Behind Enemy Lines: 49ers/Cardinals, Part I
Brad Wilbricht, publisher, AZRedReport.com: Given that the Cardinals and 49ers squared off just three weeks ago, what (if anything) has changed for San Francisco? Do the 49ers see this as a true road test now that Arizona has won four of its last five outings?
Craig Massei, publisher, NinersDigest.com: What has changed for the 49ers since then is that they have clinched the NFC West, their first division title and playoff berth since 2002. They've also lost for the first time since mid-September, a 16-6 defeat at Baltimore in the much-hyped "Har-Bowl" just four days after the Niners beat the Cards 23-7 on Nov. 20 in San Francisco. The 49ers came back last Sunday to pound St. Louis 26-0 to become the second NFL team to clinch a playoff berth. The loss to Baltimore exposed some of San Francisco's deficiencies on offense, but it's easy to write off that loss to the long travel and short preparation time associated with that Thanksgiving evening game. In summary, the 49ers' approach hasn't changed much since the last time they played the Cardinals. They still need to keep winning to assure themselves of the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs behind Green Bay and the first-round bye that comes with it. San Francisco can clinch that bye by going 3-1 over the final quarter of the season, regardless of what New Orleans (currently the No. 3 seed) does the rest of the way. With a big Monday night game against Pittsburgh coming up after this game, the 49ers won't be overlooking the Cardinals. This is still a game they need to win. And like everybody else in the league, the 49ers are cognizant that Arizona is a team that is coming on. Three of San Francisco's final four games will be on the road against its NFC West division foes, and this could easily be considered the toughest of those three.
Brad Wilbricht: Following an eight-game winning streak, did the Week 12 loss at Baltimore help the team refocus? Especially since they've had the NFC West wrapped up for some time.
Craig Massei: There may be something to that, but I believe it would be a bit overblown to say that loss helped the 49ers re-focus. This is a team that has been extremely focused the entire season, and even more so on a week-by-week progression as the Niners have emerged as a true contender. The loss to Baltimore was a product of being beaten down on the road by a physical team after a short preparation week and long, cross-country travel. It was a difficult situation for the 49ers to be put in, and not to make excuses, but they simply weren't up for the task. Despite being outplayed by the Ravens, that was a game San Francisco was in all the way, and two plays – including a long touchdown pass in the first quarter by the 49ers that was erased by a penalty – helped swing the momentum and balance of the game. The circumstances of that game were tilted heavily in Baltimore's favor. Not to say Baltimore didn't deserve to win and wasn't the better team that night, but I don't think the 49ers are too concerned about any red-flag implications regarding that loss. They went to win, couldn't do it, and then moved on.
Brad Wilbricht: Running back Frank Gore's production has been limited in recent weeks. Are injuries catching up with him or is the 49ers' running game just not clicking right now?
Craig Massei: A little bit of both. Gore has been hampered a bit by knee and ankle injuries that have been an issue for him since midseason. But mostly, the Niners' ground game hasn't been clicking like earlier in the season because defenses have been stacking the box and loading up against the run unmercifully to stop Gore. He has seen some eight- and nine-man fronts in the past month, and it is taking its toll, because even with the Niners trying to take advantage of those defensive schemes with their passing game, opponents still keep coming back with the same schemes to stop Gore and the run first. The Cardinals made Gore work for his 88 yards on 24 carries in November, and Gore has had to work hard for all his yards since then and has taken a lot of pounding. Against the NFL's worst rushing defense last week, Gore managed just 73 yards on 21 carries against the Rams. That's not a great day for him, particularly against the defense he was facing, but it's a sign of the times what has happened to Gore and San Francisco's rushing game. Just the same, against the Rams, Gore became the franchise's all-time leading rusher with 7,396 yards. That is quite an accomplishment, considering Gore still is in only his seventh season and he passed a Hall of Fame running back, Joe Perry, to get that record.
Brad Wilbricht: Come playoff time, quarterback Alex Smith will more than likely be needed to help determine an outcome. Will coach Jim Harbaugh take advantage of already clinching the division and fine-tune the team's passing game, or will it be business as usual with a run-first offense?
Craig Massei: Actually, the 49ers have been working on their passing game for several weeks now, and you saw some of that when the 49ers and Cards met three weeks ago and Smith passed for 267 yards and two TDs while throwing 38 passes. The Niners have spent a lot of time working on their passing attack and diversifying their offense during the past month, and that should continue down the stretch as the team attempts to put a lot of different formations and passing situations out there on film for future playoff opponents to take note of. Smith had the highest passer rating of his career last week against the Rams – 142.3 – when he threw for 274 yards, including touchdown passes of 52 yards to Michael Crabtree and 56 yards to Kyle Williams. Those were San Francisco's two longest passing plays and touchdown plays of the season. Gore's 55-yard run against Detroit is the Niners' only other offensive play longer than 50 yards this season.
Brad Wilbricht: A quick look at last week's box score shows four field goals from kicker David Akers. Is San Francisco's red zone offense a concern? Is it an area the Cardinals' defense can take advantage of with hopes of pulling an upset on Sunday?
Craig Massei: Red zone offense is a big concern for the 49ers – in fact, it could be the team's most pressing concern. Red zone offense and third-down efficiency are areas where the offense has not been up to snuff this season, and in some games it has been downright terrible. The 49ers are still trying to pound the ball when they get close to the opposing end zone, and teams they are facing now are more than ready for that. With San Francisco's strong defense and the luxury of having a great kicker, it almost seems as though the Niners take an approach of not taking many chances – and, hence, not making many mistakes – in the red zone, because they figure they practically have a guaranteed three points to fall back on with Akers. The Niners lead the NFL in fewest points allowed, so they know that points will be at a premium in any game they play. In San Francisco's last two victories, Akers has outscored both the Cardinals and Rams by himself. It was David Akers 11, Arizona 7, and then David Akers 14, St. Louis 0. So if the Cardinals can continue San Francisco's recent trend of red zone struggles – which is quite possible – it could give them a very good opportunity to pull off the upset at home. All they will have to do is score enough points for themselves. That could wind up being the hard part.
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