49ers vs. Cardinals: 10 Keys to the Game for San Francisco

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49ers vs. Cardinals: 10 Keys to the Game for San Francisco
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In Week 8, the San Francisco 49ers (5-2) and Arizona Cardinals (4-3) will go head to head on Monday Night Football. The battle for first place in the division is set for an 8:30 p.m. ET kickoff and will be played from the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona. 

NFL fans can expect a physical fight for supremacy in the NFC West. The trash talking between these two teams began early this week, as this is developing into a heated rivalry. 

The 49ers are currently the alpha in the division, hunted primarily by the Seahawks and Cardinals. And while the Niners have fought hard to get to 5-2, the Cardinals have dropped their last three games after starting 4-0. 

Nevertheless, San Francisco is going to have to come prepared if they hope to head into the bye week with a win. Here are some things the 49ers can do to position themselves to get a critical Week 8 victory. 

 

Get An Early Lead 

It seems that the 49ers would be wise to invest time in preparing for their first offensive drive. Some head coaches like to select go-to plays for their team’s first offensive drive, which might benefit San Francisco in Week 8.  

The Cardinals have a very tough defensive unit this year and the 49ers don’t play well from behind. The Niners need to start fast and get points on the board early. They should be patient, yet physical and assertive on the first offensive drive. 

The 49ers have put together a winning record this season when getting out to an early lead. They’d be smart to play the odds by game-planning for a hot start.

 

Lock Down Larry Legend 

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Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald is one of the most dynamic players in the entire NFL. This guy is a one-man wrecking crew, with the ability to take over the game from the receiver position. He stands out as the one guy who could break the 49ers defense on Monday night. 

He is the team’s best offensive weapon and will command attention from the 49ers secondary. The Niners would benefit from dedicating over-the-top safety help to No. 11. 

San Francisco’s pass rush also has to be present as to prevent the deep routes from developing. The Niners cannot allow him to run through their defense. 

 

Feed the Ball to the Prime-Time Performers 

Usually when one of San Francisco’s top two offensive threats gets rolling, the Niners manage to lock up a win. They need to feed the ball to Vernon Davis and Frank Gore in an attempt to gash Arizona’s defense. 

The 49ers have won five games this season when Gore has hit the century mark or scored a touchdown. Davis started the season on a hot streak but has since cooled off. Both players are vital to the team’s success, so the Niners have to get them involved early and often. 

In 2011, the 49ers tight end had six grabs for 99 yards and a touchdown versus the Cardinals. Meanwhile, Gore registered 160 yards rushing and a touchdown in two games against them. Between the two Pro Bowlers, the 49ers should be able to rely on some sort of offensive production.

 

Exploit Arizona’s 31st-Ranked Offense 

The Cardinals have the second worst offense in the league right now, and face a daunting task of going against the 49ers’ top-ranked unit. 

This is a huge matchup that must be exploited. Both units will clash on Monday night, and are on opposite sides of the spectrum, statistically.

The Cards’ run game is in real bad shape, having lost their first and second backs in Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams. The team is now relying on LaRod Stephens-Howling and William Powell to engineer a ground attack. Barring a miracle, San Francisco’s second-ranked run defense should stomp out any attempts on the ground. 

The 49ers defense also needs to find different and creative ways to attack Arizona’s leaky offensive line. The unit allowed an astonishing 29 sacks in the past four weeks, leading the league in QB hits (53) and sacks allowed (35). 

San Francisco needs to use their strengths versus Arizona’s weaknesses. 

Contain the Pass Rush

Even though Arizona can’t stop the pass rush, they can sure bring it. The Cardinals are currently ranked No. 3 in the NFL with 22 sacks this season. They are aggressive getting after the pass and they bring pressure from everywhere in their front seven. 

Cardinals inside linebacker Daryl Washington currently leads the team with 6.0 sacks, while outside linebackers O’Brien Schofield and Sam Acho have a combined 7.0 sacks. They will bring pressure from the edge and interior, so San Francisco’s entire line will have to be on their game and playing in sync. 

Tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis will have to have good games on the edge. The interior O-linemen will also have a challenge containing the interior pass rush with Washington and Darnell Dockett

This should be a very physical game in the trenches, so the Niners need to stick to the fundamentals.

 

Cut Down on Penalties

Dashon Goldson and Early Doucet Fight

This sort of came out of left field because under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers have not been an overly penalized team. 

The 49ers have had some costly penalties this season, well after we said goodbye to the notorious replacement refs. The Niners have not been operating as smoothly as they did a year ago. This is something that can be fixed, and I assume it will but in can still affect the 49ers in the short term. 

If the 49ers continue to have mental errors, it will cost them. And in another divisional game, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see some false starts or encroachment penalties. 

The Niners need to get that under control and play smart football on the road.

 

Execution and Fundamentals

For the 49ers, a lot of their games come down to execution and fundamentals. If they can do the little things right and play a better-looking game than their opponent, they know they have a chance to come out on top. 

The 49ers need to be the aggressor in all phases. 

Their blocking and tackling must be on par against the Cardinals, because divisional games are typically a game of inches. San Francisco cannot allow them any breathing room, and can make them play a tight game by executing well on a down-by-down basis. 

And when it comes to execution, something all 11 players must keep in mind is play-intent.

 

Get Michael Crabtree Involved

San Francisco’s No. 1 wideout has had a pretty decent history against the Arizona Cardinals. Even more recently, Crabtree has played exceptionally well against cornerback Patrick Peterson. 

In two games in 2011, Crabtree finished with 14 receptions for 183 yards against Peterson and the Cards. Both players were amongst the highest-rated players in their respective draft classes, and now have the opportunity to go one-on-one against each other twice a year. 

Crabtree got the best of Peterson last year, but 2012 is a whole new story. Alex Smith should test Peterson, and try to get his No. 1 receiver involved. If the 49ers can open up the offense and get everyone contributing, it could be a long day for the Cardinals defense.

 

Run, Run, Run

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

We mentioned Frank Gore before, but this about getting the entire team going. 

Gore and running mate Kendall Hunter have done an excellent job moving the ball down the field on the ground. This season, they have been a top-ranked rushing unit, currently sitting at No. 2 in the league. 

Gore—whom many thought was done—is fifth in the league in rushing, and has the least carries of any of the backs in the top 10. This is a huge statement about his yards per attempt. And when he needs a rest, Hunter checks in with little drop-off. 

The 49ers need to employ their No. 2 rush attack against this Cardinals defense, and execute a balanced attack. It wouldn’t hurt to get Brandon Jacobs, Kyle Williams or Ted Ginn Jr. involved either.

 

Do Not Underestimate a Division Opponent

Even though the Cardinals are on a serious cold streak and they have a lot of flaws as a team, the 49ers cannot overlook them. This game is still for the lead in the NFC West. If the Niners drop this game, they’ll be tied with the Cardinals for first. 

Seattle could also potentially tie this weekend. 

The NFC West is a tough division, and these wins really matter. The Niners could create space between them and second place with a win in Week 8. It would be a great way for them to enter their midseason bye week as well. 

But this game is going to be hard-fought and physical. There is familiarity and strong dislike between these two teams. The 49ers should expect a full-throttle effort by the Cardinals on prime time.

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