First and foremost, congratulations to Adrian Wilson on his Pro Bowl selection. Wilson has long been one of the most versatile and dynamic safeties in the NFC, but until this season, had yet to be recognized for it. They say that you first get voted into the Pro Bowl two years after you should and still get voted into the Pro Bowl two years after you shouldn't. Here's hoping that this is the first of many invitations to Hawaii for Wilson.
Wilson will be playing close to the line as an eighth defender in the box, ostensibly to slow down Frank Gore and San Francisco's suddenly potent rushing attack. This means that Robert Griffith will need to play the role of hero, covering the deep middle of the field. The 49ers like to throw deep, so Griffith will have a busy day. His effectiveness in covering the deep half of the field in the passing game will go a long way in determining who wins this game.
From a talent standpoint, Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle aren't in the same league as Antrel Rolle and David Macklin (and/or Eric Green, if the Cardinals ever decide who their starting left cornerback is). However, with the system the 49ers run, the Cardinals are likely to find themselves losing more often than they win in pass defense.
Bryant and Battle will be very active in the deep passing game, since that is where the Cardinals pass defense is most vulnerable and it's also where the 49ers are most effective. With the front seven and Wilson crowding the line of scrimmage, San Francisco will attempt to go over the top in the passing game, using double moves, out-and-ups, fades, and fly patterns to take advantage of Arizona's overly aggressive cornerbacks. When they're not carving the Cardinals up deep, the 49ers will focus their attention on getting rookie tight end Vernon Davis the ball in the short-to-intermediate middle area of the field. Davis has been injured for much of the season, but is definitely the most talented receiver the 49ers have. He has started to show glimpses of his enormous potential in the last few games and he should do well on Sunday with Griffith playing deep and everyone else playing close to the line (that, as you can imagine, will create a gigantic hole in the middle of the field).
I'd like to say that there's a way around this, that there's some strategy to employ to prevent the 49ers to move up and down the filed with ease, but it's simply a bad match-up for the Cardinals defense vs. the 49ers offense.
It doesn't get any better here. Arizona has had modest success versus the run this year against some of the better running backs in the league. However, the defensive line is much better at holding up blockers for the linebackers than they are at actually penetrating into the backfield. They have struggled when facing a team that attacks the line of scrimmage and gets a good push off the ball. With the offseaon addition of Larry Allen, San Francisco's line seems to have found its identity as a very physical unit that simply tries to out-muscle their opponents. They have had considerable success against smaller defensive lines and have been able to really just shove lines like that out of the way the last few weeks.
Kendrick Clancy, Darnell Dockett, and especially Chike Okeafor and Antonio Smith are simply going to be overmatched going against this offensive line in the running game. In order to be effective, they need to make sure stay in their rush lanes and simply get in the way of the offensive line, holding at the point of attack long enough for Gerald Hayes (if he plays) and Wilson to get to Frank Gore before he explodes into the second level.
In the passing game, the outlook is much rosier. While San Francisco's offensive line seems to have found its identity in the running game, they still struggle in pass protection. Okeafor, Smith, and Karlos Dansby all have the potential for big games against the lead-footed brutes along San Francisco's front five. If the line is able to pressure Alex Smith and force him to get rid of the ball early, that will help the Cardinals tremendously in the passing game. The 49ers run a lot of passing plays that take a long time to develop. If Alex Smith is able to sit back and comfortably set and throw in the pocket, it's going to be a long day.
Hate to sound like a broken record, but the 49ers will be able to run all day with Frank Gore, Maurice Hicks, and Michael Robinson if the Hayes, Dansby, and Orlando Huff are unable to fill the running lanes and make sure they tackle the ball carrier when they get a clear shot. This has pretty much been the game plan and the responsibility of the linebackers for the last few weeks, but the fact that I seem to be repeating myself doesn't diminish how important they are to a successful day on defense for Arizona.
If the linebackers are able to blitz effectively, cover more territory in the middle of the field than they are probably capable of covering, penetrate into their lanes, and wrap up the ball carrier, Arizona can shut the 49ers down.
I just don't think they have it in them.
I understand that the 49ers are 24th in the league on offense. I understand that Alex Smith and Frank Gore are second year players that haven't done much in the NFL. I'm not saying that they're an offensive juggernaut like the Saints or the Colts. They do, however, have an offensive scheme that takes advantage of pretty much every weakness the Cardinals have on defense.
In order to stop San Francisco's offense, the Cardinals need Griffith to play well in his hero role, the defensive line needs to not get abused at the point of attack, the cornerbacks need to keep from having any mental lapses or giving up any big plays (which they've been prone to all year), and, above all, they need to be able to pressure Alex Smith with no more than 5 defenders. All of those things can happen, but I'll settle for a good game from the defensive line.
If the line can hold their own in the running game and pressure Smith in the passing game, the Cardinals will come out on the winning end of this match-up. If they can't, they won't.
The wild card in all of this is big plays and turnovers. Since this is a battle between two offenses and two defenses in the bottom third of the league, something's gotta give. And, since Arizona has forced a lot of turnovers and given up a lot of big plays, we should expect more in this game. Gore has a fumbling problem. Smith, like all young quarterbacks, is prone to making mistakes (both fumbles and interceptions). And, the 49ers have what appears to be a plodding offense. But it is also an offense with the capability of being explosive. They'll get 3 yards, 5 yards, 2 yards, no gain, 4 yards, then suddenly break out for a 55 yard touchdown.
While big plays and turnovers are more difficult to control than anything else during the course of a game, the Cardinals need to force some turnovers on defense and make sure that they keep everything in front of them. The 49ers were able to beat Seattle twice this year by lulling the Seahawks defense to sleep with their plodding offense, then suddenly breaking a big play. Seattle let those few big plays deflate them (even at home). The Cardinals can't allow big plays to happen, but they will happen.
What they can control is how they react to the big plays the 49ers are bound to make in both the running game and the passing game.
But, at this late point in the season with nothing to play for, the defense is likely to fold up their tent and go home.