TEMPE, Ariz. – Adrian Wilson needs a new look. His deadpan has lost its power.
When asked his thoughts on Monday night’s game against the 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium, the Cardinals defensive captain tried to assert that it’s just “another game on the schedule.”
The choir looked skeptical, so Wilson relented.
“No,” he said, laughing. “It’s not.”
No. It’s not.
Whether this rivalry is league driven, division driven or bad-blood driven, it is real. And whether the Cardinals’ defensive players will admit it, the lion’s share of hope for Arizona’s second win in its last seven meetings with San Francisco rests with them.
With so many injuries hampering what was already a suspect offense, the Cards have little margin for error each week. The defense is the unit that patrols that margin and has some added incentive this week, not just because the 49ers are in town.
Arizona has lost three straight games, all but wiping out a promising 4-0 start. The 49ers are one game ahead in the NFC West standings, making this a battle for a share of first place. And the Cardinals’ next two games are at surging Green Bay and undefeated Atlanta, magnifying the importance of this home game to stop the skid and keep the team within reasonable striking distance of its first playoff berth in three seasons.
“It wouldn’t matter if both of us was sitting 0-7. I think we’d still try to kill each other,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “It’s one of those games where you have to put your big-boy pads on and expect to be in the cold tub from Tuesday to Friday; expect to get beat up on both sides of the ball.
“It’s going to be one of those backyard fights where your mom can’t get in it and no referees. It’s just going to be blow for blow, and it’s all about who can bend to the max and don’t break.”
Both defenses have shown a consistent ability to do just that. San Francisco’s defense is ranked No. 1 in the league, allowing 272.3 yards per game. The 49ers are also second in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 14.3 points a game. Arizona’s defense is ranked No. 7 overall (312.1 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (16.9 ppg).
But stats don’t tell the whole story.
“Stats are for losers,” Wilson said. “You try not to look at the stats.”
But you can rest assured the Cardinals defense is looking long and hard at all the attention the 49ers defense is getting. Sure, it’s a team game and there are other factors at work, but pride is a cattle prod in the NFL. Wilson and Dockett know the 49ers defense is the one with all the accolades, from its No. 1 ranking to its years of consistent play – from its three Pro Bowl selections in 2011 to its NFC Championship Game berth.
“We do have to go out there and try to do better than their defense,” Wilson said. “That’s just the way defensive football is. It’s hard for us to score points, but for us to go out there and be better than their defense, that’s a challenge in itself.”
Maybe more so this year with how the 49ers are playing.
“I think our defense does a great job of playing within the framework of the defense and playing together,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Sometimes that doesn’t show up in the low-hanging statistical fruit, but there’s so much more to (it than) … sacks or interceptions for a defensive back.
“I think you tell a good defense by how they tackle. Our guys do that well and they have contact courage.”
The 49ers also have a swagger that comes from consistent play, year after year. It’s a feeling the Cardinals are just beginning to display.
“If you plug in enough talented players, then you’ll find ways to make that group successful. There’s no secret to that,” Cardinals general manager Rod Graves said. “It always goes back to having good football players and finding ways to mold those players into a successful unit. San Francisco has certainly done a great job, and they’ve managed, for the most part, to stay healthy.”
While it’s obvious the NFC West has developed a defensive identity this season, with all four clubs among the league’s top nine in total defense and scoring defense, coach Ken Whisenhunt dismissed the notion that the rest of the division has tried to emulate what the 49ers are doing.
“When we won the division two years in a row, do you think there were teams that were trying to emulate us?” he said. “I don’t think we approach it that way. We have a process we go through in trying to set our team up.
“You’re certainly aware of the type of teams you have in your division, but I don’t think you’re trying to make your team like another team.”
Nonetheless, the Cardinals want what the 49ers have had the past two seasons: division titles.
“It’s probably going to be the most physical game of our year — ‘til we play them again in December,” Dockett said. “We already know what to expect. Our minds are going to be right, and I’m pretty sure their minds are going to be right.”