5 Things the San Francisco 49ers Must Do to Beat the Arizona Cardinals
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With both teams at 3-2 and looking up at the Seattle Seahawks, winning this game is crucial to staying in the race for the division crown.
The 49ers put together an impressive performance against the Houston Texans last week, and they’ll have to go with largely the same game plan to replicate victory this Sunday. They went back to their roots last week, pounding the ball on the ground and creating turnovers on defense.
The Cardinals present many of the same challenges that the Texans did, and if the 49ers can repeat their performance, they will walk away with the win.
Here are the five things the 49ers must do to ensure they emerge from this contest at 4-2.
1. Keep the Running Game Going
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This was in here last week, it’s obviously here this week, and it will be here for the foreseeable future.
Until Colin Kaepernick regains his magic, the 49ers will need to rely on the running game to win.
The Cardinals will come into this game looking to throw a wrench into the 49ers’ game plan. They have been especially good against the run this year, ranking third in the NFL in yards allowed.
Frank Gore and the rest of the 49ers backfield have their work cut out for them.
Still, as with everything in life, there’s always a catch. As good as the Cardinals have been against the run, they have also been susceptible to the pass. Kaepernick will need to do his part to open up the running game.
At the end of the day, the 49ers must use the running game to wear down the Cardinals defensive line. The dynamic offensive line of the 49ers needs to open up holes for Gore to exploit. If this happens, the 49ers can control the tempo of the game and dominate the clock.
That will be especially important since it means keeping this next guy off the field.
2. Containing Larry Fitzgerald
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The sad saga of Larry Fitzgerald has continued this year. One of the most gifted receivers the NFL has ever seen is still surrounded by mediocrity.
The fact remains, however, that he is Larry Fitzgerald, and the skills that make him so special are still there. He is a ticking time bomb that’s ready to go off, and if the 49ers aren’t careful, they could be in the blast radius.
His stats this season aren’t great, as he’s recorded 288 yards and three touchdowns to date. The reason for this is obvious, though: He is the absolute focal point of opposing defenses.
For the 49ers to win this game, they must adhere to the same blueprint other teams have set before them. They must remove Fitzgerald from the Cardinals’ game plan. He is the ultimate weapon that has yet to be unleashed this season, and the 49ers can’t be the team that sets him free.
Fortunately for San Francisco, stopping Fitzgerald goes hand in hand with the next thing on this list.
3. Put Pressure on Carson Palmer
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Carson Palmer was supposed to change things in Arizona. He was supposed to be the answer at quarterback, which had seemingly been unanswerable since Kurt Warner retired.
But man, has he been bad.
In his efforts to add a passing dimension to the Cardinals offense that hasn’t been there in years, Palmer has instead created more harm than good. He hasn’t been Eli Manning-bad, but coupling a five-touchdown-to-nine-interception ratio with a 58.9 completion percentage, he's just a few notches below.
The big number is the 12 sacks Palmer has taken this year.
At this stage in his career, he’s just not mobile in the pocket anymore. He’s also as hardheaded as they come, refusing to just throw the ball away when the situation demands it.
That’s a recipe for disaster, one that makes the Cardinals’ 3-2 record unsustainable.
Even with Aldon Smith continuing his stint in rehab, the 49ers are more than capable of putting pressure on Palmer. The less time Palmer has to throw, the less likely he is to get the ball into the hands of the ultimate playmaker, Fitzgerald.
Even more importantly, however, it grants them the opportunity to fulfill the next item on the list.
4. Win the Turnover Battle
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We’ve already talked about Palmer under pressure. In addition to his nine interceptions are his two fumbles, giving him a grand total of 11 turnovers this season.
The 49ers need to make sure that number increases by the end of this game.
Winning the turnover battle is critical to being a good football team. Take the game last week. The Texans essentially gave the 49ers the game, not only turning the ball over, but giving it to San Francisco deep in its own territory.
You can have the best defense in the world, but if the offense fails in the turnover battle, it might not be enough.
Like Matt Schaub last week, Palmer can be rattled, especially when he’s pressured. He hasn’t shown the ability to protect the football so far this year, and the 49ers must take advantage of that. Forcing Palmer into unenviable situations is the key to coming out on top.
5. Dominate the Special Teams Battle
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Let’s face it, special teams is kind of the ugly stepsister of the offense and defense. The unit will never receive the kind of acclaim for helping to win a game as the other facets of the team.
It should, though.
Special teams is where it all begins, both on offense and defense. The field-position battle can help determine how an entire drive or defensive stand turns out.
Fortunately for the Niners, they have punter Andy Lee under their employ still. Lee has been at the top of his position for many years now, and so far this year nothing has changed. He’s as dominant as ever.
If he can pin down Palmer and the rest of the Cardinals deep within their own territory, the likelihood of the defense coming away with a stand, or even forcing a turnover, goes way up.
Also, Phil Dawson must become an adequate replacement for David Akers. So far this season, he’s been anything but that, converting just five of eight field goals, with the longest coming from just 38 yards out. This game could turn into a defensive battle, and should that happen, Dawson will play a major role.
If points are scarce, Dawson must make his opportunities count and put his share on the board.