The Arizona Cardinals (8-4) take their 5-1 road record to San Francisco to take on the 49ers (5-7) on Monday night. Both teams regularly keep the games close when they play each other, with 7 of the last 8 games being decided within 7 points, and the only game more was the season opener last year (the Cardinals won by 10 but the game was decided at the end).
This year, after a 1-2 start , the Cardinals are 7-2 since and have shown an obvious improvement on offense since the Cardinals lost to the 49ers in the opening week. The Cardinals road success has been a surprise, as they've outscored opponents with an average score 26.8 - 15.1. At home, they're average score is 22.6 - 23.8.
The 49ers have experience the opposite season as the Cardinals. Since they began the season 3-1, they've dropped 6 of the last 8 games. They are currently 4-2 at home, outscoring opponents with an average score of 20.8 - 16.3. They also have had success against quarterbacks at home, holding them to an average rating of 75.24. Luckily, Kurt Warner's average QB rating on the road is 116.8. Let's take a look at five keys to Cardinals success on Monday night.
- Protect Kurt Warner.This was what hurt the Cardinals chances at winning week 1 against the 49ers. The 49ers defensive line had the killer-instinct and was able to successfully rush four, while dropping 7-8 in coverage all game. As a result, Warner was sacked 3 times and threw 2 interceptions. The Cardinals may take the same approach they used against the Minnesota Vikings. They were able to contain the Vikings front four, and finally game the offensive line help with running back and tight end support. If Kurt Warner is given time, he can pick any defense apart, especially a 49er defense without top cornerback Nate Clements.
- Contain Vernon Davis. That is obviously easier said then done but limiting the 4th year tight end is a huge step in the right direction on Sunday. He caught 5 passes for 40 yards the first time these teams met, but since then Davis has 58 catches for 741 yards and 10 touchdowns. Considering the Cardinals are one of the worst defenses at containing tight ends, they'll want to add an extra eye on number 85 throughout the game. It should also be worth noting that since Alex Smith took over at the midpoint against Houston, Vernon Davis has 40 catches for 513 yards and 7 touchdowns in only 6 1/2 games. Davis is the 49ers best option on offense and taking him out of the equation gives Smith one less threat to throw to.
- Keep the defense rolling. The Cardinals defense surprised many when they were able to stifle a dangerous Minnesota Vikings team a week ago. They did so by getting pressure without taking away coverage. They also mixed up their scheme, something we haven't seen a lot of this year. The Cardinals should take the 49ers defensive gameplan and pressure Smith with a 3 or 4 man front. Since Alex Smith took over for the 49ers, in 4 losses Smith's been sacked 12 times. In the two wins, Smith was only sacked twice. If the Cardinals can at least register 4 sacks on the day and force any ill-advised throws, Smith and the 49ers will be in for a long day.
- Wide receivers need to have a big game. The last time these teams met, Steve Breaston didn't play and Anquan Boldin was forced to limp into the game on an injured hamstring. Nate Clements, a defensive back for the 49ers that has regularly limited Cardinals receivers in the past - will not play on Monday. That means two of the three receivers will be healthy while Fitz and company don't have to worry about Clements. The offensive play calling is built around the receivers, and if Warner has the time to find them we should see a similar result as last week.
- Play a well-rounded game and limit mental errors. In week 1, the Cardinals turned the ball over twice, 12 penalties for 82 yards, were 4-14 on 3rd down, and only rushed for 40 yards. Lately much of those problems have disappeared and the Cardinals should keep it that way against the 49ers. They're rushing has improved, and Beanie Wells is much more a part of the offense then he was in week 1. Kurt Warner hasn't turned the ball over in over a month and they've seemed to lower the penalty issues that plagued them at the start of the season. If the Cardinals can put together a well-balanced performance and keep mistakes to a minimum, they should have no problem hammering the last nail in the 49ers coffin.
If the Cardinals are able to stick to their game plan and not get ahead of themselves, a win shouldn't be too much of a problem in San Francisco. The 49ers usually give the Cardinals a challenge, but if they want to establish themselves as an elite team in the NFL and improve their playoff positioning, this is a must win game. What are your keys to the game and why?