In the 49ers vs. Cardinals Monday night showdown, the divisional rivals will face-off with first place of the NFC West on the line. With a San Francisco win, the 49ers would open up a two-game lead in the NFC West. With a win by Arizona, the Cardinals would snap a three-game losing streak and be tied with the 49ers in first place. San Francisco has won five of the last six meetings; however, in the last game between the two teams, Arizona won 21-19. Here are five things to watch for in the game:
Stopping Patrick Peterson
The 49ers’ special teams has one of the best punters and kickers in the NFL, however, the coverage team backing them up is one of the worst in the NFL. Kicker David Akers has had 61% of his kickoffs land for a touchback. But when the kickoff coverage team actually has to make a tackle downfield, they give up an average of 33.1 yards per kickoff return, which ranks 31st in the NFL. Punter Andy Lee averages a net of 47.5 yards per punt, but his punt coverage team gives up 13.9 yards per punt return, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Last week the 49ers’ special teams tamed Seattle’s return man Leon Washington, but this week against Arizona they will have a much tougher time containing Patrick Peterson. Peterson is again leading the NFL in punt return yards with 229 and he is averaging 8.8 yards per punt with no touchdowns. His average is not eye-popping, his longest return this season is 26 yards, but he remains a big threat. One reason for the low averages is teams are simply not letting Peterson return a punt and neither should the 49ers, even with prolific punter Andy Lee. Gunners C.J. Spillman and Chris Culliver will need to get downfield quickly to force Peterson into the middle of the punt coverage.
Peterson wants Lee to challenge him:
At the end of the day, as a punt returner, that’s what I want. I want the guys to try to challenge me by punting the ball deep and me getting the ball with a little bit of time to scan the field and see where my guys are. That’s my goal.
On defense Peterson is equally as dangerous with 21 tackles, 3 interceptions and 8 passes defensed through seven games. He will likely be shadowing Michael Crabtree all game as he is the best cornerback on defense for the Cardinals. Arizona’s defense has only given up 16.9 points per game (4th in NFL) and has not allowed a team to score over 21 points all season. Peterson has helped guide the defense to a fourth best in the NFL defending against the pass, giving up an average of only 191.3 yards per game.
Frank Gore’s Ribs
San Francisco’s rushing offense averages 176.6 yards per game with Frank Gore leading the way. Despite injuring his ribs in the second quarter against Seattle, Gore still managed to rush for a season-high 131 yards. Arizona’s defense is not very good defending against the run allowing 120.9 yards per game, ranking 20th in the NFL. In the last two games, Arizona has given up 331 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry. They lost both games. In 11 games against the Cardinals, Gore has averaged 113.2 yards from scrimmage and scored 11 touchdowns.
Gore was a full participant at practice on Thursday, so there is no doubt he is healthy enough to play on Monday Night Football. However, Kendall Hunter will need to help carry the load and having Brandon Jacobs available to play will go a long way in keeping Gore fresh.
Limiting the Cardinals Passing Game
In the last meeting between the two teams, QB Kevin Kolb was knocked out of the game on the first series, but backup QB John Skelton came in and threw for 282 yards, 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the 21-19 upset win over San Francisco. Skelton looked to WR Larry Fitzgerald throughout the game who had seven receptions for 149 yards and 1 touchdown. Carlos Rogers and the rest of the secondary will need to limit Fitzgerald this time around for the 49ers to win the game. The defense can review the game film from Arizona’s loss last week to Minnesota to see how to take Fitzgerald out of the offense. The receiver only had four catches for 29 yards and no touchdowns in the game. The secondary cannot allow Fitzgerald to use his size advantage over Rogers and Tarell Brown, who are much shorter than the wide receiver.
One way the 49ers defense can stop the Cardinals passing game is pressuring Skelton. Arizona’s quarterbacks have been sacked 29 times in the past four games, with Minnesota generating seven sacks last week. The 49ers defense has only 11 sacks this season, but they have allowed the leagues fewest total yards per game (272.3) and fewest passing yards (173.4).
One reason for Arizona giving up so many sacks is their offensive line has been decimated by injuries with two starters on injured reserve and former Niners guard, and current Cardinals starter, Adam Snyder out for the game. Expect Aldon Smith, who leads the 49ers with 5.5 sacks, to have a big day as the starting offensive tackles for Arizona have allowed 22 of the 35 sacks this season.
Arizona had three players not participate in practice on Thursday and seven players who were limited. Of the those ten players, the most significant injuries for the Cardinals are CB Jamell Fleming (back), CB Gregory Toler (hamstring), DT Darnell Dockett (hamstring), S Kerry Rhodes (back) and G Adam Snyder (quadriceps). Fleming and Toler did not practice so they are unlikely to play in the game. Rhodes missed last week’s game with his back injury and even though he was limited in practice, he is questionable. Dockett was limited as well with his hamstring injury, but there is no way he will miss a division game against the 49ers.
The Cardinals already had issues on the O-line heading into this season and Snyder was signed to help protect the quarterback. Losing Snyder for the game will be a big blow to the offensive line that is already hurting and that has giving up a lot of sacks this season.
The Niners have a clean slate this week with injuries as everyone but Joe Staley fully participated in practice on Thursday. Staley did not practice because of an illness, but he is expected to play on Monday night.
Targeting Vernon Davis
Last week against the Seahawks, Alex Smith did not complete a reception to tight end Vernon Davis in the 13-6 win. Not getting passes to Davis had a lot to do with Smith only passing for 140 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Seattle’s defense established early they were not going to allow Davis to make a catch and we can expect Arizona to do the same.
The 49ers offense needs to target Davis on every possession. If he is not open or double covered, another receiver should be open. Smith needs to do a better job of not only recognizing the open receiver, but also accurately throwing to the receiver. Having Mario Manningham back on offense will help out a lot by opening up the middle of the field for Davis.