The San Francisco 49ers have won their last two games in convincing fashion over two opponents that have football experts across the country confused and rethinking their preseason picks. The St. Louis Rams did nothing to slow down Frank Gore and the 49ers and Matt Schaub’s performance for the Houston Texans last week looked like he was trying out to become the newest quarterback the 49ers choose to pick up. The Arizona Cardinals will visit San Francisco Sunday with the goal of walking out of Candlestick Park with a 4-2 record and a chance to tie the Seahawks for the division lead should they lose to the Tennessee Titans.
The Cardinals have a formidable defense, ranking 3rd against the rush, but 19th against the pass. The fact that the Cardinals rank 19th against the pass wouldn’t be troubling, but Kaepernick & Co. rank 31st in passing offense. This doesn’t seem to need to be a story because the 49ers were able to run downhill and score points in their power run packages, but the fact of the matter is, Colin Kaepernick has not looked confident as a passer since his week one performance against the Green Bay Packers.
The 49ers have compiled a 3-1 record against the Cardinals since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011. Their sole loss came on a December afternoon in Arizona where John Skelton threw three touchdowns and the 49ers lost by two points, 19-21.
The Cardinals run game ranks 23rd in the league, averaging just 81 yards per game. Rashard Mendenhall is averaging 3.2 YPC and has found pay dirt twice this season. The 49ers have allowed an average of 113.6 yards a game to opponents, facing running backs like Marshawn Lynch, Ben Tate, Ahmad Bradshaw, and Arian Foster. Patrick Willis could be back in time for the contest Sunday with the Cardinals, which should help the Niners struggling run defense in terms of solid players with a propensity to stop the run.
Colin Kaepernick should be able to take advantage of the 19th ranked passing defense in the league if necessary, but if the 49ers are able to continue to score with the run game and the defense can continue to play as well as they have in recent games, there is no reason not to run the ball, wear down the defense, and walk away with a 4-2 record.
Carson Palmer is going to have his hands full with the 49ers defense which ranks 2nd in the NFL against the pass. Donte (W)hitner, Eric Reid, and Tarrell Brown have anchored the 2nd ranked secondary, which is great news for 49ers fans who watched the Ravens burn (W)hitner, Goldson, and Brown for big plays all over the field in the Super Bowl. Donte (W)hitner has raved about Eric Reid’s playing ability and suggested he likes playing with Reid more than he did with Goldson because Reid communicates so effectively. Combine this improved secondary with the front seven of the 49ers and you have a legitimate pass rush paired with a secondary that can cover in space.
Navarro Bowman showed what a leader he could be with Patrick Willis out for the past two games, leading the defense to their best scoring performances this season to date. Bowman has been fantastic on the pass rush and is more than adequate in coverage, which is why many people feel that the 49ers have the two best middle linebackers in the league.
The Cardinals have the unfortunate task of attempting to slow down the 49ers when they have gotten on a roll and are attempting to continue on a course to try and get back to the Super Bowl. This game should not be much of a test for the 49ers, but it is a divisional game and these types of games have a tendency to get silly sometimes.
The 49ers offense should have no issue with passing the ball (yes, even with Kaepernicks recent struggles), and even though the Cardinals rank 3rd against the run, they have only played one running back who is in the top 10 of all backs in the NFL, Doug Martin, who was held to 1.7 YPC on 27 attempts. While that stat is astounding (I mean, really? 1.7 yards per carry on 27 attempts? Geez), Doug Martin does not have anything close to the offensive line that Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter do. The Cardinals should struggle in both aspects of offense on Sunday. If their rushing and passing attacks do not show up (like they haven’t so far this season) and with the 49ers defense being dominant recently, there is a sense that the Cardinals could be in for a long Sunday afternoon, but at least the weather will be nice.