San Francisco 49ers: Are Arizona Cardinals a Legitimate Challenge in '12?

Joe LevittContributor IIIJune 1, 2012

San Francisco 49ers: Are Arizona Cardinals a Legitimate Challenge in '12?

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    The San Francisco 49ers, and rest of the NFC West for that matter, no longer qualify as the laughingstock division of the NFL.

    The success of the 2011 49ers, as well as their newsworthy free-agent acquisitions and draft selections, are all well documented. The team comes into 2012 as a logical favorite for another division crown and to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.

    But how about the Arizona Cardinals, the team that finished second in the West?

    Arizona’s squad won seven out of their last nine games a season ago, including a victory over the NFC West champs. They feature an effective mix of young talent and savvy vets on defense and retooled the wide receiver position through the draft and free agency.

    Let’s evaluate the prospects of the Cardinals providing a challenge to the 49ers of securing another division title in 2012.

     

    Note: I will later evaluate the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams in this three-part series.

8-8 Cardinals of 2011

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    As previously mentioned, the Cardinals finished strong down the stretch after a wretched start to their season. They went a perfect 4-0 in overtime games and won each of their matchups after Week 9 by four of fewer points. In other words, they excelled at winning close games.

    They accomplished this feat in large part on the remarkable returning abilities of rookie sensation Patrick Peterson (four punt-return TDs), the money foot of kicker Jay Feely, some commendable late-game performances by quarterback John Skelton and a hard-hitting, continually improved defense.

    Carrying over into 2012, the defensive strength of the Cardinals still lies in its powerful 3-4 defensive ends Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett, and strong safety Adrian Wilson. All three rank in the top seven at their respective positions according to Pro Football Focus.

    Both DEs and the linebacker corps playing behind them all excel at getting after the QB. Wilson is tremendous in coverage, while Daryl Washington holds things down at the middle linebacker position. The extremely talented Peterson should also produce an eye-opening sophomore campaign at cornerback.

    The defense collectively did not rank exceptionally high in 2011 (with the exception of its No. 7 ranking in total sacks), but will be a strength for this team moving forward. The same goes for its special teams (see: Peterson, Feely).

QB, O-Line the Key in 2012

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    The future success of this team is predicated on the offensive side of the ball. More specifically, it boils down to who will be taking snaps from behind center...and the center himself, to be sure.

    John Skelton, despite his poor TD to INT ratio (11 to 14) and lowly QB rating (68.9), led the Cards to a 6-2 record in his eight starts. Those stats are slightly skewed because Skelton produced a rating of 82.8 or higher in three of those wins, including 106.6 in his victory over the 49ers.

    On the other hand, Kevin Kolb—the $12 million guaranteed Kevin Kolb—went just 2-6 and succumbed to concussion-related injuries. He performed admirably in those two wins, with QB ratings of 130 and 109.9, but was wildly inconsistent in his other outings.

    Citing the large investment and latest coming from head coach Ken Wisenhunt regarding the quarterback position, my money is on Kolb.

    The problem here is that Kolb has not given his NFL audience any evidence that he can sustain himself throughout a full season. Injuries have plagued him throughout his career in both Philadelphia and Arizona.

    What compounds this issue is the Cardinals’ suspect offensive line.

    Can this unit that allowed the second-most sacks in the league in 2011 (54) protect him enough to prevent another season-ending injury? It remains to be seen if draft pick Bobby Massie or free-addition (and former Niner) Adam Snyder can fulfill those duties.

    Relying on a rookie and a guard that rated as the third-worst at his position in 2011 seems rather dubious to me.

Cardinals Offense vs. 49ers Defense

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    What we do know is that the Cards will trot out an imposing trio of wideouts. Led by one of the best in Larry Fitzgerald, the team also re-signed an up-and-coming Early Doucet, drafted Notre Dame stud Michael Floyd and retained Andre Roberts.

    Placed in a vacuum, those players would pose as a serious problem for a defensive secondary. However, this can only happen if they receive reliable play from whoever takes over QB duties and if they can contain the 49ers' ferocious pass rush.

    I believe the former will occur, but not so much regarding the latter.

    The unrelenting Niners’ front seven, led by Aldon and Justin Smith, will overwhelm Arizona’s O-line. Either Kolb or Skelton will not have the required time to locate the talented receivers. If given the opportunity, it will be no easy task throwing into the 49ers’ Pro Bowl, ball-hawking secondary.

    (Cardinals fans, I do not foresee your boy Fitz having the same kind of game as he did in your 21-19 win last year.)

    Moreover, the Cardinals’ run game ranked a disappointing 24th in the NFL, despite Beanie Wells’ 1,047-yard, 10 TD output. These statistics are misleadingly positive because Wells’ production was largely reduced to two games (albeit two great ones against the Giants and Rams)—the point being, this offense centers on the pass and does not possess a dependable rushing attack.

    Even if it did, it would not by any stretch match up against the league’s No. 1 rush defense.

Cardinals Defense vs. 49ers Offense

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    Furthermore, while its own defense might be a strong point for the Cardinals, it will also not match up across the board against the 49ers' entirely revamped offense.

    Campbell and the linebackers will likely get a few shots on Alex Smith in the first matchup at University of Phoenix Stadium, perhaps due to a still-gelling offensive line and home-field advantage.

    With that said, the 49ers can neutralize that pass rush overall with a versatile and innovative rushing attack. Bringing in LaMichael James (speed, home-run threat) and Brandon Jacobs (short-yardage bulldozer) will only complement a 49ers ground game (featuring Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter) that already was one of the most creative and productive in the league last year.

    The Cardinals secondary as a whole is also questionable. This area of the defense leaves much to be desired aside from Wilson, the potential evolution of Peterson and the impact of rookie Jamell Fleming. No Arizona CB ranked in the top 50 (free-agent addition William Gay barely qualified as a forgettable No. 46).

    If Michael Crabtree can haul in 120 yards receiving and a TD with as limited weapons surrounding him, things can only get worse for the Cards in 2012.

    Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins will wreak havoc, not to mention Vernon Davis doing the same against the linebackers who are rather deficient in coverage skills (I suspect Wilson will be occupied over the top by Moss).

How Does It All Play Out?

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    On paper, the 49ers—including the omitted NFL’s leading special teams unit—prove themselves the superior team in nearly every facet of the game. On paper, the 49ers would win nine times out of 10.

    But the game isn’t played on paper.

    Somehow, some way, at least one matchup between the 49ers and Cardinals will be a closely-contested battle—it’s just how NFL divisional games work.

    Will it be the result of a special teams gaffe leading to a Peterson touchdown return? Or perhaps an unthinkable surrendering of multiple rushing TDs by the Niners’ D?

    Whatever the case, I expect these divisional rivals in mutual enmity of each other to play two hardly fought games in 2012.

    Will this result in a Cardinals’ win or even lead to an NFC West crown? Well, no.

    But while things seem this good on paper, expect a favorable result to be much harder to come by.

     

    49ers 2-0, Cardinals 0-2

    49ers first in NFC West, Cardinals third in NFC West

     

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