The Arizona Cardinals managed another win last week despite an unimpressive offensive performance, but they’ll need to up their game to have a shot against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday in their final trip to Candlestick Park.
The Cardinals have lost three straight and six of their last seven to the 49ers, who have won two straight by a combined 55 points after dropping two straight by a combined 46 points.
Cardinals’ quarterback Carson Palmer is off to one of the worst starts of his career, throwing nine interceptions to just five touchdowns. But Arizona has still found a way to win three of its last four, with its most recent win coming over the Carolina Panters thanks to a dominant defensive effort in the second half.
Keys for the Cardinals offense:
1. No turnovers
The Arizona defense is playing well enough to keep the Cardinals in the game regardless of what the offense does, but that changes if Arizona makes a critical mistake in its own territory.
If the Cardinals defense can keep the game within striking distance, it’ll be on the offense to take advantage. And while the offense hasn’t shown that it’s capable of taking over a game, it’s certainly shown that it can make costly mistakes.
But if Arizona can avoid the big mistakes, and can stay within a big play or two, they should at least have a puncher’s chance on the road.
2. Run the ball
Regardless of how successful (or unsuccessful) the Cardinals are running the ball, they need to at least pose the threat.
If the Cardinals can keep the possibility of a run in the back of San Francisco’s mind, it should open things up — if only a little bit — for Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and company.
And if the Cardinals stick with the run, Andre Ellington has shown the ability to break off a 20-yarder or two.
But if the run is abandoned — especially with Arizona’s mediocre pass protection — the 49ers should be able to tee off on Palmer without much trouble.
3. Protect Palmer
Palmer has shown that — when given time — he can be a serviceable quarterback. But if the 49ers are able to consistently pressure Palmer, the Cardinals’ offense suffers greatly.
If the Cardinals’ quarterback isn’t able to get time to make downfield throws, that takes away the most dangerous part of the offense with Floyd and Fitzgerald’s leaping ability and ball skills.
Arizona will need to hit a few big plays to have a chance at winning in San Francisco, and consistent pressure on Palmer will all but eliminate that possibility.
Keys for the San Francisco offense:
1. Run Gore
Few things wear a defense down like a power running back, especially when he’s as productive as Frank Gore.
Regardless of how many yards he picks up — and given his track record against Arizona, it’ll likely be a lot — Gore serves a number of purposes in the San Francisco offense. Not only is he able to get yards of his own, he’ll also draw attention from the running ability of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
If Gore is a threat to get the ball on most of San Francisco’s plays, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t be, it makes everyone on the field for the 49ers significantly more dangerous.
2. Win first down
The 49ers need to avoid situations where they’re one-dimensional as an offense. Most of what San Francisco does offensively is predicated on their threat of both running and passing.
Between designed quarterback keeps, reads and play-action runs, the 49ers are by far their most effective in those situations.
But if San Francisco finds itself in third-and-5 or more, the Cardinals’ defense will have a pretty good idea of what’s coming.
3. Hit big plays
Against a defense as physical and talented as Arizona’s, it’s often a challenge to sustain lengthy drives. And with as many offensive weapons as San Francisco has, the best way to combat that is with big plays.
Between Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Kaepernick and Gore, the 49ers have a plethora of big-play threats. Keeping track of each on every snap is almost impossible.
The opportunity for big plays will likely be there for San Francisco. But if the 49ers can’t connect, it’ll open the door for Arizona to hang around.
Keys for the Cardinals defense:
1. Make the tackle
The Cardinals’ biggest defensive issue has been missed tackles, and that’s a trend that can’t continue at Candlestick Park.
Between all of the 49ers offensive weapons, each is a threat to score from anywhere on the field. And the easiest way for them to do that is by forcing the Cardinals to miss tackles.
But if they can get Gore and company on the ground each play — preferably on first contact, though that’s not likely with their physicality — it’ll at least force Kaepernick to make plays with his arm rather than giving up big plays on dumpoffs and screens.
2. Stay at home
Few things are more important than gap responsibility against an offense like San Francisco’s.
Gore’s cut-back ability makes it imperative for defenses to stay in their gaps, and the 49ers option schemes just throw in another wrinkle that can abuse over-aggressive defenses.
But by staying at home and within the defensive scheme, Arizona can give itself a much better chance at defending the wide range of things it will see Sunday.
3. Pursue, pursue, pursue
Everyone that touches the ball on a regular basis for the 49ers is a physical freak.
It’s going to be almost impossible for the first defender to bring down Gore, Davis, Kaepernick, Crabtree and Boldin. So the Cardinals will need multiple defenders around the ball almost immediately in order to have any shot at bringing down the San Francisco ball carriers.
Keys for the San Francisco defense:
1. Get to Palmer
If San Francisco can create havoc for Carson Palmer, there’s little chance that the Cardinals escape the game without a major miscue.
Whether it comes in the form of a lost fumble, big interception or missed throw down-field, Palmer has shown that he’ll get rattled under pressure.
But if Palmer has time to scan the field and get set before each throw, he’ll give the Cardinals a chance.
2. No big plays
If the 49ers can make Palmer and the Arizona offense sustain drives in order to put points on the board, San Francisco should be in great shape.
Palmer has shown that he’s a liability with the ball in his hands, though he is capable of making big plays. But the more times the quarterback has to put the ball in the air, the greater the chances for a mistake.
If San Francisco can limit big passing plays while not allowing any gashing runs, it will be nearly impossible for the Cardinals to consistently move the ball and score enough points to win.
3. Stuff the run
The Cardinals have shown that they’re willing — and at times, able — to run the ball on first and second downs. But where Arizona gets into trouble is when it gets stuffed on first down, forcing Palmer into a situation where he’s almost guaranteed to throw the ball.
Arizona will need to stay balanced and unpredictable to keep San Francisco guessing. The best way for the 49ers to do that is to make a commitment to stopping the run early.
If the Cardinals get in situations where they have to throw the ball and are one-dimensional, that’s a battle the 49ers will almost certainly win.