Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Cardinals
49ERS GAME PLAN: QB Alex Smith has not experienced any success in the NFL, so offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy must make things easy on him at the beginning. If that means a couple high-percentage passes to get Smith some confidence, that's what must be done. The 49ers must take the approach in this game of the pass setting up the run. They have tried it the other way most of this season, and it's a formula that has not generated any success. McCarthy can't play it too conservatively. The 49ers have to try to stretch the field on occasion, and now that WR Arnaz Battle is healthy again, they have more options in the passing game. WR Brandon Lloyd is a bit too inconsistent to rely upon, so Battle has to pick up the slack. Battle also has the ability to line up in the shotgun formation to run the option - a play the 49ers have used several times this season. If the 49ers are able to get the Cardinals out of their eight-man fronts, then maybe RB Kevan Barlow can start to enjoy some success on the ground. Barlow has averaged just 3.3 yards a carry this season. Defensively, the 49ers have to show more creativity with their blitz package to take the heat off CBs Shawntae Spencer and Bruce Thornton. When the teams faced earlier this season, both Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin produced more than 100 receiving yards in the Cardinals' thrashing of the 49ers. Fitzgerald has 999 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. In order for the 49ers to be successful, they must get good special-teams play. But they have committed a turnover in the kicking game in three consecutive games. Don't be surprised to see sure-handed Battle back deep on punt returns after rookies Rasheed Marshall and Otis Amey had their struggles. CARDINALS GAME PLAN: With five of their top seven defensive linemen lost for the season, including Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry, the Cardinals are getting good mileage out of the safety blitz. SS Adrian Wilson has five sacks, and Arizona will look for several ways to put pressure on San Francisco's young and inexperienced quarterback. Offensively, the Cardinals will attempt to duplicate their success against the 49ers when the teams met in October, and this time they'll be doing it with their No. 1 quarterback. The biggest challenge will be establishing a consistent running threat to take some of the pressure of quarterback Kurt Warner and make the San Francisco defense play honest. MATCHUPS TO WATCH --- 49ers QB Alex Smith, who makes his third career start and has a lot to learn, vs. Cardinals FS Robert Griffith, a veteran who has a chance to disguise his coverages and force Smith into some bad decisions. --- Cardinals WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, one of the league's most productive pairs, vs. 49ers CB Shawntae Spencer, in his second pro season. Fitzgerald and Boldin are on pace to become the first pair of Cardinals receivers with 1,000 receiving yards each since Rob Moore and Frank Sanders eight years ago. In the Cardinals' rout of the 49ers in Mexico City in October, the 49ers were helpless in their pass defense. But Spencer gives the 49ers' defense hope. He has a team-leading three interceptions, including one he took back 61 yards for a touchdown last week. --- Cardinals defensive front seven vs. 49ers RB Kevan Barlow, a fine back having another tough season but who always seems to rise to the occasion against the Cardinals. Foes don't have a huge problem establishing the run against the Cardinals, and it is critical that they not allow a weak foe like San Francisco to get anything going on the ground. If the Cardinals can keep the 49ers one dimensional, it puts all the responsibility on the shoulders of San Francisco's rookie QB. Smith, who will start after missing five games to injury. Smith completed only six of 10 for 34 yards in relief of starter Tim Rattay in the first game against the Cardinals this season. Barlow ran for a career-high 154 yards against the Cardinals two years ago. --- 49ers pass defense, which returned to its bad early-season form last week against the Titans, vs. Cardinals passing offense, which threw for 385 yards with backup QB Josh McCown in the Week 4 romp over the 49ers. --- 49ers ROLB Andre Carter, who has 3.5 sacks this season, vs. Cardinals LT Leonard Davis, whose 12 false-start penalties are an indication he gets a little jumpy against speed rushers. --- 49ers RT Kwame Harris, who has struggled in pass protection, vs. Cardinals LDE Chike Okeafor, a former 49er who has 4.5 sacks and has the tenacity to create problems for Harris. INJURY IMPACT 49ERS: DE Bryant Young (right knee) is expected to miss the remainder of the season with tears to the MCL and meniscus cartilage. He was expected to be out of action three to six weeks when he sustained the injury Nov. 20. ... K Joe Nedney (left hip and groin) believes there is a chance he'll be able to kick Sunday against the Cardinals after missing last week's game. ... RB Frank Gore (left hip flexor) is expected to miss his third consecutive game, but he was downgraded from doubtful to questionable on Friday after starter Kevan Barlow was added to the injury list as questionable with a knee problem. .. FB Fred Beasley (neck) sustained a stinger three weeks ago and is not expected to play this week, either. ... LB Saleem Rasheed (right knee) was removed from the injury report after missing seven games after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus cartilage. He will be available if the team decides to activate him. ... CB Ahmed Plummer (left ankle) is not likely to play this week. He has already not played in the last eight games. ... WR Arnaz Battle (right knee) is expected to be available for Sunday's game. ... WR Derrick Hamilton will not play this season. He was placed on PUP after sustaining a torn ACL in the off-season. ... C Jeremy Newberry (right knee), FS Tony Parrish (left leg), LT Jonas Jennings (right shoulder), LB Jeff Ulbrich (left biceps), CB Mike Rumph (foot), TE Eric Johnson (foot) and WR Rashaun Woods (thumb) are on injured reserve. CARDINALS: Rushing leader Marcel Shipp's neck injury may keep him out - he did not practice earlier this week and is listed doubtful. That would put the rushing load on rookie J.J. Arrington and veteran Damien Anderson, who was re-signed this week. ... The interior of the offensive line will have backups with C Alex Stepanovich (shoulder), LG Reggie Wells (ankle) and RG Elton Brown (knee) out. So the chances of a strong rushing attack even against the 49ers are reduced. Adam Haayer is expected to start at left guard, Jeremy Bridges at right guard and Nick Leckey at center. ... The defense, already a fine imitation of a sieve, lost its best player, Pro Bowl DE Bertrand Berry (torn pectoral), for the season. He had surgery and has been placed on injured reserve. Berry joins fellow defensive linemen DT Kenny King, wrist; DT Russell Davis, biceps; DE Calvin Pace, cut arm, and NT Langston Moore, shoulder, with season-ending injuries.
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