs of yards on offense. That’s because they create turnovers.
They are No. 1 in the NFL in turnovers generated with 27. They took advantage of a short field numerous times in their Week 8 victory, scoring 10 points off five Arizona turnovers.
Skelton had a hard time handling the coverage being shown to him by the 49ers. This time it’s Kevin Kolb; back from injury and ready to rock. He is coming off his best performance of his Cardinals’ career, going 16 of 25 (64.0%) for 247 yards, 9.9 YPC, one TD, and no INT for a 109.9 rating. That will need to be duplicated for Arizona to remain in the game.
Match-up to watch: Michael Crabtree vs. Patrick Peterson
Peterson had a day to forget in San Francisco trying to cover Crabtree. Although he didn’t get in the end zone, Crabtree had his best game of the season; catching seven passes for 120 yards (17.1 YPC) and making the rookie corner look foolish at times. Better footing may help, as it appeared Peterson had trouble at times staying upright in coverage.
The talented youngster out of LSU is coming off his best performance as a professional, though, so he may be riding a confidence boost. He gave up a touchdown on a perfect throw and route by Romo and Dez Bryant, but recovered nicely to have three passes defended, including one on a deep ball he possibly could have picked off but decided to go the safe route and knock it away.
On the year, Crabtree has 48 catches for 605 yards (12.6 YPC), but only two TDs. With the division title in hand, look for 49ers’ coach Jim Harbaugh to release him down the field a few times more than usual in an attempt to get him another touchdown or two.
Peterson will be ready and waiting to take one away this week. He is showing a ton of promise in covering the deep ball, and he himself has only two interceptions on the year. Slight edge to a motivated Peterson this week.