As Week 3 approaches, it’s fair to say that we have no idea who the San Francisco 49ers are at this point. Are they a team that can beat anyone with good defense and a strong running game, or a mixture of inexperienced youth and underachieving veterans that can’t stay with good teams?
The answer to that question will play out as the season unfolds, and we’ll find out a lot about this roster as they travel to Arizona to take on a the red hot Cardinals. A win here would make a big statement within the division, while a loss would be a setback as the team tries to navigate through a tough early schedule.
The division rivals split their games last season, although you could argue Arizona would have won both if they had at least a serviceable quarterback.
In Week 3, the 49ers jumped out to a 14-6 halftime lead behind touchdowns from RB Carlos Hyde and WR Michael Crabtree. The Cardinals came storming back in the second half however, as WR Josh Brown caught two third quarter touchdown throws from QB Drew Stanton. For some reason, San Francisco completely abandoned the run (only nine rushing attempts by running backs) and couldn’t get anything going in the second half, losing the game 23-14.
The Niners came to their senses in Week 17, handing the ball to RB Frank Gore 25 times and he responded with 144 yards on the ground. QB Colin Kaepernick threw two touchdown passes to help the 49ers take this one 20-17. It helped that the Cardinals were starting QB Ryan Lindley, who despite throwing for 316 yards, turned the ball over three times.
Players to Watch
The 49ers secondary is young…really young. CB Keith Reaser and CB Kenneth Acker are basically rookies after missing all of 2014 with injuries. CB/S Jimmie Ward and CB Dontae Johnson are second year men with very limited experience. Even CB Tramaine Brock, who most consider to be the “veteran leader,” has a total of 11 career starts. After being shredded in Week 2, the unit will have to show they can be resilient and rebound, as Arizona will no doubt try to mirror the Pittsburgh Steelers’ game plan and attack them deep.
In Cardinals’ QB Carson Palmer‘s last eight starts, the signal caller is 8-0 with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions. The last team to beat Palmer? The 49ers in Week 17 of 2013. With a suspect running game, Arizona will have to move the ball through the air and Palmer will look to WR Josh Brown, WR Michael Floyd and a rejuvenated WR Larry Fitzgerald (14/199/3) to pace the attack.
Game Changing Factor
The 49ers gave up pass plays of 59, 56, 48, 41, 35 and 28 yards to the QB Ben Roethisberger and the Steelers last week. Part of the reason for that was the lack of pressure from the front seven, who didn’t even register a hit on Big Ben. The Cardinals have not allowed a sack yet in 2015, allowing Palmer to pick apart opposing defenses.
Stats to Know
The 49ers’ offense has trouble finishing off drives and it’s killing this team. Going back to last season, the Niners have scored 20 points or less 10 of the last twelve games, and 18 points or less in eight of those. You’re not going to win in today’s NFL if you can’t score.
San Francisco has averaged two offensive touchdowns per contest so far this year, which would put them close to last year’s pace of 1.875 per game. The Niners finished 24th in total offensive touchdowns last season, and only three teams have fewer so far in the early going of 2015.
On the other side, the Cardinals lead the league in points with 79 and have scored 11 touchdowns (to seven different players). They currently have a plus-37 point differential which is also tops in the NFL.
Look, I’m not going to pick the 49ers to win every week, and I’m going against them for the first time here. Arizona is played exceptionally well right now and may be the class of the NFC West. I think the game will be much more competitive than last week though, and do expect the Niner’s defense to bounce back. However, to be blunt, the offense has to prove to me it can keep up with some of the better team’s in the league, and I don’t think they can outscore the Cardinals on the road. San Francisco, unfortunately, fall to 1-2 for the third year in row.