Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Cardinals

Taking a look deep inside Monday night's pivotal season opener between the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals at Monster Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, injury impact and personnel news for both teams entering the season.

KICKOFF: Monday, 7:15 p.m. Pacific
SITE: Monster Park in San Francisco
2006 RECORDS: 49ers 7-9, 3-3 in NFC West; Cardinals 5-11, 4-2 in NFC West
TV: ESPN, Mike Greenberg, Mike Golic, Mike Ditka, Bonnie Bernstein

SERIES HISTORY: 32nd meeting. 49ers lead the series, 17-14. The Cardinals have won four in a row, sweeping the 49ers the past two seasons. The last three games, however, have been decided by a touchdown or less. The 49ers had trouble dealing with receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 13 passes for 226 yards in last year's games. The Cardinals were able to run the ball in the second meeting, gaining more than 100 yards on the ground. Defensively, the Cardinals kept 49ers running back Frank Gore from gaining big yardage (138 yards in two games) but he did score four touchdowns and hurt them as a receiver, catching 12 passes.

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals will feature different starters at four of the five offensive line positions from last season's finale, and the overhauled unit will face a good early test. The 49ers spent $80 million to team CB Nate Clements opposite Pro Bowler Walt Harris, with the hope that improved coverage will allow the front seven to blitz more aggressively. The smart guess is the 49ers' lack of pressure in the preseason was more the result of vanilla defensive packages. ... RB Frank Gore is healthy after missing the preseason with a broken hand and clearly the focus of the 49ers' offense. But for San Francisco to emerge as a contender, the passing game must step up. TE Vernon Davis is the key, and his opening game will feature plenty of face time with Cardinals SLB Calvin Pace, who is starting following a season-ending injury to Chike Okeafor.

FAST FACTS: Cardinals are making the switch from the 4-3 base defense to the 3-4. ... 49ers were outscored by 114 points last season -- the most in NFL history for a 7-9 team.

BY THE NUMBERS: 326.8 -- Passing yards three Cardinals quarterbacks (Kurt Warner, Josh McCown and Matt Leinart) have averaged in four consecutive victories over 49ers. … 4 -- Number of offensive linemen who are either new, or playing different positions than last year. Left guard Deuce Lutui is the only starter returning in the same spot. … 5 -- New defensive starters for the 49ers compared to the team that played Arizona last December. … 4 Rushing touchdowns scored by Frank Gore in two games against the Cardinals last season.

"As a division, it's actually stable. It's strong. I still think St. Louis is as good as they've been the last few years. Seattle is as good as they've been in the last two years. Arizona might be a little bit better, although the record didn't indicate it last year. I think they're a good football team." -- 49ers coach Mike Nolan, on the NFC West
"Can I say after Monday night?" -- Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, when asked if he's comfortable with his team's pass rush.

49ERS GAME PLAN: The focus for the 49ers will be on controlling the Cardinals' passing attack. The 49ers spent a lot of money in the offseason to sign cornerback Nate Clements. The coverage should be better than it's been in a long time for the 49ers, but they still must find a way to put pressure on Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart. With improved coverage, the 49ers might be inclined to put together a wide variety of blitzes designed at getting a few hits on Leinart. The 49ers did not get much pressure on the quarterback during the exhibition season. The club is hoping that outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain will win enough battles, and that defensive coordinator Greg Manusky can scheme well enough for the regular season in order to keep the pass rush from being a glaring weakness. Offensively, the 49ers expect to get Gore back. Gore is likely to be the focal point of opposing defenses, which should enable an improved Alex Smith to make some plays with a better receiving corps. Tight end Vernon Davis appears to be the 49ers' biggest offensive threat, but it bears watching to see how new receiver Darrell Jackson, the most accomplished offensive player on the team, fits into the system.

CARDINALS GAME PLAN: Much has been made this offseason of Whisenhunt's desire to build a strong running game. But he's not stupid. He knows the strength of this offense is at receiver, with Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Whisenhunt won't be afraid to throw, especially early. If the Cardinals have a lead in the second half, that's when they'll emphasize the run. On defense, the Cardinals must control Frank Gore, of course, with tight end Vernon Davis as the wild card. He missed most of last year with injury and can be a dynamic player. The 49ers receivers are questionable, but then so are the Cardinals cornerbacks.

--- 49ers OLB Tully Banta-Cain, who recorded a career-high 5.5 sacks with the Patriots last season but is expected to be the team's top sack artist, vs. Cardinals LT Mike Gandy, who started every game the past two seasons with the Bills but was moved to left guard for the final nine games last season.
--- 49ers RB Frank Gore, who led San Francisco with 1,695 yards, vs. the Cardinals run defense, which is making the transition to a 3-4 scheme this season. The Cardinals like to bring SS Adrian Wilson up near scrimmage as a run stopper. He has great speed and anticipation. But if and the Cardinals don't tackle well, Gore will have a huge day.
--- 49ers TE Vernon Davis, who has a chance for a breakout season, vs. the Cardinals defense, most likely some combination of safeties Terrence Holt and Adrian Wilson trying to cover him. Davis also will go against Cardinals OLB Calvin Pace, who will line up on the strong side most of the time, which puts him head up on Davis. It's a challenge for Pace, a backup forced into the lineup because of the injury to Chike Okeafor.
--- 49ers CBs Nate Clements and Walt Harris, who team up to give the 49ers their best cover men in years, vs. WRs Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, who combined for 2,149 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.



--- RB Frank Gore missed the exhibition season with a broken right hand, but he is expected to be 100 percent for the game. He is likely to wear a pad on his right hand.
--- NT Aubrayo Franklin missed the exhibition season with a partially torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He is expected to split action with backup Isaac Sopoaga.
--- WR Darrell Jackson missed the final exhibition game with a hamstring strain. He practiced this week and will be ready for the game.
--- S Dashon Goldson is expected to miss the first few weeks of the regular season with an injury to his right elbow.
--- CB Donald Strickland sustained a lung contusion in the 49ers' next-to-last exhibition game. He's probably for tonight's game

--- DT Ross Ross Kolodziej, a former 49er, is out with a knee injury.
--- DT Alan Branch, was hurt in practice this week and is out with a hand injury.
--- C Nick Leckey has a minor knee injury but practiced this week and will play tonight.



--- WR Anquan Boldin had his way against the 49ers the past two years. In two games in 2005, Boldin caught 19 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns. In the last four games, he has 27 catches for 398 yards and three touchdowns.
--- WR Larry Fitzgerald has enjoyed some huge games against San Francisco the past two years. Last year, he caught 13 passes for 226 yards a touchdown in two games. In 2005, he had 15 catches for 231 yards and a score.
--- SS Adrian Wilson was kept under wraps for much of the preseason. He barely played in the first two games and didn't do much in the third. Wilson is the defensive wild card, lining up at linebacker, against the slot receiver or back at safety. He often blitzes off the edge. The Cardinals are likely to do even more with him this year.
--- TE Leonard Pope's strength is receiving. But to show those talents, he's going to need to become a better blocker. The Cardinals would love to use him in the red zone, but Pope needs to become a legitimate blocking threat in order to keep defenders honest. If that happens, he can sometimes release and go to the end zone, perhaps getting a few steps on defenders.
--- QB Matt Leinart has worked on his footwork this off-season. Leinart was taking almost a false step as he dropped back to pass, causing his drops to shorten by a yard or two. He has to concentrate to avoid the problem and he's made great strides in the past few weeks.
--- K Neil Rackers has spent a considerable amount of time with holder Mike Barr over the past two weeks. Barr, the punter, has taken over both duties since joining the team after the recent release of punter Scott Player.

--- DE Atiyyah Ellison was signed to the 49ers' active roster after being on the Ravens' practice squad for two days. Ellison is not expected to get much playing time for a while, as he is listed as the No. 3 left defensive end.
--- RB Frank Gore is not even on the team's injury report, as he returned to full practice this week. Gore did not play in the exhibition season due to a broken right hand. Although the hand will be padded for the game Monday night, coach Mike Nolan said it will not prevent them from using Gore the way they plan to use him this season.
--- WR Darrell Jackson is practicing at full strength after being held out of a week's practices because of a slight hamstring strain. Jackson said he was held out of the game as a precaution and that he'll be ready to play against the Cardinals.
--- LT Patrick Estes was released to make room for DE Atiyyah Ellison on the 53-man roster. Estes, a seventh-round pick in the 2005 draft, showed a lot of promise and coach Mike Nolan said it was a difficult decision to part ways with him. He said Estes could end up on the 49ers again at a later date.
--- LB Patrick Willis makes the start in his first NFL game. Willis led the team with 32 tackles in the four exhibition games.
--- NT Aubrayo Franklin did not play any in the exhibition season after sustaining a partially torn left MCL in early August. He is expected to start tonight, with backup Isaac Sopoaga getting a lot of playing time, too.

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