Thursday night to Monday night means more time on the national stage for the red and gold.
This prime time slot, however, has the San Francisco 49ers leaving home for Arizona to face the Cardinals. The 49ers are currently 5-2 coming off a win against the Seahawks while the Cardinals are riding a 3 game losing streak after winning their first four. Alex Smith and that 49ers offense have refocused themselves on a run-balanced offense while the Cardinals have tried to copy that model.
These division rivals each won one game apiece against each other last year at their respective home fields. The Cardinals won the latest match up in Arizona 21-19 back in December of 2011.
“When you know a team this well, you play them that often, twice a year, year-in and year-out, their personnel,” 49ers QB Alex Smith explained. “The games, I just feel like naturally you rarely see blowouts, either way. The games always are coming down to the wire, just the way it is. They’re always hard-fought, there’s just so much history there. The teams don’t like each other, a little more personal in that sense, so tough.”
The QB fight in Arizona has been interesting to see play out with the Cardinals. Is it Skelton or Kolb starting? This week has John Skelton getting the starting nod with an injury keeping Kevin Kolb on the sideline.
However, neither QB has been particularly impressive this season for the most part. Kevin Kolb has been the better QB so far with a nearly 60% completion percentage, 8 TDs, and 3 picks. Skelton is throwing around 55% with only 1 TD pass and 3 picks thrown. However, injury helped John Skelton get the job last year and might help him keep the job this year as he faces the 49ers in week 8.
Sacks have been a problem for the Cardinals as Kolb and Skelton have been sacked 36 times this year, most allowed in the NFL. The 49ers are not the biggest sack team on the defensive side with only 11 as a team. Still, if the blitzes are timed right, team sack leader Aldon Smith (5.5 sacks) and the 49er defense might add to that total.
“He uses it to his advantage,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said about Aldon Smith and his wingspan. “There have been several times where you think you’re out-flanked by a runner or a quarterback scrambling out of the pocket and Aldon has the speed, quickness and arm length to get those plays turned back in or stopped.”
Whoever is QB, they still have Larry Fitzgerald to throw the ball to. Fitzgerald has 40 catches for 459 yards and 3 TDs. The Vikings, however, were able to limit Larry to only 4 catches for 29 yards in their 21-14 win over the Cardinals.
If the 49ers are able to cover Fitzgerald like they did Calvin Johnson in their week 2 win over the Lions, then the Cardinals might want to try throwing to other receivers like Andre Roberts who had 7 grabs for 103 yards and a TD against Minnesota. Most of Roberts’ production, however, came on the Cardinals last drive of the game vs the Vikings which included that TD grab.
Passing defense for the 49ers has really improved this year. Though not the biggest turnover team, the 49ers are first against the pass allowing 173.6 passing yards a game.
The Cards have been working the rushing attack a lot which has improved in the last couple of weeks. While still averaging 89.3 yards a game on the ground (27th in the NFL), the Cardinals have been able to get over a 100 yards in the last two games getting a combined 308 rushing yards in weeks 6 and 7. Larod Stephens-Howling ran for 104 yards and a TD in 20 carries vs. the Vikings.
The 49ers, however, are likely going to be able stop the run. Teams are averaging just under a 100 yards against the 49ers defense on the ground. The 49ers may have allowed a few more yards than they wanted to on the ground over the last couple of games but they are still one of the toughest teams to rush against.
Keys for the 49ers offense: stay the course. The 49ers have been able to win with a run-balanced offense that has called for the occasional big play from Alex Smith and the receivers. In their loses to the Vikings and the Giants, the 49ers fell behind and abandoned their game plan. They threw the ball noticeably more and ran it 20 times or less with some of those times not even being designed run plays.
Against the Seahawks last Thursday, however, they stuck with the ground and pound philosophy and eventually edged out a 13-6 win over Seattle. The team ran the ball 32 times for 175 yards with Frank Gore getting 16 carries for 131 yards on the ground. The 29 year old Gore has gotten just under half the teams carries this year averaging 5.8 yards a carry. Kendall Hunter has done a fine job rotating in and out with Gore averaging 5.2 yards in 50 carries this year.
What does QB Alex Smith need to do? Play it safe and not turn the ball over. Smith can get wildly inconsistent when he presses for big plays a lot and having an injured middle finger on his throwing hand doesn’t help that fact. Alex just need to be able to dump off the pass with the underneath routes and let the receiver take care of the rest of it.
Smith must also watch that pass rush of Arizona. The Cardinals are tied for the 3rd most sacks in the NFL with 22 while the 49ers have allowed the 4th most sacks in the league with 20. More specifically, watch the blitzing linebacker in 3-4 defense. Arizona LB’s Daryl Washington, O’Brien Schofield, and Sam Acho have a combined 13 sacks on the season.
Like every game against Arizona, Alex Smith knows how big it is along with the other division games ahead.
“Every year is huge,” Smith said. “They’re all big. This one’s the biggest because it’s the one right in front of us. I know that’s not what you guys want to hear, but it’s the truth. This is the next big game. It’s our second division game. These division games are so important.”
How will this Monday Night Football game in Arizona end up? Possibly much like the 49ers-Seahawks game last Thursday night with two teams trying to run the ball effectively while trying to not commit too many turnovers. Whoever makes the fewer mistakes might end up the winner in the Desert.
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Written by Daniel Trucios