Coming off back to back wins against NFC foes the Arizona Cardinals have their tails and will be looking to make it three in a row against divisional rivals the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers have been a surprise package in 2011 standing at 8-1 and their only loss coming in overtime, the 49ers have never been behind on the scoreboard at the end of the fourth quarter so far this season. The Cardinals face a tough matchup against a physical team who know what the Cardinals want to do and have won the last four matchups between the two teams. If Arizona wants to come home with a win they will need to play their best a most complete football game of the season. Read on to see how they can maximise their shot at a win.
1 - Attack the 49ers Secondary - The 49ers secondary is the weakest part of their entire unit, and so far this season they have been able to be thrown upon. Their saving grace is their ability to force turnovers; they are 8th in the NFL in interceptions. Still the Cardinals need to attack them. The quintet of Carlos Rogers, Shawntae Spencer, Chris Culliver, Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson will see the most playing time on Sunday, and in the group you have two cast offs from other teams a rookie and two players who have been with the 49ers for a while. With the Cardinals biggest offensive weapon, Larry Fitzgerald, a receiver it makes sense for Arizona to look to throw the ball early and often in this game and try and create yards through the air via the arm of John Skelton, but the turnovers need to be limited, yards mean nothing if you get into the redzone and then throw an interception. The safeties in particular should be targeted, the 49ers have given up 7 plays of 40 or more yards this season (3rd worst in the league) and both Goldson and Whitner are more comfortable playing closer to the LOS that they are in deep zones.
2 - Contain Justin Smith - Some may say Patrick Willis, but right now the catalyst of the 49ers defence is ex top 5 pick and ex Bengal Justin Smith. One of the most underrated players in the NFL he is the best 34 end in the NFL and if he has a big day the Cardinals will end up on the wrong end of the scoreline. It will mean using multiple blocking techniques and double teams on every offensive snap, but if Smith is not playing well then the 49ers pass rush can be limited with Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson having combined for just 7 sacks in 9 games this season. Run away from him; take him out of the game on passing plays. Do not let Justin Smith beat you.
3 - Double Team Vernon Davis - Alex Smith has a weapon at tight end, he looks to him a lot and while he may have only been thrown at 42 times this season he had turned 34 of those into catches and in his past four games against the Cardinals Davis has 13 receptions and found the endzone twice. The 49ers will not throw it a lot, but when they do it is imperative to make sure that Davis is not the man that they throw the ball to, his athleticism allows him to make plays against all types of coverage's and be a terror in the redzone. Take Davis, Smiths favoured target away and you make him throw to his receivers outside the numbers test him arm strength and create chances for turnovers.
4 - Slow down Frank Gore - Frank Gore is coming into this matchup under and injury cloud. He has a knock to his knee and while it still looks likely that he will play stopping Gore is the key to stopping the 49ers offense, who despite having the ball on average 31 minutes of the game have attempted just 239 passes good for the least in the league. It is the ground game that makes the 49ers run and Gore than makes the ground game run. Commit eight guys into the box, show some single coverage in the secondary, play your gaps, make tackles. Do the basics right corral Frank Gore and put the game on the arm of Alex Smith.
5 - Finish Drives with Touchdowns - San Francisco has been outgained by their opposition in five of nine games this year, but have only lost once. While the 49ers defense has been playing very good football this season, they can have the ball move on them. If Arizona wants to win this game they need to be able to finish their drives with seven points on the board. Look to Larry Fitzgerald in the redzone; pound it with Beanie Wells inside the five, whatever you do make sure you get into the endzone when you have the chance. This also means eliminating turnovers, San Francisco currently boasts the #1 turnover margin in the NFL (+13) and have only given the ball away more than they have taken it away in one game this season.
Overall this shapes up as a game that will not have a huge amount of points scored in it and is going to be a very close encounter. Arizona needs to play smart and disciplined football. Attack the 49ers weaknesses in the secondary, move the ball down the field in chunks and finish drives with touchdowns. Contain the running game of the 49ers put pressure on Smith and force him to turn the ball over. All a lot easier said than done. It is going to be an uphill battle, but the Cardinals are capable of pulling off the upset.