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

Colt McCoy could start for the Cardinals on Sunday in this NFC West matchup

NFL: SEP 13 Cardinals at 49ers Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Arizona Cardinals (7-1) squeaked past the San Francisco 49ers (3-4), 17-10, in Week 5 in the young quarterback battle between Kyler Murray and Trey Lance. This time around on Sunday, two different, but older, quarterbacks could be at the helm in the rematch. 30-year-old Jimmy Garoppolo has resumed his role as the starter having recovered from a calf injury that forced him to miss the earlier meeting. With Murray having not practiced all week with an ankle injury, he is in fact questionable to play as 35-year-old and 12-year veteran Colt McCoy is in line to start.

Cardinals suffered their first defeat last week against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday Night Football where as the 49ers cruised past the Chicago Bears 33-22 in a road win.

Here are five Cardinals things to watch on Sunday in this NFC West rematch:

Dallas Cowboys v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

1. Colt McCoy to lead the Cardinals as Kyler Murray recovers

Even with Murray not practicing all week, he could end up playing on Sunday. He hasn’t missed a game after all. However, the best thing Kliff Kingsbury and the Cardinals can do for him is to give Kyler Murray more time to recover and not risk making his ankle injury more serious. Are they in it for the long haul or just this one game?

Colt McCoy was signed by the Cardinals this past offseason for situations like this. He has 12 years of NFL experience and is capable of starting if need be. People will look at Colt and be appalled by his 8-22 QB record but take into consideration the struggling teams that he has played for. The Browns (2010-12), Washington Football Team (2014-19), and the New York Giants (2020) did not put McCoy in a good position to succeed. He might not have the arm power or athletic ability as Kyler Murray but McCoy has enough of both to have the full Kingsbury playbook at his disposal.

With All-Pro center Rodney Hudson and guard Justin Murray designated to return from injured reserve (assuming they play), McCoy will be better protected compared to Kyler’s protection last week and be put in a good position to succeed on Sunday if he draws the start. Cards will need them when facing against a talented 49ers’ defensive line that includes Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa.

Green Bay Packers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

2. Christian Kirk and Rondale Moore could serve as the Cardinals’ top two receivers on Sunday

The Cardinals could be without their top receivers against the 49ers with A.J. Green on the COVID-19/reserve list and DeAndre Hopkins questionable to play with a hamstring injury. I know I know Hopkins does not miss games but this time it could be different. Christian Kirk is on pace for career highs across the board playing his natural position in the slot but could be asked to move back to the Z receiver position temporarily with Green likely out. Moore would be the starting slot receiver and Andy Isabella would likely have a role on the offense for the first time this season. Antoine Wesley is listed as the backup to DeAndre Hopkins but played 53 percent of the Cardinals’ offensive snaps last week after Hopkins was held out for most of the game.

I am sure Rondale Moore will try to put last week’s performance behind him having actually looked like a rookie for the first time all season. He had a critical muffed punt in the loss. Especially if the top two receivers are out, Moore will be relied upon a lot.

Cardinals did protect Greg Dortch on the practice squad so there is a possibility he could be elevated to the active roster in wake of the banged up receiver situation they currently have. As a result, I fully expect Arizona to prioritize the short run-after-the-catch pass & run game in the NFC West rematch. Chase Edmonds and James Conner will be used heavily. Next Man Up mentality!

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

3. 49ers might be without Deebo Samuel but All-Pro tight end George Kittle will be back; Another huge test for Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins

The Cardinals are the stingiest team against tight ends, allowing only 28.2 yards and zero touchdowns to the position per game. Isaiah Simmons and Zaven Collins are turning out to be one heck of an inside linebacker duo for the Cardinals. Simmons has allowed a passer rating of 78.9, has 50 tackles, an interception, and two forced fumbles. Collins has only been targeted five times but has allowed a passer rating of only 50.4. Interpret that stat however you want as he often seems to be in the right place quite often.

Now they will face their biggest test of the season yet with All-Pro George Kittle returning to the starting lineup from injured reserve. He had 136 total yards in two games against the Cardinals last year. Deebo Samuel is having the best season of his career as he has the second-most receiving yards (819) in the NFL. He did score the 49ers only touchdown in the 17-10 loss so he would be a surely missed player by San Francisco if he is ruled out tomorrow. With 49ers’ No. 1 wide receiver trending towards being out with a calf injury, expect Kittle to be targeted early and often.

Green Bay Packers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

4. Cardinals must bring the pressure on defense

It’s plain and simple. With J.J. Watt out, the Cardinals need Zach Allen and their highly paid Jordan Phillips to step up. One of the biggest reasons why this Cardinals’ defense has been so good the first seven weeks was because their defensive front seven was able to create pressure by just rushing four players. J.J. Watt was able to draw double teams and won his one-on-one matchups almost every time allowing the rest of the defense to have better opportunities at the quarterback.

Do the Cardinals have that kind of player in Jordan Phillips? He was the Cardinals’ top free agent acquisition last season after he signed a three-year $30 million contract with the team. He has come along nicely in his few games back from injured reserve but his level of impact is still not where it needs to be as a supposed game changer. Zach Allen looked great in Week 5 against the 49ers with four tackles, two tackles for loss, and a sack and the Cards will need that same kind of performance tomorrow. Chandler Jones and Markus Golden have a combined 11 sacks on the season and they will need to be dominant to slow down a dynamic 49ers offense.

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

5. RUN DEFENSE

AJ Dillon abused the Cardinals run defense with 16 carries for 78 yards. Aaron Jones had 15 carries, 59 yards, and a touchdown. And even if 49ers’ Elijah Mitchell is out with a rib injury, Jeff Wilson could be activated off Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) with GM John Lynch telling KNBR radio that he is in “tremendous shape”. When Wilson last played the Cardinals, he has 183 rushing yards and a 21-yard touchdown reception in Week 16 of last season.

Cardinals’ run defense is allowing the second-most yards per carry (4.9). They will matchup against a 49ers’ run offense that can thrive with almost anyone. There are athletic limitations with Jimmy Garoppolo versus Trey Lance so it should be a little easier for the Cardinals to gameplan against the 49ers’ run game. Don’t forget the Cardinals get their best run stuffer Corey Peters back in the defensive line rotation.

Overall

The Cardinals need to be very careful this game when it comes to the health of their players. Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins are the Cardinals’ top players on their offense and their entire team. If they are not 100% health wise, they should not be on the football field. It is as simple as that. A divisional matchup is one thing but putting the season on the line potentially is another. The Cardinals are 7-1 for a reason and Colt McCoy was also signed for a reason. There remains plenty of talent on the Cardinals’ offense for McCoy to thrive especially having a Pro Bowl talent like Zach Ertz on the offense. Arizona has grit and despite all the obstacles in their way last game, they still managed to nearly get the victory.

Murray wants to play but sometimes, we have to prioritize our overall health over what the mind and heart wants. Keeping him out one game will not be detrimental for the Cardinals but instead be very beneficial for Arizona in the long run. McCoy would get much-needed reps in case he is needed later on in the season and Murray should be near full health by next week. There are lots of defensive stars in this game with Budda Baker, Nick Bosa, Chandler Jones, Byron Murphy, Fred Warner, and others. This should be a very physical battle worth watching.