Cardinals vs. 49ers preview: 5 questions for Niners Nation

USA TODAY Sports

We ask the 49ers site some questions. They answer.

The Arizona Cardinals face the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday. We continue our preview work with Niners Nation, this time with David Fucillo answering five questions I posed.

Don't forget that Niners Nation and ROTb has collaborated for three previews -- under the radar players to watch, our latest podcast episode and the reasons why each team will win. I also answered five questions for them.

So here are the questions Fooch answered for me:

ROTB: Aldon Smith obviously has been disappointing this year for many reasons. How has his absence affected the pass rush on the whole?

NN: The pass rush hasn't been ideal thus far, but the 49ers are getting some solid pressure without Smith. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier have replaced Smith in the lineup. Skuta plays out of the team's base 3-4, while Lemonier comes on when the team switches to the nickel, and in other generally pass rush situations. Lemonier is a bit raw, but he has the physical tools to develop into a strong pass rusher. That being said, the 49ers have been able to get more pressure from their inside linebackers and the defensive line. NaVorro Bowman in particular has been used more in the pass rush than in the recent past, and he is having solid success. Additionally, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is playing some of the best football of his career. The nose tackle position is usually more of an under-the-radar position in the pass rush, but it seems like he is getting some good pressure.

ROTB: After a surprising two losses in three games to start the season, the Niners have put up 35 and 34 points, all the while rushing the ball 40 and 36 times. Is this the answer to what has ailed the Niners, can we expect to see a heavy rushing attack on Sunday?

NN: At this point, it's really all about the 49ers rushing attack. In the 49ers two losses, they seemed to go away from what remains a strong rushing attack. After Colin Kaepernick's strong Week 1 performance against the Packers, it was almost like they wanted to force that every week. Greg Roman can be an incredibly brilliant offensive coordinator, but sometimes he seems a little too smart for his own good. He can get too cute, which drives fans crazy.

That being said, the last two weeks, he seems to have recognized what the 49ers needed to win. He'll still mix in the occasional ill-timed pass, but the game plan has focused on the run. Last week in particular, the 49ers were intent on just grinding out the game with the matchup where they had the advantage.
And on that note....

ROTB: How successful do you think the San Fran rushing attack will be against the Cardinals, who are third in the league against the rush?

NN: It will be interesting to see how the 49ers attack the Cardinals defense. The Cardinals D rates much better against the run according to Football Outsiders, but I do think the 49ers can win this game with their ground game. The Cardinal have done good work against the run, shutting down the Reggie Bush/Joique Bell duo, and having their way with Doug Martin. However, I don't think they've faced an offensive line quite like that of the 49ers.

The 49ers offensive line does solid enough work in pass protection, but they are the best run blocking line in the NFL. They do particularly good work pulling their guards, and using their tight ends and fullbacks in wham plays. The physicality of the 49ers run blocking is pretty intense.

Two additional keys to the rushing game's success are Frank Gore's vision and balance. Gore is one of the best in the NFL when it comes to finding the smallest of holes. Additionally, you'll see him get his center of gravity incredibly low, and slide through random holes in the defensive front.

ROTB: With the injuries and other issues leading to missed games, who have been the players most missed so far this season, and who can we expect to be back from injury (or not) this weekend?

NN: Michael Crabtree has been far and away the most notable absence. The 49ers passing attack has struggled, with Anquan Boldin dealing with a large number of double teams. The 49ers have not found a receiver to step up opposite Boldin and Davis, leaving the passing game in question. The 49ers are hoping to get Crabtree back in late November, and they are likely getting Mario Manningham back in the next three or four weeks.

For this weekend, the most notable injury is that of Ray McDonald. The 49ers left defensive end (and left defensive tackle when they go into a four-man front) suffered a partially torn bicep last week against the Texans. He has said he will play through it, but it will be something to track. We don't know how his power will be impacted.

Patrick Willis has missed two straight games with a groin injury. He was hoping to play last week, but was inactive after trying to get in a pre-game workout. It sounds like he is feeling better this week, but it remains a game-time decision. If he does not play, Michael Wilhoite will play opposite NaVorro Bowman.

ROTB: What are the key matchups you will be watching on Sunday between the two teams?

NN: Like you, I'll be keeping a close eye on Anquan Boldin vs. Patrick Peterson. The 49ers will likely focus on their run game, but they do need to connect on some passes to keep the defense at least a little bit honest. Peterson has gotten his career off to a pretty great start. On Sunday he gets to face a veteran in Boldin who is still producing. It will be fascinating to see the veteran vs. young player dynamic.

I want to see how the 49ers special teams units do against Peterson on punt returns. PP has not been overly impressive, but the talent is there to bust out at any point. The 49ers special teams coverage units have been strong this season, but this will still be a significant challenge.

The Cardinals defensive front is always interesting to watch, particularly Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell. The Cardinals have done a great job against the run this season, and as discussed above, this is an area where the 49ers need to find success if they are going to win this game. The 49ers have the offensive line to do it, but the Cardinals are certainly no push-over.

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