In spite of a horrendous start to their season, against all the odds, the Arizona Cardinals, now at 3-6 find themselves fighting to keep the hopes of a winning season alive, and, still more surprisingly, are now only three games back from a Wild Card playoff berth.
The Cardinals find themselves coming into Week 11 on a bit of a hot streak. It is a streak which they will hope to continue as they aim to claw their way back into Wild Card contention.
The problem is to do so they will need to end the winning streak of their opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, who's own six game streak dwarfs the Cardinals two game run. The 49ers, have looked formidable throughout the season, and their stats, and 8-1 record—the second best in the NFL—back it up.
To many, it may seem like a lost cause, but for the Cardinals, who are playing for pride against their fiercest division rivals, perhaps there is hope.
What must the Cardinals do to overcome the odds, and hand the 49ers only their second loss of the season? Join me as we take a look.
However you slice it, the 49ers have one of the NFL's best defenses at this point. Many would argue—and I would not disagree—that they have the best overall defense in the NFL right now.
Put simply, they have given up fewer points than anyone else in the league, and that, above all else, is the goal of a defense. On average, in fact, the San Francisco have given up only a little more than 15 points per game, the Cardinals, on the other hand, average 23, and the bottom ranking Colts give up double, 30 points per game.
They also lead the league by a healthy margin, in terms of rushing yards allowed per game, have not given up a single rushing touchdown and have a scarily good plus-13 turnover differential.
There is, however, one area where they are less than stellar.The 49ers have given up on average 277.2 yards per game passing, and find themselves 28th overall, two places behind the Arizona Cardinals in this particular metric, and they have also given up a decidedly unimpressive 13 touchdowns through the air.
Though the 49ers defense is formidable, the Cardinals quarterback—expected to be John Skelton making his third start of the season—should be able to post significant numbers through the air. Skelton managed 315 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles, and if the Cardinals hope to win against the 49ers, will need to post similar numbers again on Sunday.
It is unlikely that Larry Fitzgerald will be covered anywhere near so—for want of a better word—poorly as he was against the Eagles, but Skelton seemed able to exploit any softness in the secondary, and the 49ers has been amongst the softest in the NFL this year, so expect to see points through the air, if they are going to come from anywhere.
Yes. You did read that right... Yes, I said pound the ball.
I know I said the 49ers have the meanest run defense in football right now. I know they have not allowed more than 100 yards rushing all season, and have not allowed any rusher into the end zone.
I know all of this, and I also know Beanie Wells is nursing a knee injury which will continue to limit him all season long, but if the Cardinals hope to beat the 49ers, they need to commit to the run, and not give up on it at any point.
Let's be clear, I'm not expecting the Cardinals to buck the trend here. I'm not expecting some superhuman, unexpected mammoth rushing game by Wells. I certainly do not expect that the Cardinals will manage to pull off anything which other, better, rushing teams have tried, and failed to do.
I am absolutely expecting that the Cardinals will rack up somewhere between 40 and 60 yards on the ground, with a season low yards per carry number and zero rushing touchdowns.
But, the reason that the 49ers are giving up so many yards through the air is because they are selling out to stop the run.
If the Cardinals are going to succeed through the air—which is the only way they can hope to succeed—they need the 49ers to keep selling out to stop the run, and that isn't going to happen if they know that the Cardinals aren't going to bother to run the football.
The Cardinals must come out pounding the ball down the 49ers throat, knowing it will get them nowhere, but they must commit to doing so throughout the game in order to keep the passing game alive.
The Cardinals have one of the most explosive, devastating special teams unit in the game.
Patrick Peterson already has three touchdowns as a return man, and looks liable to increase that number by the end of the season, Jay Feely has made some solid kicks and Dave Zastudil has also appeared to be a solid punter for the Cardinals.
They also have one of the most frustrating.
Jay Feely—the same Jay Feely who connected on so many good kicks—has now missed five field goals across the season—including two each in the Cardinals third, and most recent games. LaRod Stephens-Howling, the Cardinals explosive kick returner, has failed to post any real significant return numbers either.
Football is known as a game of inches, and, for the Cardinals, that will be especially true against the 49ers.
Points, and yards, will be hard to come by, so every little bit counts. The Cardinals special teams unit must play at it's absolute best. Five extra yards on a kick return may not seem like a lot, but five yards can make a huge difference.
Ask a quarterback standing on his own goal line if he's like an extra five yards, or punter struggling to make a punt without stepping out of the back of the end zone what he would give for that breathing room. Ask any kicker how much difference five yards makes; if he'd rather face a 59- or a 54-yarder to tie the game.
The Cardinals will need to ensure that as many drives as possible end with points, and that has to start on special teams.
In the last two games, the Arizona Cardinals defensive unit appear finally to have gotten to grips with Ray Horton's high pressured, blitz oriented package... and it couldn't have come soon enough.
Frank Gore can be devastating if allowed even the slightest of rushing lanes, and Alex Smith has proved that he can also be dangerous if given time to complete his reads, spreading out the ball very well. If the Cardinals hope to keep the 49ers in check, they need to put pressure on those two players early, and maintain it throughout the game.
The likelihood is that the game will not be a particularly high scoring affair for the Cardinals, the 49ers simply don't give up all that many points, so containing the Niners offense will be imperative. If they allow the 49ers to get up early, they have already proven their ability to dictate the pace of the game, and prevent teams from staging a comeback.
The Cardinals defense will need to disrupt the 49ers offense early, and not allow them to control the outcome of the game.
If the Cardinals are able to limit the effectiveness of Frank Gore—who is coming off an injury—by dropping him for short gains, or even losses early on in the game, and put a number of hits on Alex Smith without allowing him to complete his progressions—as the Cardinals have proven their ability to do—and can prevent the 49ers from getting too far ahead too early, the Cardinals offense has the weapons to take the game to the 49ers.
Expect to see a lot of blitz packages, if the Cardinals are serious about winning.
For Cardinals fans, by far the most frustrating thing about the first half of the season has been the lack of discipline and consistency shown by the team.
In spite of their record, the Cardinals have actually played some exceptional football. In many games, they have been ahead for periods of the game, and even when behind, have kept many games very close, but time and again, the Cardinals have not shown the ability to decisively close out games.
They tend to fall apart, especially in the fourth quarter. They give up far to many sloppy, avoidable penalties. They seem to abandon successful defensive coverage schemes, and offensive play calling in favour of disappointing, lazy, half hearted defense, and ineffective, predictable offense.
Put simply, they do not play four quarters of football. Often, they manage a half, occasionally three quarters, but rarely have they looked solid through all four quarters of the game.
Even their two recent wins—games which could, and perhaps should, have been have been put to bed much sooner, and more decisively—were allowed to come down to the final few plays of the game.
Against the Rams, only a valiant field goal block allowed the Cardinals to win in overtime, and against Philadelphia, multiple missed opportunities early, and mistakes later, allowed an Eagles team which were firmly outplayed in every phase of the game, to actually lead for much of it.
Against a 49ers team which look every bit as good as their record suggests, this simply will not cut it.
The Cardinals will need to play better than they have all season on both sides of the football, and will need to do it for a full 60 minutes of football.
They simply cannot give up avoidable penalties. They must maintain the same level of intensity throughout the whole game.
They face a 49ers team who can punish teams for each and every mistake, so the Cardinals must not give them the chance to do so.
Interceptions, safeties, fumbles, penalties and lapses in concentration—all things which have cost the Cardinals all season—simply cannot be allowed to creep into the game. The 49ers can, and will, make them pay for any of these things.
This is a 49ers team which will make a real run at the Super Bowl.
The Cardinals cannot, and must not, hand San Francisco any more ammunition than they already have with which to take them out.