Cardinals vs. 49ers: Full San Francisco Game Preview

Peter Panacy@@PeterPanacyFeatured Columnist IVNovember 25, 2015

Cardinals vs. 49ers: Full San Francisco Game Preview

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    The 49ers square off against a surging Cardinals team atop the NFC West.
    The 49ers square off against a surging Cardinals team atop the NFC West.Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    The San Francisco 49ers' 2015 NFC West woes won't get any easier in Week 12 as the team heads home to take on the visiting Arizona Cardinals at Levi's Stadium.

    Coming off a 29-13 loss to the Seattle Seahawks, the 3-7 49ers don't appear to have too many answers for all that has gone wrong this season. San Francisco's offense remains dead last in the NFL, and the defense is coming off an effort that gave up 255 total yards on the ground.

    Oh, and the division-leading Cardinals are coming to town after having defeated the Seahawks and Cincinnati Bengals in Weeks 10 and 11, respectively.

    Arizona demolished San Francisco 47-7 the last time these two teams met back in Week 3.

    A number of things have changed since then. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who threw four picks during the game, is out for the season, giving way to Blaine Gabbert. There have been shakeups at other positions as well.

    But for a scuffling 49ers team matching up against one of the hottest NFC teams going right now, Week 12 seems like a long shot at best.

    Let's take a look at this divisional showdown.

    Location: Levi's Stadium, Santa Clara, California

    Time: 4:05 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

Week 11 Results and Recap

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    San Francisco's defensive woes on the road continued in Week 11 thanks, in large measure, to Seahawks running back Thomas Rawls.

    Rawls rushed for 209 yards in place of injured starter Marshawn Lynch (abdomen), which resulted in a record-setting performance from the 49ers defense.

    And not the good kind.

    The 209 rushing yards allowed to one player were the most ever given up by the 49ers, per Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. And this effort wasn't helped after defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey suffered an ACL tear on San Francisco's first defensive snap.

    “Glenn going down early, that really hurt us,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said, via Maiocco. “Rawls wanted to prove himself to the Seattle Seahawks today, so he came out with a chip on his shoulder."

    Offensively, quarterback Blaine Gabbert managed a handful of successful drives, including a solid two-minute drill to close out the first half. The drive was capped by a 19-yard touchdown reception by tight end Vance McDonald.

    McDonald, who hasn't been much of an offensive threat over his three-year career, had 65 total yards on four catches.

    Despite Gabbert's 98.2 passer rating, the 49ers offense could muster only 306 yards of total offense, and head coach Jim Tomsula's decision-making at the tail end of the game when trailing by two scores—electing to punt on fourth down with time winding down—reveals continued problems in San Francisco.

    The 49ers continue to hold their spot in the cellar of the NFC West.

    NFC West Division Standings

    • Arizona Cardinals (8-2)
    • Seattle Seahawks (5-5)
    • St. Louis Rams (4-6)
    • San Francisco 49ers (3-7)

News and Notes

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    Jim Tomsula's Job Safe If 49ers Remain Competitive

    First-year head coach Jim Tomsula hasn't exactly had a great experience at the helm of the 49ers in 2015, and casual observation would lead many to believe he's out the door once the year is done.

    But, according to B/R's Jason Cole, Tomsula may be around a little longer if the 49ers remain competitive for the rest of the season.

    Still, Tomsula's punting decisions in the fourth quarter of Week 11 don't exactly suggest competitiveness.

    Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News described it:

    Late in the game Sunday, Tomsula made a few careful, cautious decisions that essentially guaranteed that the 49ers would lose, but also guaranteed that the losing margin wouldn’t be unnecessarily exaggerated.

    And so, after a miserable start and a quick 20-0 deficit Sunday, quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers rallied back in the second half at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, played credibly, but petered out and lost, 29-13. 

    Played hard. Weren’t good enough. Didn’t lose by that much. Is that the new barometer of 49ers success?

    Fans aren't ever going to buy into this sense of competition.

    Andrew Tiller Gets the Start at Right Guard

    Right guard Andrew Tiller, who had been rotating in a platoon role with fellow guard Jordan Devey, finally got his first start of the season in Seattle.

    Devey has played poorly this season, yet Tiller performed admirably against a talented Seahawks defensive front and finished with a plus-0.4 grade, per Pro Football Focus (h/t Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee).

    But the line is far from perfect. Per Barrows, right tackle Erik Pears had a minus-3.5 PFF grade and allowed both sacks of Gabbert.

    Still, Tiller appears to be a clear upgrade over Devey at this point. It wouldn't be surprising to see him remain in a starting role for the rest of the year.

    Defensive Youth to Be Tested

    With safety Antoine Bethea and defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey out, the oldest member of the 49ers defense is 31-year-old linebacker Ahmad Brooks. The next oldest is linebacker Michael Wilhoite at nearly 29 years old.

    A sizable cast of San Francisco's defense is young, especially in the secondary. Defensive backs Kenneth Acker, Dontae Johnson, Keith Reaser, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward are all either in their first or second seasons at the pro level. This group will need to be tested in order to mature.

    Another key component to the maturation process is third-year defensive end Tank Carradine. Carradine, who hasn't seen much of the field in the last year-plus, has been encouraged by San Francisco's coaching staff to get down to 275 pounds, per Barrows, in an attempt to make him predominantly a pass-rushing specialist.

    If so, Carradine should be able to help out the efforts of second-year linebacker Aaron Lynch.

Latest Injury News

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    DT Glenn Dorsey (Knee)—Injured Reserve

    The 49ers lost one of their better run-stuffing defenders Sunday when Dorsey went down on a non-contact injury in the first quarter.

    Dorsey suffered an ACL tear, which required surgery. The 30-year-old lineman will miss the remainder of the season.

    In his place, expect to see a lot more of rookie defensive end Arik Armstead. Armstead has been active for each of the 49ers' 10 games but has yet to start. At least the 49ers will be getting some additional return from their 2015 first-round draft pick.

    QB Colin Kaepernick (Shoulder)—Injured Reserve

    Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who had already been benched in Week 9, was placed on the injured-reserve list last Saturday following discomfort with his non-throwing shoulder. 

    Per Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle, Kaepernick suffered a torn labrum during the 49ers' Week 4 contest versus the Green Bay Packers, which mandated surgery.

    Kaepernick's future with the 49ers remains in doubt, and signs continue to point to the quarterback playing elsewhere in 2016.

    WR Anquan Boldin (Hamstring)—Questionable

    Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin made his first start since Week 7 on Sunday after dealing with a hamstring issue.

    Boldin was clearly uncomfortable during the game and was frequently seen limping after plays. Still, the team's No. 1 receiver had a more-than-positive impact with 93 yards on five catches.

    RB Carlos Hyde (Foot)—Questionable

    Running back Carlos Hyde continues to miss time while he rehabs a foot injury and remains questionable in advance of the 49ers' Week 12 matchup versus the Cardinals.

    Per the team's website, Hyde remains day-to-day and did not participate in practice.

    Backup running back Shaun Draughn has been largely filling the void and is averaging 3.4 yards per carry with San Francisco this season.

Key Matchups

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    Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is playing at an MVP-caliber level in 2015.
    Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is playing at an MVP-caliber level in 2015.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    49ers Pass Rush vs. Carson Palmer

    Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is playing as well as any QB around the league right now and could easily be in the discussion for an MVP award. He currently has a plus-36.6 PFF grade on the season, which leads all qualifying quarterbacks.

    Pressuring Palmer is perhaps the only way to gain any sort of edge for San Francisco's defense. According to PFF, Palmer's completion percentage drops from 68.8 to 56.7 when he faces pressure.

    Linebacker Aaron Lynch, who leads the 49ers with 6.5 sacks, will need to bring his A-game in order to try and slow down the veteran quarterback.

    And it wouldn't hurt to get pressure from other players along the front seven with the Cardinals offense ranking No. 1 in the NFL in both total points (336) and all-purpose yards (4,173).

    Jimmie Ward vs. Larry Fitzgerald

    San Francisco's secondary will have to, again, contend with the seemingly ageless abilities of Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who leads Arizona with 926 yards on 73 receptions and seven touchdowns this season.

    The Cardinals like to use Fitzgerald out of the slot, so this will mean frequent matchups between the veteran wideout and second-year defensive back Jimmie Ward.

    Ward has a minus-2.6 pass-coverage grade, per PFF, this season, although that number is largely skewed by a poor showing in Week 11 versus Seattle.

    Shaun Draughn vs. Cardinals Run Defense

    Assuming running back Carlos Hyde remains out for San Francisco, backup RB Shaun Draughn will continue to get the bulk of carries on the ground.

    Draughn could only muster 37 rushing yards on 12 attempts against the Seahawks, and now he'll face off against a Cardinals team allowing just 4.0 yards per attempt.

    A lot of Draughn's abilities will hinge on the 49ers offensive line, though. This unit has a minus-49.1 PFF grade in run blocking this season—lowest in the NFL.

    Blaine Gabbert vs. Tyrann Mathieu

    Arizona defensive back Tyrann Mathieu was a headache for Kaepernick in Week 3 and posted two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown, during the Cardinals' 47-7 rout of the 49ers.

    But Mathieu later stated, via Bay Area reporters (h/t Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area), that Gabbert was doing a much better job with San Francisco's offense in Kaepernick's stead.

    “That’s not to take anything away from Kaepernick, but it seems like Gabbert has a little bit better grip on what’s going on,” Mathieu said. “If he gets in a situation, he knows where the ball needs to go. He’s a hell of a passer. I think he’s underrated when you talk about how well he can throw the football."

    Gabbert will now be forced to take on Mathieu and a Cardinals secondary that has allowed the eighth-fewest yards through the air (2,287).

Matchup X-Factors

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    Can the 49ers defense avoid the complete meltdown suffered in Week 11 versus the Seahawks?
    Can the 49ers defense avoid the complete meltdown suffered in Week 11 versus the Seahawks?Michael Zagaris/Getty Images

    49ers X-Factor of the Week: The Defense

    Yes, San Francisco's primary X-factor in Week 12 will be the entire defense.

    Week 11 in Seattle was one to forget. Another record-setting performance that, almost on its own, doomed any chance for a 49ers upset will need to be avoided at all costs if San Francisco wants to have a fighting chance Sunday.

    Even if the 49ers defense plays mistake-free football, the Cardinals' top-ranked offense seems almost impossible to stop.

    Running back Chris Johnson and the Arizona rushing attack will look to replicate what Rawls did a week ago. So one might predict the 49ers to go all out and take this facet away from the Cardinals offense.

    But allowing Palmer to utilize his receiving weapons doesn't exactly sound like a promising plan, either.

    San Francisco will have to be both efficient and lucky on defense. And the critical cast members, such as linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Aaron Lynch, will have to step into the fray and attempt to deliver a knockout performance.

Prediction: Cardinals 28, 49ers 10

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    Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians (left) will look to continue his team's edge over Jim Tomsula's 49ers Sunday.
    Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians (left) will look to continue his team's edge over Jim Tomsula's 49ers Sunday.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Week 12 is a David vs. Goliath matchup in nearly every sense. And these types of games rarely go in favor of the underdog.

    One should assume the 49ers offense, despite some promising efforts from Gabbert, will be able to generate that much against a tough Cardinals defense. San Francisco really hasn't been able to showcase much offensive prowess against anyone this season anyway.

    Going up against the top-ranked offense doesn't bode well for San Francisco's defense, either. Granted, this unit will want to take a strong stance against what happened a week ago.

    But will that be enough over four quarters?

    The score may be close at the tail end of the first half. Yet the Cardinals are a strong second-half team—Palmer has a 124.0 passer rating after halftime—which doesn't work in the 49ers' favor at all.

    Arizona will likely take more of a command of this game during the third quarter and start to roll onto what will be an easy victory.

    Meanwhile, San Francisco's woes will continue.

    Prediction: Cardinals 28, 49ers 10

    All statistics, injury reports, records and accolades courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.

    Peter Panacy is a Featured Columnist covering the San Francisco 49ers for Bleacher Report. Follow him @PeterPanacy on Twitter.