Arizona's defense can bring the heat

The division leading Arizona Cardinals have allowed just 15.5 points per game through two weeks and provide Colin Kaepernick a stiff test following his disappointing performance against the Bears. Coordinator Todd Bowles blitzed the 49ers frequently last season, but will he do the same Sunday?

Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles will put heat on the 49ers offensive line that hasn’t lived up to high expectations through two games.

The offensive line will be spotlighted Sunday afternoon because of Bowles’ penchant for blitzing the 49ers, particularly on passing plays. According to Pro Football Focus, the Cardinals sent more than four pass rushers on 80 percent of San Francisco’s passing plays last season in their two losses. But in two games this year, the Cardinals have just two sacks.

Regarded as the league’s best left side for the last two seasons, tackle Joe Staley (three penalties) and Mike Iupati (a sack allowed in Week 1, two hurries against the Bears), haven’t performed up to their standards in 2014.

Right tackle Jonathan Martin, predictably, hasn’t been as good as incumbent Anthony Davis, low-lighted by his two sacks allowed San Francisco’s final offensive series Sunday night. Davis hasn’t practice since late in the preseason when he sustained a hamstring strain that has limited him to individual workouts on the side field over the last three weeks. He’s officially listed as questionable, although he would be a long shot to suit up, at best.

How the Cardinals disguise their blitzes will be the key to stopping Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers offense. Kaepernick’s best work typically comes against the blitz. Through two games, his passer rating is 63.3 points higher against the blitz than when defense drop seven men into coverage. In last week’s loss to the Bears, all three of his interceptions came on plays where the defense didn’t blitz.

Something has to give.

Do the Cardinals continue to be aggressive and send extra pressure, leaving the field unbalanced for 49ers pass catchers to get open? Or do they dial the blitzes back and force Kaepernick to beat them from the pocket and make accurate throws into coverage? That’s the area where he struggled most against Chicago.

Either way, San Francisco isn’t likely to run the ball with overwhelming success. Arizona’s defense was the league’s best against the run in 2013, allowing just 84.4 yards per game. Through two games this year, they’re third at 66.5.

Despite losing linebackers Daryl Washington for the season (suspension) and Karlos Dansby (free agency), and defensive lineman Darnell Dockett (ACL), Arizona has remained stout against the run. Free agent acquisition and former Steeler Larry Foote has been an excellent fill-in at inside linebacker.

Playing behind another strong defensive line in 2013, including standout Calais Campbell, has allowed Foote to replicate the success of the Cardinals’ run defense of 2013.

”Even looking back to last year, those three inside guys did such a good job at freeing up their two inside players,” 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said this week. “I don’t think that’s changed one bit. And then Foote’s got an uncanny knack for hitting the right gap at the right time.”

Campbell will be working against the left side of the 49ers line, giving Iupati and Staley all they can handle. He’s coming off a 10-tackle performance (three for losses) last week against the Giants. He had a two sacks, although his sack and forced fumble was negated by an illegal contact penalty in the secondary.

”He’s one of the more underrated players in the league. We felt that way for a while,” Roman said. “He tips a lot of balls. He’s 6-foot-8. He plays the run very well. He pushes the pocket very well, as does their whole defense.”

A key unknown heading into Sunday’s game is the status of Vernon Davis. Saturday, the team elevated tight end Asante Cleveland from the practice squad, indicating that either (both?) Vernon Davis (ankle) and/or Vance McDonald (knee) might not play. Their status following Friday’s practice was “questionable” after sitting out all week. Both did light running Friday.

Davis typically does good work against the Cardinals. In 16 games, he’s caught nine touchdown passes and averaged over 15 yards per reception. In last October’s matchup, he had 180 yards and two scores, including a 61-yarder. He also caught a touchdown pass in Week 17’s 23-20 win. Davis or McDonald being absent could give reserve Derek Carrier an opportunity to break out.


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