This week’s three keys to an Arizona Cardinals victory are mercifully the last you will have to read this season. It has been a long and tumultuous road in 2012, especially considering how promising the season began.
The ups and downs of an NFL season take its toll on many fans around the league, but Cardinals fans have ridden the biggest emotional roller coaster of all. With the conclusion of Sunday’s game against the NFC West rival San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park, fans will be free of watching bad offensive play and a defense worthy of playing deep into January.
Arizona’s chance to miss the playoffs seemed slim to none during the first week of October. The team was 4-0 and facing a St. Louis Rams team of which we still were not sure.
The Cardinals left St. Louis 4-1 and with a terrible taste in their mouths. That season-changing game should have triggered roster moves to improve a fast-sinking offensive line and replenish a depleted stable of running backs. Instead, what we got were nine weeks of nothing significant in terms of roster changes and eight more losses consecutively.
With consecutive loss No. 9, all playoff hopes were dashed, and coach Ken Whisenhunt’s stay in the Valley was beginning to wear thin among fans. It solidified a second losing season in the last three, and it also solidified the notion that he cannot lead the team to anything better than 8-8 without the beloved Kurt Warner (Whisenhunt’s only two winning seasons came with Warner at the helm).
Onto Sunday’s game.
With a win, the 49ers will clinch the NFC West for a second straight season, and with it, clinch a home game for wild-card weekend. With a loss, Arizona keeps itself in contention for a top-five pick in next April’s NFL draft.
The team will not purposely fold to improve draft position by a few picks, but a loss would be the best thing for it at this point.
Here are your three keys to a Cards victory over the 49ers.
Despite playing in only seven games this season, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick has 15 rushes of 10 yards or greater. That ranks 14th in the NFC, ahead of many running backs who have played in every game to this point.
He also has a higher propensity to throw deep. Kaepernick has thrown the ball 20 yards or further downfield on 13.7 percent of pass plays. That would place him seventh among NFL quarterbacks if he would qualify. His 57.7 completion percentage (15-of-26) would be No. 1—again, if he were to qualify.
His big-play ability is the reason coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with him after starter Alex Smith had been cleared to return from the concussion he suffered during the tie game against St. Louis.
At 5.81, Arizona’s defense ranks No. 11 at Defensive Real Passing Yards Per Attempt (a Cold, Hard Football Facts statistic). That means it doesn’t allow many big plays through the air; everything is kept in front of the secondary.
The unit will have to be great once more to give the team a shot at winning. Big plays from Kaepernick will doom it for sure.
One by Air
Whisenhunt is starting his fourth quarterback of the season—a franchise single-season record.
In his first action as a member of the team, third-year QB Brian Hoyer completed 11-of-19 for 105 yards and an interception. He looked comfortable running the offense and made the position appear half stable for the time he was at the controls.
Half stable will not do, however, as he did not produce any scoring drives of the five he led against the Chicago Bears.
He must begin strong by showing the same route anticipation he showed last week. Hoyer looked more comfortable throwing passes than John Skelton or Ryan Lindley looked at any point this season, and if that trend continues, there is no reason the offense can’t get something going.
There hasn’t been a touchdown pass by any Arizona quarterback since Skelton hit Larry Fitzgerald on a 31-yard strike midway through the third quarter of the Week 9 game in Green Bay. That’s nearly two calendar months of touchdown-free passing.
Since that 31-yarder to Fitz, the trio of Skelton, Lindley and Hoyer have combined to go 82-of-167 (49.1 percent) for 711 yards, no touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 38.3 passer rating.
The fans have to see points on the board by way of the quarterback this week. For our sanity, we must see a touchdown pass.
That header doesn’t mean what those on Twitter intend it to mean. This is not saying they must trade Fitzgerald to win Sunday. Just the opposite, actually.
Use him. Use him how Warner used him. Use him how any good quarterback would. As any quarterback wanting a job as the Cards starter next season would.
And that is to use him. Just use him. That’s all Hoyer has to do. He is open on nearly every route he runs. And even when he’s not, the chances are good he will catch the pass anyway.
Fitzgerald has been targeted 143 times this season (sixth-highest in the NFL). Of those, just 74 have been deemed “catchable” passes (via ProFootballFocus). At 51.7 percent of passes intended for him considered catchable, that means one in every two throws his way have been uncatchable. Too high, too low or too wide, Fitzgerald has seen some of the worst passes of his career this season.
That is unacceptable.
Hoyer looks to be more accurate than Skelton and Lindley from the small sample size we were shown last week. Getting Fitzgerald the ball on a more regular basis increases the chances of victory.
Matchup to Watch: Left Side of Cards line vs. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith
Usually, this space is reserved for a one-on-one matchup. 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith will not be seeing many of those opportunities Sunday, however.
The young pass-rusher needs 3.5 sacks to break Michael Strahan’s single-season NFL record of 22.5 sacks. He may get there, but to do so he will need help from his buddy Justin Smith, who notoriously holds offensive linemen in order to free Aldon of blockers.
The play is illegal, but it’s rarely called when defenders hold offensive linemen.
Defensive holding has been called 139 times this season, and the likelihood that even five percent of those—that’s seven penalties—have been called for the manner in which Justin plays is improbable.
If Justin plays (he didn’t play last week), watch as he clogs the left side of the line by holding onto both LG Daryn Colledge and LT Nate Potter to free Aldon on inside stunt moves. Many of Aldon’s sacks throughout his two seasons in the league have come this way.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Cards 13