It wasn't pretty, nor was it ideal, but Thursday night's win over the Seattle Seahawks proved to be the win San Francisco needed to get back things back on track. The 49ers were coming off of a 26-3 defeat to the defending Super Bowl champs, and head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't want to drop two games in a row for the first time in his professional coaching tenure.
Given the odds were stacked against Seattle in every way, the likelihood of that happening was slim to none anyway. Any team that goes on the road during a short week is at a definite disadvantage. If you don't believe me, just look at the six previous games that had been played on Thursday Night Football.
The 49ers victory brought them back a top the NFC West at 5-2 with momentum going into Monday night. Even though Arizona got off to a fast start, you didn't expect the Cardinals to really win the division, did you? Defensively they can compete with anyone, yet their offensive line holds them back tremendously.
Vic Fangio's defense will be looking to expose that weak offensive line in every way. Let's take a look at the three most important matchups we will be watching on Monday Night Football.
Aldon Smith vs. D'Anthony Batiste
It seems like every week I highlight any pass-rusher that squares off against Arizona's left tackle. But really, how could you not? Batiste has allowed a league high 46 quarterback pressures through seven games. 10 of those pressures have been sacks, four have been quarterback hits and 32 have been quarterback hurries.
Pro Football Focus currently has Batiste as the worst rated offensive tackle in the NFL. Out of the 67 offensive tackles they've graded he ranks a full 11 points behind the next worst tackle. By season's end, he is on pace to allow 22 sacks—which is absolutely absurd.
There has only been one game where Batiste didn't allow a sack.
I realize that the Cardinals offensive line has been ravaged by injuries, but there has to be someone out there who can at least do an adequate job. Fortunately for Aldon Smith, all this subpar play from Batiste helps him. Smith's pass-rushing performances haven't been as effective as they were last year—facing the journeyman left tackle might just be the boost he needs.
At season's end last year one could make the argument that Smith was the best pass-rushing 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. So, what has happened this season? Nothing really, he is seeing more double teams and the increase in snaps has probably worn on him a bit.
Remember, last year he was only on the field in pass-rushing situations and this year he is a three down defender. If you couple all of that with the slight decline of Justin Smith, San Francisco's productivity is right about where it should be. Justin Smith is still phenomenal against the run, yet he has been on a downward slope in terms of getting after the passer.
Because of the Cardinals poor line play, it wouldn't be absurd to think Aldon Smith could turn in his second multi-sack performance of the season.
Frank Gore vs. Arizona's Run Defense
Even though Ray Horton's defense covers well on the back end and rushes the passer with ease, there is one lacking area that shows up week after week on tape. Every week it seems as if the Cardinals can't stop the run. Through the first seven weeks of the season they've allowed five backfields to top the century mark.
In consecutive weeks the Buffalo Bills and the Minnesota Vikings have rushed for over a 160 yards. With Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter in the backfield that could easily happen again this week. Gore has been putting up monster numbers this year on limited carries.
At no point in his career has he averaged 5.8 yards per carry, like he is this year. Even in 2006 when he ran for 1,695 yards, his yards per carry was still 5.4, four tenths of a yard lower than his current yards per carry average.
Right now Arizona is allowing 4.2 yards per attempt and PFF has the Cardinals' run defense as their fifth worst unit. Not to mention they've given up six runs of 20 yards-plus—which is eighth worst in the NFL.
Take a look at Gore's statistics and you will see that he has at least one run over 10 yards in every game this season. And he has at least one run of 20 yards or more in three of the 49ers first seven contests.
Let's see if Gore can build off of his best game of the season. It may be hard to top 8.2 yards per carry and 131 yards, yet if anyone can do it, he can behind that rock sold offensive line.
Carlos Rodgers vs. Larry Fitzgerald
Despite the lack of offensive production from Mike Miller's offense, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has still been doing his thing no matter who the quarterback is. Just imagine how well Fitzgerald would do with a legitimate quarterback under center?
However, I think he has realized that it might be awhile until another Kurt Warner steps into the offensive huddle. So it's safe to say he has done a good job of adjusting to the hand he has been dealt. His numbers from last season speak for themselves.
While he's not quite on pace for 1,400 yards he is still one of the most sure handed and targeted wideouts in the game. Heading into Week 8 he has been targeted 67 times. Of those 67 targets he has only dropped one pass. Compare that rate to where he was last year and his target to drop ratio is even better than it was before.
Given the fact Fitz moves around so much, it will be hard to dictate as to who exactly will cover him. Yet if they want any shot of shutting him down, San Francisco would be smart to lock him down with its top cornerback Carlos Rogers.
Like Aldon Smith, Rogers isn't having an All-Pro caliber season like he did last year, but he has been coming on as of late. Over the last three games he has only allowed nine receptions for 72 yards and one touchdown. The lone touchdown was the only score he has given up all-season long.
He struggled during both games against the Cardinals last season, so it will be interesting to see if he turns things around this year. Fitzgerald managed to get behind coverage and exploit Rogers more than once last year, so bracket coverage on Fitz might not be a bad idea this time around.
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