Six Points: Cardinals vs. 49ers
The Arizona Cardinals own a three-game lead atop the NFC West and will have to fight the natural inclination for a letdown when they visit the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Arizona has won four in a row and is coming off a pair of high-profile matchups in prime time, outlasting the Cincinnati Bengals 34-31 last weekend after posing a 39-32 victory in Seattle. The Cardinals posted their most lopsided victory of the season with a 47-7 mauling of the 49ers in Week 3.
San Francisco has split a pair of games since Blaine Gabbert was named to replace Colin Kaepernick as the starting quarterbacks. The 49ers also have been a tough opponent for Arizona, winning six of eight matchups over the previous three seasons.
Here are three keys to the game for both the Cardinals and the 49ers.
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1. Re-establish the run
Chris Johnson rushed for more than 100 yards four times in a six-game stretch, providing balance to the league’s top-scoring offense. However, he has struggled in each of the last two weeks, averaging under three yards on 41 carries. San Francisco was gashed for 209 yards by Seattle rookie Thomas Rawls a week ago, so it’s a perfect spot to try and get Johnson untracked.
2. Keep the foot on the throttle
Coach Bruce Arians is one of the league’s most aggressive play-callers and he gets to test a young and inexperience 49ers secondary. Carson Palmer leads the league with 27 touchdown passes and has a number of options in the passing game. John Brown appears over his hamstring issues while Arizona unveiled another burner in rookie J.J. Nelson, who had four catches for 142 yards last week.
3. Continue to blitz
The Cardinals are dealing with a number of injuries along their defensive line, but they did a nice job of applying pressure against Cincinnati with linebackers Markus Golden and Dwight Freeney along with safety Deone Bucannon. Arizona has 14 interceptions and picked off Kaepernick four times in Week 3, with two of them taken back for touchdowns.
1. Don’t shy away from the passing game
The 49ers fell into a 14-0 hole less than six minutes into the Week 3 matchup at Arizona and Kaepernick became tentative after throwing a pair of early pick-sixes, attempting only 19 passes in the game. Gabbert has shown an ability to move the ball through the air and got a lift last week with the return of Anquan Boldin, who returned from injury to make five catches for 93 yards.
2. Show up on defense
Not only were the 49ers shredded on the ground at Seattle, but they also allowed quarterback Russell Wilson to complete a season-high 82.8 percent of his passes while surrendering a staggering 508 yards of total offense. San Francisco lost its best run stuffer in tackle Glenn Dorsey. Rookie Arik Armstead, a first-round pick, now gets a chance to justify his draft status.
3. Eat some clock
San Francisco fell behind 20-0 at Seattle, removing any hope of establishing a ground game. Carlos Hyde has not played since Oct. 22 due to a stress fracture and other injuries have left the backfield in turmoil. Shaun Draughn, signed off the street on Nov. 2, has been forced to carry the load, but he’s also been surprisingly effective with 12 catches in his two starts.