5 X-Factors for San Francisco 49ers in Week 6 Matchup vs. Cardinals
After Week 3, questions swirled around a 1-2 San Francisco 49ers team that lacked both production and an identity. It can be hard to believe that now, just two games later, these same 49ers sit just a game out of first place in a competitive NFC West race.
According to OddShark.com, the 49ers are a double-digit favorite in Week 6 over the visiting Arizona Cardinals, don't buy too much into that. This isn't a game that the defending division champions can take lightly.
The 49ers may have righted the ship with a 3-2 record, but the Cardinals will take an identical mark with them to Candlestick Park in this Week 6 matchup. With both teams chasing a hot Seattle Seahawks squad for the top spot in the West, division contests like these will be critical as the playoff hunt heats up.
San Francisco has run off two straight victories, but few would call this a flawless team. Whether you blame injuries or execution, this 49ers squad still has a lot of room to improve if it intends on making another deep playoff run.
These are five key variables for the 49ers to rack up their third straight victory and move to 4-2 on the season.
No. 5: Staying Persistent with the Running Game
Frank Gore will face the NFL's No. 3 rushing defense.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports
With all that said, something's got to give. The 49ers have found their formula and they have to stick with it to win this contest.
Too often in the first five games, the 49ers abandoned the run and left the entire offense on quarterback Colin Kaepernick's shoulders. Early struggles can't force their hand with play-calling, especially if that game is still competitive.
With a mammoth offensive line and a stable of versatile backs, the 49ers are built to run. To truly open up the offense, they will have to continue to rely on the ground game to keep pressure off Kaepernick.
No. 4: Defensive Depth Remaining Strong
Tony Jerod-Eddie (63) and Tramaine Brock (26) have filled in well.
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It's no secret that the 49ers have had their fair share of injuries this season, and the defense has recently been taking the brunt of the pain. Even after cornerback Chris Culliver was lost for the season with an ACL tear in training camp, the hits have kept on coming.
According to 49ers.com, the team injury report currently includes DL Ray McDonald (biceps), CB Nnamdi Asomugha (knee) and LB Patrick Willis (groin), among others. Nose tackle Ian Williams was also lost for the season in Week 2 with an ankle injury.
Willis is uncertain to play, but backup Michael Wilhoite has filled in admirably. McDonald says he expects to play through a partially torn right bicep, but backup Tony Jerrod-Eddie will most likely have to rotate in more frequently.
As for Asomugha, he may be on uncertain ground whether he's healthy or not. Reserve CB Tramaine Brock earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors with two interceptions against Texans QB Matt Schaub.
Across the board, the 49ers have overcome injuries to allow just 14 points over the last two weeks. They'll need the replacements to play big again as the team continues to get healthy.
No. 3: Letting Colin Kaepernick Play His Game
Colin Kaepernick needs to loosen up.
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This may seem counterproductive to the earlier slide on the running game, but it will take a group effort on offense to beat the Cardinals.
Colin Kaepernick dazzled last year with a unique ability to make plays with both his arm and his legs. So far in 2013, however, it appears almost as if the team is protecting him by handcuffing his ability to make plays as a runner.
In the last three games, Kaepernick has carried the ball only 11 times for 45 yards. Through the first five games, former 49ers starter and current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has outrushed his former teammate.
Now, before anyone gets carried away, Kaepernick is far and away a better rushing threat than Smith. If anything, this simply raises eyebrows as to how Kaepernick has been used so far this season.
For a young quarterback with limited options around him, the 49ers are trying to make Kaepernick into something he isn't, at least not yet. To get the most out of their quarterback, they have to allow him to let loose and play his style of football.
In other words, stop making the quarterback think so much. Just let him play.
No. 2: Taking What the Cardinals Give Them
The 49ers have to take advantage of an erratic Carson Palmer.
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Cornerback Tramaine Brock picked off Texans quarterback Matt Schaub twice in Week 5, and the 49ers defense forced four total turnovers in a lopsided win. Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has already thrown nine interceptions this season, so the 49ers should be able to continue this trend.
In the last two weeks, the San Francisco defense has forced six turnovers. Over the first three games, they only forced three.
It's not a complicated formula, as takeaways can change the course of the game. Facing a tough defense like Arizona can be made easier if the 49ers defense can set up a short field for the offense.
As coach Jim Harbaugh said earlier in the week, turnovers are kind of like an olive jar. That's right, an olive jar—at least that's how the head coach perceives it, according to Taylor Price of 49ers.com:
Well, you open it up and a brand new can of olives and turn it over and no olives come out. They’re packed in there so darn tight, but if you just get one to come out, just pluck one out of there and then they want to come out, they’re just flying out of the jar... So, hopefully that’s the case for us defensively.
The Cardinals have thrown more interceptions than any team other than the winless New York Giants, so the 49ers should have their opportunities. When your opponent is careless with the football, you have to take advantage.
Of course, the 49ers offense must also capitalize off of these opportunities. After all, olives aren't worth much if you don't use them in the right dish.
No. 1: Another Receiver Must Step Up
Whether Kyle Williams or anyone else, someone has to emerge from the wideout platoon.
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Sometimes, numbers don't lie. The 49ers are the No. 29 passing offense in the NFL, and that number is surely reflective of their struggles thus far through the air.
Leading receiver Anquan Boldin will be going against Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson in Week 6, one of the best in the NFL. Tight end Vernon Davis will likely see some coverage from rookie sensation Tyrann Mathieu, a former cornerback at LSU who is making strides at free safety in Arizona.
The 49ers platoon of receivers at the No. 2 wideout position has failed miserably so far, as Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle observed. Kaepernick has targeted 42 of his 70 passes to wide receivers to Boldin, and he sports a 27.2 passer rating when throwing to any other receiver.
In addition, fullback Bruce Miller is the fourth-most targeted player in the offense, which is inexcusable.
Whether it's Kyle Williams, Jon Baldwin or Marlon Moore, someone has to step up in Week 6. Boldin and Davis will surely be blanketed all game long, and the running game will not be able to carry the team against this level of defense.
Another 6-of-15 performance from Kaepernick will not get it done in the passing game. If the 49ers are going to escape with a victory, at least one receiver will have to emerge from the pack.