sharesShare this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Google+ Share this on Tumblr Flip into Flipboard Share this on Reddit Share via SMS Share via Email
Tonight in Arizona, the 49ers face a daunting task: they have to find a way to beat the division leading Cardinals. Yes...you read that right: the division leading Cardinals. Since the Niners faced them in Week One, the Cards have transformed themselves. Kurt Warner has rediscovered the form that won him an MVP trophy in St. Louis. Tim Hightower has supplanted Edgerrin James as the Cardinals' feature back. As a whole, the Cards are playing with the kind of confidence that characterizes a winner. As a result, the 49ers are big time underdogs this week, giving up 9.5 points the Cardinals. Beating them will require something the 49ers have not managed to produce this season: a complete game. That stated, what follows are the key elements to a 49er victory:
Since the season started, the 49ers defense has failed to generate any kind of consistency when it comes to getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. At no time this season has pressure been more important. Kurt Warner comes into this game with a QB rating of 104.2. Though he seems to have regained his championship form, he can be beaten. Warner's strength is his ability to create offensive rhythm by stepping up into the pocket and completing passes. To stall the Cardinal attack, the 49ers must collapse the pocket, forcing Warner to throw on the move, an area that is not his strong suit. That means the Niners must blitz...early and often. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky is a big fan of creating edge pressure in his 3-4 scheme...but the Niners will need to do a lot more than bring heat off the edge to be successful tonight. Sending linebackers Takeo Spikes and Patrick Willis is a calculated risk...but one that could force Warner into the kinds of miscues the 49ers must generate and take advantage of in order to ground the Cardinals' passing attack.
Any way you look at the 49er offense, there is no looking past its best player. Frank Gore must carry early and often if the 49ers plan on earning their third win of the season tonight. In order to keep Arizona from playing "keep away" as they did in week one and to keep the potent Cardinal passing attack on the sidelines, Gore should end up getting at least 20 carries, and will likely have the ball thrown his way a few times, too. If Frank can live up to his impressive 4.6 YPC average tonight, the 49ers have a chance of grinding out a win against an opponent with a pretty weak run defense.
Blanket the Backfield
The Cardinals' top 2 receivers, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald have 13 TD receptions between them this season, making them the second most productive receiving tandem in the NFL. In order for the 49ers to stay in this game, starting corners Nate Clements and Walt Harris must lockdown the edges, disrupt routes at the line of scrimmage, and provide the kind of coverage that will force Warner to his third or fourth option. The safeties cannot afford the kinds of mental lapses that have plagued them through the first half of the season. The 49ers have done a pretty good job of limiting Boldin and Fitzgerald in the past, limiting the duo to 113 yards and a TD in their week one contest. For the Niners to have any kind of success tonight, their defense must find a way to contain these two.
Hill must Manage Effectively
Shaun Hill has been promoted from the bench to replace turnover prone J.T. O'Sullivan under center as the 49ers' starting QB. While Hill does not have the arm strength that O'Sullivan possesses, he is far more patient, has better vision, and is far more willing to take what the defense gives him. That stated, if you are expecting a big night in the air, prepare to be disappointed. Tonight, Hill's success won't be measured by how many passes he completes...it will be measured by how many turnovers he's responsible for. If Hill takes the short and intermediate gains given to him by the defense and secures the football, the 49ers have a very real chance of winning this football game. What Hill must avoid doing is trying to win the game with every throw. If the 49ers coaching staff has done their homework, they will ask Hill to manage the game, use what tools he has at his disposal, and to avoid the costly mistakes made by his predecessor. If Hill can keep the offense from turning the ball over, this game will be much closer than the week one contest.
Three times this season, the 49ers have surrendered early leads, which led to losses. If the 49ers manage to jump out in front of the Cardinals, it is imperative that the team plays four quarters of solid football. The mental lapses and critical miscues that have characterized the team's 4th quarter failures of the first 8 games have got to be eliminated. If the coaching staff can find a way to get 4 quarters of football out of this team, there is no reason why they shouldn't make tonight's game a close one. Some say that execution is a reflection of leadership. If that's the case, then tonight's game should give the fans a pretty good look at Coach Singletary's leadership skills.
Can the 49ers pull off a win tonight? Certainly. Will the 49ers pull off a win tonight? Well, that is a question that's a little harder to answer. The team has the talent, and they have the coaches. What they don't have thus far in the season is four straight quarters of quality football. Will tonight be the night that this team finally pulls it together? Cross your fingers and tune in tonight to find out.