Game snapshot: 49ers vs. Cardinals
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals defense hasn't allowed a touchdown the past two games, but will be without injured CB Duane Starks. But can the 49ers' struggling offense take advantage? They don't have a go-to receiver and will struggle to come from behind. So they must get RB Kevan Barlow, who has just 64 yards in the past two games, untracked early and stay close so the offense can remain balanced. Arizona's offense has struggled as well, but the 49ers might be forced to play without four defensive starters. The biggest injury is DE Andre Carter being out with a back injury. The Cardinals ran the ball very well last weekend, which took pressure off QB Josh McCown. McCown hasn't had much success downfield with WR Larry Fitzgerald still not 100 percent following a preseason ankle injury and Anquan Boldin (knee) still out. FAST FACTS: Cardinals: Have an NFL-high 15-game road losing streak. ... RB Emmitt Smith is tied with Walter Payton (77) for the most 100-yard rushing games in a career. ... It has been since 1970 since the defense didn't allow a touchdown in consecutive games. 49ers: Have been outscored 48-3 in the first quarter this season. ... Are 0-4 for the first time since 1979. ... Lead the series 15-10. PERSONNEL NEWS CARDINALS --- TE Freddie Jones hasn't put up big numbers through four games, but that doesn't mean he's not living up to coach Dennis Green's expectations. Green pointed to Jones in the offseason as someone on the current roster with Pro Bowl potential. "He's playing better than he was last year," Green said. "The offense has to go better before anybody shows up like (a Pro Bowl selection). Right now, if they had some voting, nobody is going on offense. If they did some voting on defense, there would be more than a few guys who would go." --- LB James Darling suffered a pulled calf muscle during Thursday's practice and was added to the injury report as probable. --- SS Adrian Wilson said the increased pressure from the defensive line (nine sacks through four games) is a big reason for the overall improved play of the defense. "It is huge," Wilson said. "We don't have to hold our coverages long because the quarterbacks are really feeling pressure and it helps us out a lot." 49ERS --- DT Tony Brown, who has three tackles in the first four games of the season, will likely start at RDE because of the rash of injuries on the defensive line. Andre Carter will miss the game, while John Engelberger and Otis Leverette are questionable. --- WR Curtis Conway, the leading pass-catcher among the wide receivers, has not done much with the ball after the reception. Conway has 19 receptions, but he has just 19 yards after the catch. For the season, Conway has 205 yards of receiving. --- TE Eric Johnson leads all players at his position with 28 receptions for 298 yards. He needed just 65 yards receiving to achieve his career high of 362 yards, which he achieved in 2001. Johnson is nursing sore ribs after catching a career-high 10 passes for 113 yards last week against the Rams. He did not practice Thursday, but an MRI examination Wednesday proved negative. The 49ers expect him to be ready for the Cardinals. --- WR Brandon Lloyd returned to practice Thursday and he will start against the Cardinals. Lloyd has missed the last two games with a groin strain. He has just five catches for 36 yards this season. --- DE John Engelberger was active for Sunday's game, but Brandon Whiting started in his place at left end. Tony Brown will start at right end. INSIDE THE CAMPS CARDINALS --- Cardinals coach Dennis Green knows special teams will play a big role as both the Cardinals and 49ers have struggled to put points on the board this season. KR/WR Josh Scobey (knee) is out for Sunday's game, but Green isn't tipping his hand as to who will replace Scobey and return kicks. CB Robert Tate is next on the listed depth chart, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll take Scobey's place. "We are not going to announce it," said Green. The bigger issue will be the wind affecting the kickers and punters. San Francisco has had notoriously poor punting statistics over the years, but the wind at Monster Park -- the stadium formerly known as Candlestick Park -- plays a major role. "When we play (in San Francisco), we've always got some wind issues," said Green, who was an assistant in San Francisco and visited there as Minnesota's coach. "Sometimes, they are going to be kicking it to the 15-yardline, sometimes you are going to be kicking it to the goalline. Even Neil (Rackers) will have trouble sometimes depending on how the wind blows." 49ERS So far in his NFL career, 49ers cornerback Shawntae Spencer has seen the likes of Joe Horn, Darrell Jackson, Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt for the first time. The best receiver he will see Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, however, will be someone he watched play every week for two seasons in college. Spencer, the 49ers' second-round draft pick, will be matched up quite a bit against Cardinals rookie Larry Fitzgerald, the No. 3 overall selection in this year's draft. While attending the University of Pittsburgh together, Spencer and Fitzgerald often practiced against each other. They also tried to help each other during their college days, but they will be looking to exploit each other's weaknesses during Sunday's meeting. "He made me a lot better," Spencer said. "He told me things I should try to change up in college. There are things in college you can't bring onto this level. You have to adjust, so I pretty much scrapped my whole college game. I let these coaches critique me into a pro corner." The most dramatic different Spencer has made in his game is his aggressiveness. He had a reputation as someone who shied away from contact in college - a rap that might have been responsible for his being overlooked when it came time for invitations to the NFL combine. Spencer started the season as the club's No. 4 cornerback, but he is in the starting lineup after surpassing Jimmy Williams on the depth chart and moving up another spot with Mike Rumph's season-ending broken arm. His first starting assignment came in a 34-0 loss to Seattle two weeks ago, and he replaced Rumph near the end of the first half of Sunday's game against the Rams. The 49ers held the Rams and their high-powered offense, featuring Bruce and Holt, scoreless in the second half. "He played against two of the best receivers in the NFL and I thought he learned from it and he did some awfully good things," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said.
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