The NFC West is on the big stage this week on Monday Night Football, as the Arizona Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium. This is a heated rivalry in the NFC West, with very talented defenses on both sides. Both teams have interesting storylines going into this critical divisional rivalry.
The Cardinals have three straight losses and are desperate to defeat the NFC West division leaders, the 49ers. Injuries have plagued the Cardinals offensive line, which has given up 28 sacks in 4 weeks. The Cardinals running backs have been decimated by injuries, and with the exception of Larod Stevens-Howling's good game against the Vikings, all have struggled to get a ground game going which can as well be attributed to the offensive line not getting a substantial push on running plays.
The Cardinals struggles on the ground have affected their ability to throw the ball. Without a ground game to threaten the defenses, over the last three weeks we have seen the Cardinals beaten by two deep shell defenses that would typically be defeated by running the ball successfully.
No one in the Arizona backfield provides any genuine threat, and teams have been able to keep both safeties deep and rush the passer every time. With no threat of the run to offset the opposing pass rushers destruction of tackles Bobbie Massie and D’Anthony Batiste, the Cardinals have seen disturbingly low numbers in passing, and high numbers in sacks.
Through it all, the Cardinals defense has been incredible this year. While the yardage numbers do not speak of an elite defense, 4th against the pass, 20th against the run, the defense has yet to allow 20 points in a game, and they are 4th in the NFL in points allowed. The Arizona defense has kept the Cardinals in most of the games this year, despite an anemic offense that may give up a record amount of sacks this year.
The Cardinals are 3rd in the NFL in sacks, and have been successfully pressuring the passer this year. Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell do not have many sacks, but the pressure they are causing has led to 17 sacks from the Cardinals linebackers, and 2 more from Cardinal safeties. As good as Patrick Peterson has been as a corner, his punt returns have been disappointing this season, mostly because overblown expectations based on the skill he showed last season.
Teams focus on punting out of bounds or getting sufficient hang time in their kicks to take Peterson out of the equation. Still, a returner as dangerous as Peterson will have an opportunity here and there, and everyone is breathlessly waiting for Peterson to put on another show. Be it on one of Peterson’s 3 interceptions, a fumble recovery, or running the Cardinals wildcat package, the Patcat.
The San Francisco 49ers were the surprise team of last year. This year, they are taking no one by surprise. The 49ers run the ball, run the ball, and run the ball again. Just when you prepare to stop the run, they play action to Vernon Davis or Michael Crabtree. The 49er offense is both simple and genius at the same time. What they do may seem simple, play physical and run the ball to set up the play action. How they execute their offense is genius.
The 49ers rushing attack has better schemes than anyone in the league, complimented by their speed receivers, and using the threat of the deep ball as an effective weapon. While the 49ers power heavy ball control offense is dangerous when they have a lead, yet they have shown an inability to come back against a 2 score lead this year.
Their games against Minnesota and the New York Giants have demonstrated an inability to throw the ball effectively enough to pull them out of large deficits. While it may seem an easy game plan to just get a lead on San Francisco and hang on, the 49ers' defense prides itself on preventing opposing teams from successfully executing even one play
The battle on Monday night may come down to the defenses, as we have a match up of two of the top 5 defenses in points allowed. The 49ers are stacked, with All-Pro’s, Pro Bowlers, and emerging superstars at every level of their defense. San Francisco is #1 in the NFL in yards per game, and 2nd in points allowed. 2nd year linebacker Aldon Smith is the primary pass rusher for the 49ers, and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio is likes to rush him from multiple positions.
So far this year, Fangio has rushed Smith from both outside linebacker spots, as both left and right defensive end, and as a 3 technique defensive tackle. There is no understating the dominance of the 49ers defense, their secondary leads the NFL’s #1 ranked pass defense, and the inability to run against the 49ers in well documented, including last years playoffs, the 49ers have allowed 3 rushing touchdowns in 25 games.