With the Arizona Cardinals hosting the San Francisco 49ers in Week 17, David Fucillo from Niners Nation and I got together and answered questions for one another. Here is what I asked him about the Niners.
Both the Cardinals and 49ers have been among the hottest teams in the league -- Arizona winning winning eight of the 10 games since playing the Niners last, and San Fran having won five straight. What is different coming into the regular season finale than in Week 6?
The 49ers come into this Week 17 matchup as healthy as they have been in some time. They've lost some players to injury, with Bruce Miller being the most notable. However, they now have Michael Crabtree back in the fold. Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles during the offseason, but he worked his way back, and Sunday will mark his fifth game since returning. His presence has been huge for getting the offense going after it scuffled along with nobody behind Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis in the passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, defensive tackle Ray McDonald has apparently sufficiently recovered from an upper arm injury. He is dealing with a tear, but it's at a point that does not dramatically impact him. Since that game, the 49ers have been able to work in Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs along the defensive line. They still play fewer snaps than McDonald and Justin Smith, but they give the 49ers much-needed depth to rotate in and out. That depth has been key to keeping the defense a little bit more fresh.
The difference between Week 6 and Week 17 is health and depth. Even with the season coming to a close, the 49ers are healthy enough to make the kind of run they want to make.
Frank Gore has been the only back to crack 100 yards (101) on the Cardinals defense, but since that game in Week 6, his numbers have been up and down. How big an impact will he have and how much success can he have against the number one defense in the league against the run this time around?
The 49ers run game has been a bit inconsistent at times, but the last few weeks it has picked back up to some degree. Part of that is due to the return of Michael Crabtree. His presence does not allow defenses to stack the box quite like before, and that has opened some things up in recent weeks. The Cardinals run defense has been dominant, but I am curious to see how they approach the 49ers given the added weapons in the passing attack.
The 49ers have their entire offensive line relatively healthy. The line has been a bit inconsistent in their blocking, which can explain some of the running game struggles. I think Gore has the vision to make things happen, but I'm not expecting a monster performance. I think instead you'll get a little bit of Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James mixed in. While Gore is a guy who can hit the line and find an opening, Hunter and James seem to play better out in space on sweeps and pitches. I really expect to see one or both of them mixed in a bit more this time compared to Week 6.
Aldon Smith will play this time around. How impactful has he been since his return?
In seven games since returning from rehab, Aldon Smith has had a pair of games with two sacks each. However, he has provided some disruption in terms of quarterback hurries. Ideally he'll start closing the deal on sacks, but he is making an impact. Just as important, it feels like he has shown some improvement in his run defense. His athleticism bodes well for becoming a better all-around linebacker, and this is starting to show up in his game.
All that being said, it has been a little frustrating for the entire pass rush to not close the deal on sacks with nearly as much consistency. A hurry is valuable, but a sack can do some much in terms of backing a team up and flipping momentum. The 49ers were only able to sack Matt Ryan once last week, and will be looking to boost that against another statue of a QB in Carson Palmer.
What is the team's biggest concern facing the Cardinals this week?
I think getting the ground game going is my biggest concern. The Cardinals have done some great work against opposing ground games. I believe Bruce Arians mentioned in his conference call with Bay Area media how the defense has seen some late season improvement against the run. The 49ers have improved in their passing attack, but I really think they need a balanced attack to win this game. The 49ers are in the playoffs, but they still have not locked up the No. 5 seed. With the Saints hosting the Bucs, I'd really like a win to open up the possibility of avoiding Seattle until the NFC title game. Getting the ground game will be the first step toward that.
What matchups are you most excited for and most anxious about?
The matchup I'm looking forward to most has to be Michael Crabtree vs. Patrick Peterson. Crabtree has had great success against Arizona, but he's lacking that extra gear since returning from his Achilles injury. He's looking sharp in his cuts and route-running, which remains his strength. He is not a naturally fast guy, but he looks a step slower at this point running deeper routes. I can live with it, but I do wonder how Peterson will attempt to use that to his advantage in defending Crabtree.
Calais Campbell is having himself one heck of a year, and he will be a serious challenge to the 49ers. It would appear he'll be coming at Anthony Davis and Alex Boone on Sunday. Both are having solid years, but this will be as tough a test as they face all season. The 49ers don't need to shut down Campbell, but they do need to figure out ways to contain him. I'll be keeping a close eye on that side of the line much of the game.
The Larry Fitzgerald/Michael Floyd combo has come together fairly well, and will provide a nice challenge for Tramaine Brock and Carlos Rogers. It sounds like Brock will face Fitzgerald for much of Sunday. Brock has done solid work, and even though he has been in the league for a while, Fitzgerald has a veteran edge on him. I'm curious to see what kind of tricks Fitzgerald pulls out of his bag in this matchup.
A big thanks goes out to Fooch for his in-depth answers. My answers to his questions are already on the front page for more discussion.