The Arizona Cardinals are coming off their bye week. They are looking for answers at the quarterback position as Drew Stanton takes over for the injured Carson Palmer. The bye week also brought rumors of head coach Bruce Arians stepping down after the season, rumors he denied on Twitter. With all the drama in Arizona, the Cardinals travel to Santa Clara, California on Sunday to take on fellow NFC West bottom-dweller, the San Francisco 49ers. What are the keys to a Cardinals victory? Where can Arizona take advantage of the winless 49ers? Here are three things to watch for on Sunday.
Disrupt the Middle
The 49ers have one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. The strongest parts of the line are the offensive tackles Joe Staley and Trent Brown. Both men are questionable for Sunday’s game against the Cardinals. Brown sat out last week’s loss against the Eagles as he recovered from a concussion suffered in the previous game. Staley left at the end of the first half and did not return after he sustained an injury to his orbital bone. The interior suffers from overall below average play of left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Daniel Kilgore, and right guard Brandon Fusco. All three men have struggled in passing and running situations, often times looking overwhelmed by the defenders they are tasked with blocking. The goal for the Cardinals here is simple, control the line of scrimmage.
The Cardinals will need their interior defense to step up. Linemen Frostee Rucker, Josh Mauro, and Corey Peters have the ability to get penetration inside. The key will be to lock up the inside to allow the linebackers to flow through and make plays in both the run and pass games. With the possibility of both starting tackles being out, Chandler Jones and Haason Reddick will need to feast in passing situations. The 49ers struggle to give much time for rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard and the third round pick has the habit of holding on to the football longer than he should. It could be a party in the 49ers’ backfield if the Cardinals play their hand right.
Take Advantage of 49ers Secondary
The 49ers have surrendered 2002 yards passing, the fifth most in the NFL this season. They have also given up the fifth most passing touchdowns with 14 on the year. Combine that with injuries to starting free safety Jimmie Ward and the trade of starting cornerback Rashard Robinson, the Cardinals have a clear advantage in the passing game. The starting corners for the 49ers are likely Dontae Johnson and rookie Ahkello Witherspoon. The Cardinals however are missing starting quarterback Carson Palmer. With the veteran passer likely out for the season, it will be interesting to see how the passing game functions.
The Cardinals have a talented group of pass catchers in Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown, Jaron Brown, and J.J. Nelson. The offensive line has had a week to heal and are coming off a bye. Sprinkling even an average run game will help put pressure on the weak 49ers secondary. Fitzgerald will likely face a double team for most of the game which should allow John or Jaron Brown to find acres of open space. There is little doubt that head coach Bruce Arians and his coaches will be able to find ways to get receivers open.
Can Stanton Get it Done?
Drew Stanton will be the starter against San Francisco. The veteran quarterback had a week of practice and has spent years with Arians and the system. His play will go a long way to figuring out who will win on Sunday. The 49ers defense will give Stanton opportunities to make plays as they are young and inexperienced. During his career, Stanton has hovered near 50 percent in completion percentage. The lack of accuracy will need to be corrected as the 49ers are likely to stack the line to stop the run. There will be open receivers and Stanton will need to hit his receivers to help move the chains. In their previous meeting this season the Cardinals offense struggled to move the ball consistently. That was with Carson Palmer at the helm.
Expect the passing game to focus on underneath routes early as well as mix in some play action. The early game plan will allow Stanton to get in rhythm with his receivers and hopefully establish the footing against the inconsistent 49ers defense. If Stanton can stay upright in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield, there will be open receivers to find and big gains to be made.
The Cardinals on paper have the much better team especially with Pierre Garcon on injured reserve, but recent history has shown how tough the 49ers have played their division rival. While they will be without quarterback Carson Palmer, the offense should be able to move the football on Sunday and provide points to put pressure on the 49ers’ offense. It could be a much needed boost for the Cardinals after the bye week. A win gets Arizona right back on schedule and pushing for a possible playoff berth. A loss to the winless 49ers likely means the end of any hope for the season. Cardinals 23-17.
*all stats courtesy of NFL.com