As the San Francisco 49ers (1-1) prepare for their first divisional game against the undefeated Arizona Cardinals (2-0), it will be a game in which a physical backyard brawl should ensue. A team that always plays the 49ers tough since Cardinals HC Bruce Arians’ arrival, you can be sure the game will feature plenty of aggressive hits and tackles. However, with the Cardinals secondary banged up with the loss of FS Tyrann Mathieu as he continues to recover from his torn ACL and LCL injuries, it will be up to others to hold up in pass-coverage. And while Mathieu is ruled out, make no mistake, this secondary is far better this time around especially with the addition of three-time Pro Bowl CB Antonio Cromartie. However, the question remains how will they fare against a revamped 49ers receiving unit?
You’re only as strong as your weakest link and last year the weak link for the 49ers was the wide-receiver position. Not anymore. The 49ers turned a glaring weakness into a strength in 2014 with the additions of veterans WR Stevie Johnson (trade) and WR Brandon Lloyd. Two players that have plenty left in the tank, they should do wonders to the 49ers passing game as they spread the Cardinals defense out wide. Not to mention, the 49ers have rookie fourth-round pick (No. 106) WR Bruce Ellington in the slot, it should be an advantage for San Francisco as they should have mismatches across the board.
Starting with the 49ers 1-2 punch of WR Michael Crabtree and WR Anquan Boldin, both of those players should be locked up by Peterson and Cromartie. And while Crabtree seems to have Peterson’s number as he’s hauled in 16 catches for 273 yards and four touchdowns in their last three meetings, Peterson held Crabtree in check the last time they played. So who will shine this time around? While Boldin proved to be the x-factor in their last meeting as he had a career day racking up nine catches for 149 yards and one touchdown, I believe that TE Vernon Davis will be the go-to-guy this time around if he plays.
Last year, Davis torched the Cardinals defense with 11 catches for 225 yards and three touchdowns. If you’re doing the math, Davis amassed an astonishing 20.5 yards per catch average, and I would expect a similar output this time around.
The Cardinals who play a 3-4 defense under DC Todd Bowles is without two of their top defensive players in DT Darnell Dockett (ACL) and ILB Daryl Washington (violating league’s substance-abuse). Two players the Cardinals counted on last season, Davis should benefit as there’s no linebacker on the Cardinals roster that can stay stride-for-stride with the Pro Bowl tight-end. Not to mention, the Cardinals have given up 16 catches for 187 yards, and one touchdown on 22 targets to tight-ends this season, Davis should be a busy man on Sunday.
Whether running a vanilla seam-route, corner (7-route), post (8-route), or dig (6-route), Davis should be able to find soft spots in zone-coverage as the wide-receivers create mismatches on the outside. To think that OLB Matt Shaughnessy or OLB Sam Acho can contain Davis one-on-one is ridiculous, and you can be sure QB Colin Kaepernick will be looking to his reliable security blanket on mid to deep routes early and often.
Whether blazing past linebackers or safeties over the top, look for Davis to shine in a big way as I predict him to have a stat line around six catches for 93 yards and one touchdown.