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Saturday before football Sunday: What to watch for in 49ers-Cardinals

The Cardinals will have a chance to start the season 5-0 for the first time since moving to Arizona in 1988

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Divisional games are usually the most important games on any NFL team’s schedule. Especially with the Cardinals sitting on top of the NFC West at 4-0, every other team is just trying to keep up. On Thursday in a short week in the battle of divisional foes, the Los Angeles Rams defeated the Seattle Seahawks 26-17 to improve to 4-1 but neither team left the game unscathed.

The Seahawks not only fell to last place in the NFC West at 2-3, their quarterback Russell Wilson will be sidelined for six to eight weeks with a ruptured middle finger tendon. Rams’ Matthew Stafford dislocated his finger in the win but he popped it back into place so he will not miss any time.

Taking a look at another important divisional battle, the San Francisco 49ers (2-2) are coming to town to face the undefeated Arizona Cardinals (4-0). No. 3 overall pick Trey Lance will make the first start of his career with Jimmy Garoppolo out with a right calf contusion.

Can the Cardinals improve to 5-0 for the first time since moving to Arizona in 1988? Or will Trey Lance win in his first game as a starter?

Here are five Arizona Cardinals things to watch for in Week 5:

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

1. Cardinals cornerback depth will be tested

The Cardinals will be without their top cornerback Byron Murphy (ribs) on Sunday against the 49ers. Marco Wilson (ribs) is listed as a game-time decision and Antonio Hamilton is questionable with an ankle injury. That leaves Robert Alford and Tay Gowan as the only healthy cornerbacks on the Cardinals’ 53-man roster with the potential elevations of Luq Barcoo, Greg Mabin, or Jace Whittaker from the practice squad seemingly inevitable. We could see Jalen Thompson and Isaiah Simmons play in the slot to some capacity on game day considering the injuries.

Arizona will have it a little easier in coverage with former All-Pro tight end George Kittle listed as doubtful on the injury report with an calf injury. However the 49ers still have one of the top receivers in the NFL in Deebo Samuel who is tied for fifth in receptions (28) and second in receiving yards (490). His 17.5 yards per reception is the most in the NFL among players with at least 20 catches. I for one really want to see what Tay Gowan can do in a regular season game and how a potentially thin Cardinals’ cornerback group responds with the next-man up mentality.

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

2. Kyler Murray will look to put the 2020 Week 16 loss to the 49ers behind him and expect him to do so in dominant fashion

As we have seen throughout the first four weeks of the season, this Arizona Cardinals football team is different from their 2020 unit. Depth and talent on the offense in 2021 far exceeds what they had last year. The addition of Rodney Hudson, A.J. Green, and rookie Rondale Moore has truly taken this offense to new heights as Kyler Murray has progressed into having an MVP-type season. Murray has thrown for the fourth-most passing yards (1,273) in the NFL and has shown no signs of slowing down.

Even with K’Waun Williams out and Jason Verrett out for the season, the 49ers have an interesting pair of young cornerbacks in Emmanuel Moseley and Demmodore Lenoir. Moseley has allowed a passer rating of 63.5 on 15 targets. Lenoir has flashed at times this season but took a beating against the Packers allowing a near perfect passer rating on four targets. Cardinals wide receivers should have a big day against the 49ers’ young and unproven secondary.

Los Angeles Rams Play Arizona Cardinals at SoFi Stadium Photo by Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images

3. Cardinals struggling run defense vs double Treys & the 49ers potent rushing attack

No matter who the 49ers start at running back, they often do well than not. Whether Trey Sermon draws another start or if Elijah Mitchell is healthy enough to return, the Cardinals will need answers to shore up their run defense that is allowing a league worst 5.4 yards per carry. The fact that rookie quarterback Trey Lance can also do damage in the run game as displayed with his 41 yards rushing last weekend could make the 49ers the most difficult opponent yet for the Cardinals.

Will the Cardinals stack the box to counter the 49ers’ run game? How will the Cardinals fix their run defense woes? We will find out on Sunday.

Arizona Cardinals v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

4. Converting pressures into sacks

Despite the lack of sacks to show for it, the Cardinals have been quite solid in the pass rush department. J.J. Watt leads the team with 17 pressures followed by Chandler Jones (15) and Markus Golden (12). But to a lot of people’s concern, when will the pressures finally start turning into sacks? With rookie quarterback Trey Lance making his first start, the built-up pressure could be a bit too much for his starting debut and I fully expect sacks to start hitting home.

Chandler Jones is still one sack away from becoming the Cardinals’ all-time sack leader. I say this every week but J.J. Watt will get his first sack in the desert soon. Trey Lance’s ability to extend plays with his legs as a dual-threat quarterback will be a unique challenge for the Cardinals but having athletic quarterbacks like Kyler Murray and Chris Streveler should give the Cards’ defense some ideas in containing the rookie. Win off the edge and watch out.

NFL: OCT 03 Cardinals at Rams Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

5. Forcing turnovers

The Cardinals are tied for fourth in the NFL in interceptions (4) but will be without Byron Murphy, who has three of the four picks. Though Trey Lance is an excellent athlete, he completed only 9-of-18 passes in the loss to the Seahawks last weekend. He has a cannon of an arm but is wildly inaccurate in his first game of extended action.

Some key stats to note is that the Cardinals lead the NFL in forced fumbles (8) and fumble recoveries (5). Their nine forced turnovers on defense is the third-most in the NFL trailing only the Buffalo Bills (11) and the Dallas Cowboys (10). If the Cardinals can create pressure, not only will their banged up secondary have it a bit easier on Sunday but turnover opportunities will more than likely be present.

One of the biggest reasons why I think the 49ers are the toughest team on the Cardinals schedule yet is because of their potent rushing offense now led by the dual-threat rookie quarterback Trey Lance. Excluding the statistics from this past Thursday’s game, the Cardinals’ run defense is ranked 26th in the NFL making it a bad matchup defensively. Offensively, Kyler Murray has been spreading the ball around to all of his receivers and that formula of success should continue against the 49ers. With that said, I expect DeAndre Hopkins to have a very big day.