Knowing Your Opponent: Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals come to San Francisco this weekend looking to leapfrog the 49ers in the NFC West standings and win a game at Candlestick for the first time since 2008. They bring a stingy opportunistic defense and an offense that has struggled to find consistency led by Carson Palmer. Inside we take an extended look at the 3-2 Cardinals.

Cardinals Statistics Through Week 4

Offense

Points per game: 18.2 (#28 in the NFL)

Yards per game: 306.2 (#30)

Passing Yards (per game): 225.2 (#22)

Rushing Yards (per game): 81 (#23)

3rd-Down Conversion Rate: 30 percent (#30)

Red Zone Scoring Rate (TDs): 42.86 percent (#28)

Defense

Points per game: 19 (#10)

Yards per game: 343.4 (#15)

Passing yards (per game): 264.4 (#19)

Rushing Yards (per game): 79.0 (#3)

Opponents 3rd-Down Conversion Rate: 30 percent (#21)

Opponents Red Zone Scoring Rate (TDs): 50 percent (#10)

NFC West Standings

Seahawks (4-1)

49ers (3-2)

Cardinals (3-2)

Rams (2-3)

Head Coach: Bruce Arians (first season)

Despite some poor offensive numbers, the Arizona Cardinals should be considered a dangerous team. After all, they are a bad fourth quarter away from being 4-1. They led the Rams 24-13 heading final quarter in the season opener, but allowed 14 unanswered points and fell 27-24. Since then, they have won three of four, with the only loss coming to the undefeated Saints on the road.

A Defense Hurt by Its Offense

Arizona's defense is talented, sturdy and opportunistic. It has forced 11 turnovers through five games, including seven in the last two. And they have one of their leaders back with middle linebacker Daryl Washington returning from his four-game suspension for violating the NFL's policy on performance enhancing drugs.

Washington had a huge first game last week with an interception, two sacks and eight tackles.

"They're good football players and they've fit around them with new guys. They're gelling. They're playing really well together," Jim Harbaugh told reporters this week. "Their scheme is multiple and their players are playing it well and executing it well. That speaks volumes for the team defense that they have. They got turnovers last week; really good, really impressed with the Cardinal defense."

Overall, the Cardinals defense was impressive against the Carolina Panthers Sunday, registering seven sacks on Cam Newton and while forcing three interceptions and fumble. They held the Panthers to just six points, despite Carolina having a bye week to prepare.

Quarterback Carson Palmer has thrown the second most interceptions in the NFL (9), which skews some of his team's defensive stats. But despite all the turnovers, the Cardinals are still allowing a respectable 343.4 yards per game, thanks in part to their run defense that's the third-best in the league.

That's where the 49ers will have their work cut out for them on Sunday. If they cannot establish the run like they have the last two games, it will force Colin Kaepernick to beat the Cardinals through the air. Arizona might have the edge there too, with Patrick Peterson continuing to emerge as one of the game's most explosive cornerbacks. San Francisco won the matchups with Peterson on the outside last year, but Michael Crabtree won't be around to win those one-on-one battles as he did in 2012.

At the back end, safeties Kerry Rhodes and Adrian Wilson are gone. Yeremiah Bell, Rashad Johnson and Tyrann Mathieu have been plugged in as replacements. Mathieu, the embattled LSU star and former Heisman Trophy Candidate has been dynamic in his first season as a pro after not playing football last season.

Spending 66 percent of his time in the slot and 28 percent of his time at safety, Mathieu already has 30 tackles, a sack and an interception. His six QB pressures lead all corners.

"A ton of energy and a playmaker. He has been a relentless practice player. He gets mad if he doesn't get every rep and it's showing up on Sundays," Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said.

"He gets hands on balls, he's sacking quarterbacks. He's a playmaker. His size and speed may night measure sometimes to as good a football player as he is."

Mathieu visited the 49ers during pre-draft workouts and the team showed interest in selecting him, but he ultimately went early in the third round, 19 picks ahead of where San Francisco selected Corey Lemonier.

The 49ers will have to hold on to the football to avoid doing the Cardinals' offense any favors. But the way these defenses play, Sunday's game figures to be a low scoring affair.

New QB, Same Problems

The Cardinals offensive line has really struggled, allowing Palmer an average of 2.47 seconds to throw, which is fourth-worst among starting quarterbacks. He's been sacked 12 times and averaged 237 yards per game with a 67 QB rating. Arizona is scoring just 18.2 points per game and averaging 306.2 yards per game, third-worst in football.

Why has the offense struggled?

"It's just taken a little more time between our quarterbacks and receivers," Arians said. "A couple injuries early in the year and guys getting back into the mix. Kind of slowed our progress a little bit."

The team traded for Palmer in the offseason, hoping to find a viable starting quarterback for the first time since Kurt Werner in 2009, its last winning season. After working with rookie Andrew Luck last year with the Indianapolis Colts, Arians pointed out the difficulty in transitioning to the veteran quarterback in his first season with his new team.

"The difference between the two quarterbacks – when you get a rookie – he doesn't have the preconceived notions about certain style of plays…he's learning it from ground one," Arians said.

"It's a little bit easier to get him up to speed some times than taking a veteran saying, ‘No, this is not that play. We don't read it that way. This is how we read it.' It's been a little bit longer and harder for Carson I think than it would be a rookie because he's been in so many systems and there are certain things he likes. We try to build around those things he likes that he can handle."

Palmer's test Sunday might be his toughest yet. And he could be without Larry Fitzgerald who is questionable with a hamstring injury. Even without some key pieces, the 49ers' defense will present Palmer a number of obstacles.

"It's just a very good – personnel-wise – it's a very good defense and they scheme you very good. They play different coverages. They play teams different each way," Palmer said.

"We are going to see something different than we have seen on film the past five weeks. It's a great combination of coaching and scheming, and combining that with really good players."

*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*

----------------------------------------

Follow Editor in Chief Chris Biderman on Twitter.

Get updates from NinersDigest by following here.


Niners Digest Top Stories