Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part II
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: The 49ers and Cardinals obviously have gone in different directions since they were tied atop the NFC West after winning their Week 1 season openers. The Cards lost their next six games, even though the first three of those defeats came by a combined eight points. What happened to the Cardinals during the season's first two months and what were the significant reasons behind their slide? How close were they to actually starting 4-0?
Brad Wilbricht, publisher, AZRedReport.com: Simply put, the Cardinals lost their confidence following a Week 1 win against Carolina. Losing close games against Washington and Seattle started the landslide and then a handful of injuries hit which, among others, included RB Beanie Wells, FS Kerry Rhodes and eventually QB Kevin Kolb. Given the Cardinals' struggles this season, it's hard to imagine they could have started 4-0 but they weren't far off. Arizona lost to the Redskins by a mere point, came up short at Seattle by a field goal and ended up relinquishing a late lead against the Giants following a controversial non-call on a fumble. In reality, a 4-0 start could have happened with a break or two going in the Cards' favor. Let's also not forget the Cardinals blew a 24-3 first-half lead on the road against Baltimore. Instead of being 3-6, the Cardinals' record could easily be flipped which would have made this weekend's contest much more significant in the race for the NFC West.
Craig Massei: Arizona made a heavy investment in quarterback Kevin Kolb this summer. How has that been working out for the Cardinals? Does Kolb look like the franchise quarterback the team expects him to be and he's being paid to be, or is there already some buyer's remorse starting to creep in? Besides his recent injury, what have been the reasons behind Kolb's mediocre start, and what's his future with the team look like going forward?
Brad Wilbricht: Kolb has yet to pan out but there are several contributing factors to his struggles. Obviously the lockout halted the normal offseason progress a newcomer would have made. Plus subpar performances by the offensive line and now injuries have also slowed his development. It's hard to determine whether Kolb can become a franchise quarterback but if forced to make a gut call right now, I would say no. Kolb has too many question marks to address and his background coming from a quarterback-friendly environment in Philadelphia might have inflated his potential in the eyes of the Cardinals' front office. Given the Cards' dire situation under center a year ago, it's hard to fault the team for making a move for him, but it could end up being a costly mistake. Because of this contract, Kolb will receive ample opportunities to stake his claim as the starter, but backup John Skelton appears to have enough ability to make it a competition.
Craig Massei: Where does John Skelton fit into the picture at quarterback? He's playing like a pretty good backup right now after leading the Cards to back-to-back victories, including last week's upset in Philadelphia. What does Skelton bring to the team, and what would it take for the Cards to stick with him since he's undefeated as their starter? Is there any quarterback controversy brewing in Arizona? Who should the 49ers expect to see at quarterback this week? Kolb? Skelton? Or both?
Brad Wilbricht: While many aren't ready to give up on Kolb, there's no questioning that Skelton has some sort of future in the desert. Skelton was looked at as a raw prospect coming out of last year's draft but he's progressed quicker than anyone could have expected. Skelton has ideal size (6-foot-6, 244 pounds) and arm strength along with the ability to make plays with his feet outside of the pocket. More than anything, Skelton has injected energy into the Cards' offense and the team as a whole. Skelton has come off the bench to snap a six-game losing streak while starting a two-game winning streak with him at the helm. It remains to be seen if Arizona would start Skelton over a healthy Kolb, but Kolb's health has prevented that decision from being made at this point. The more Skelton wins, the harder it will be to keep him off the field. Although Kolb will give it a go in practice this week, I expect Skelton to make his third straight start as Kolb's foot injury continues to heal.
Craig Massei: I thought the Cardinals had some pretty good athletes and some key pieces to have a decent defense this season, but it appears that unit has been a disappointment most of the year. And then the Arizona defense goes out last week and shuts down Philadelphia's explosive offense like no other team has before this season. What's the story with Arizona's defense? Why the struggles of four consecutive games of 30 points or more allowed followed by solid performances the past two weeks? If we'd ask the real Arizona defense to please stand up, what would we be seeing?
Brad Wilbricht: For the second straight season, the Cardinals' defense has been disappointing but they might be close to turning the corner. First-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton's scheme is much different than what Arizona has deployed in the past and has certainly taken some time to adjust. That said, the Cardinals' last two defensive outings have been encouraging. The defense made several key plays late against the Rams in a 19-13 overtime win and held the Eagles' offense to just 289 total yards last week. Arizona has a handful of young playmakers starting to see more playing time. Linebackers O'Brien Schofield and Sam Acho have upgraded the team's pass rush while cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and A.J. Jefferson have been gaining more experience each week. I don't think the Cardinals' defense is there just yet but in between the highs and lows of this year is probably what one could expect this weekend and beyond.
Craig Massei: Patrick Peterson certainly looks like the real deal as a return specialist, and it appears he's coming along nicely now at cornerback, too. The 49ers also are getting some nice contributions from their first-round draft pick, OLB Aldon Smith, the No. 7 overall selection. But they probably would have taken Peterson if the Cards had not grabbed him with the No. 5 overall pick. What has Peterson brought to the team, how is he developing at cornerback, and is this a young guy who just has stardom written all over him? Where does he fit into Arizona's big picture, and is he already one of the top players and talents on the team?
Brad Wilbricht: Most importantly, Peterson has brought excitement and game-breaking ability to the Cardinals, both on defense and special teams. Just over halfway through his rookie campaign, Peterson has accumulated two interceptions and an astounding three punt-return touchdowns. Peterson leads the NFL with 441 punt-return yards and is second to only Devin Hester averaging 17.6 yards per return. Peterson still has a ways to go as a cornerback and has struggled with penalties so far. However, his contributions in the return game have more than made up for those deficiencies. As far as fitting into Arizona's big picture, it's a no-brainer to include him as a core player going forward. Some were skeptical about Peterson earlier this season, but cornerback is one of the most difficult positions to break into by NFL standards. Peterson is only going to get better as time goes on and he certainly has All-Pro potential.
PART III: Check back on both NinersDigest.com and AZRedReport.com as Brad and Craig break down Sunday's game in detail and give their predictions on the outcome.
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