The San Francisco 49ers (3-2) are eleven-point favorites at home for Sunday’s matchup against the Arizona Cardinals (3-2) thanks to their second-ranked pass defense in the NFL and sixth-ranked running game. However, the Cardinals’ third-ranked rush defense should not be overlooked. Under new head coach Bruce Arians, the Cardinals are performing better than many predicted thanks to a very tough defense which includes Patrick Peterson, Calais Campbell, Karlos Dansby, and Daryl Washington. Beating these hungry Cardinals may prove challenging for the 49ers.
In order to win, the 49ers, averaging 140.2 rushing yards per game, must get Frank Gore and the running game going. The Cardinals’ defense, in comparison, is allowing an average of just 79 rushing yards per game. Gore will face a tough task getting yardage on the ground against a team that has allowed only one rushing touchdown this season, has allowed zero touchdowns in the last seven quarters, and has stopped opponents’ runs behind the line of scrimmage a league-high 22 times.
If the Cardinals’ defense successfully frustrates the 49ers’ run game, pressure will fall on 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick to find open receivers in the passing game. Kaepernick and the 49ers have struggled so far this season, gaining an average of 181.6 passing yards per game, though that may be easier facing a Cardinals passing defense ranked 19th in the NFL. The 49ers’ offensive line also must work harder to protect Kaepernick as the Cardinals recorded 7 sacks of Carolina Panthers’ quarterback Cam Newton last week. Campbell, Dansby, and Washington each had 2 sacks of Newton; Dansby and Peterson also had one interception each. The 49ers’ offensive line has allowed eleven sacks of Kaepernick this season; Kaepernick has thrown four interceptions.
While the strength of the 49ers’ offense will be tested against the Cardinals, the 49ers should dominate defensively. The 49ers’ defense, ranked 5th overall and second in pass defense, faces 20th-ranked quarterback Carson Palmer who has thrown 9 interceptions this season, 3 in last week’s game alone. The Cardinals’ leading receivers, Michael Floyd and Larry Fitzgerald, are ranked 32nd and 36th, respectively, in the NFL in receiving yards. The 49ers have been weak defending the run, though, so it should be interesting to watch how they handle running back Rashard Mendenhall who is ranked 20th in the NFL with 69 carries for 219 yards and 2 touchdowns. Rookie running back Andre Ellington, who has rushed for 120 yards on 18 carries in 2013, may also see some playing time. The 49ers may be helped by the return of Patrick Willis after missing two games due to a groin injury. Also, Tramaine Brock, the reigning NFC Defensive Player of the Week, should play again in place of injured Nnamdi Asomugha.
Considering the 49ers’ stout pass defense and the Cardinals’ hefty run defense, the difference in the game may be the performances of Kaepernick for the 49ers and Mendenhall/Ellington for the Cardinals. Neither team can afford another loss in this tight division.