No. 1: Safety Budda Baker
Arizona’s defensive coordinator, Vance Joseph, said in the offseason the Cardinals would be a man-coverage based team. That’s important to note because this extends beyond just the cornerbacks; that includes the safeties and linebackers matching up against tight ends and wide receivers.
Safety Budda Baker will probably get the assignment to cover superstar tight end George Kittle, and this matchup is one which will be critical to the 49ers walking out with a victory. Baker is the Cardinals’ best safety, but the Cardinals as a whole have struggled guarding tight ends.
Back on Oct. 13, the Cardinals were atrocious against tight ends (h/t Revenge of the Birds). Kittle is the highest rated player in football, per Pro Football Focus.
There’s a clear mismatch here.
Baker has considerable talent, but this is a battle the 49ers must win. If Kittle can get loose, the Niners offense will be able to open everything up. But if Baker plays better than expected in man coverage, the Niners would lose their go-to receiver and their best matchup.
The 49ers have a better roster than the Cardinals, a better coach than the Cardinals, and more momentum than the Cardinals. This is a game San Francisco must win.
But making sure these five Arizona players don’t impact the game will make the job so much easier.