Cards' Struggle in Season Opener

Coming off a winless preseason, the Arizona Cardinals were expected to recapture the magic that led them to a Super Bowl berth a year ago. However, the Cardinals struggles continued in the regular season opener against the San Francisco 49ers in a 20-16 loss. Just one game into the 2009 campaign, is it time for Arizona to hit the panic button? Brad Wilbricht explains.

Although the Arizona Cardinals swept the season series from the San Francisco 49ers in 2008, both games came down the wire with Arizona coming out on top. In the second matchup between the two teams a year ago, San Francisco failed to score in the final moments from point blank range, giving the Cardinals the win. However, the 49ers capitalized on Arizona's mistake-filled afternoon on Sunday, pulling out the 20-16 victory in the process.

The main areas of concern for the Cardinals were an astounding 12 penalties and two turnovers. Arizona racked up 82 yards of penalty yardage as a result of costly errors on both sides of the ball. The two turnovers came on interceptions tossed by QB Kurt Warner whose lackluster performance was a major part of the Cardinals' inefficiencies on offense. Warner completed just 26-of-44 passes for 288 yards and one touchdown along with the two interceptions.

Anquan Boldin
(AP Photo)

While Arizona's usually potent aerial attack was stalled by the San Francisco defense, the Cardinals' running game looks to have made little progress from last season. The team accumulated just 40 yards on the ground with rookie RB Chris Wells leading the way with 29 yards on seven carries. RB Tim Hightower proved to be the biggest threat out of the backfield in a receiving role, reeling in 12 catches for 121 yards.

WR Steve Breaston was a late scratch and the Pro Bowl tandem of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin was unable to get on track for the majority of the game. Fitzgerald compiled six grabs for 71 yards and a score but was shut out until late in the first half. Meanwhile, Boldin was limited to only two catches for 19 yards after he was cleared to play as a game-time decision.

On defense, Arizona demonstrated the similar aggressive style from last season despite new coordinator Bill Davis taking over. The Cardinals held the 49ers to just 203 yards of total offense, including a mere 21 yards on the ground. Furthermore, one the Arizona's main points of emphasis during the offseason was improving the team's pass rush. They've accomplished that goal thus far following four sacks of San Francisco QB Shaun Hill.

Despite the four sacks and being under constant duress throughout most of the game, Hill completed 18-of-31 passes for 209 yard and a touchdown. He maintained a QB rating of 89.3 and his steady play helped manage the game down the stretch for the 49ers' offense. Hill connected with RB Frank Gore on a 3-yard touchdown pass with 7:26 remaining which put San Francisco on top for good.

Isaac Bruce
(AP Photo)

With rookie WR Michael Crabtree still a holdout, the 49ers' receiving corps didn't miss a beat. Veteran wideout Isaac Bruce led San Francisco with four receptions for 74 yards and TE Vernon Davis hauled in five passes for 40 yards. Gore has given the Cardinals' defense fits in the past but managed only 30 yards rushing on 22 carries.

In addition to Arizona's defensive performance, special teams was another area the Cardinals excelled. Kicker Neil Rackers connected on all three of his field goal attempts and his lone extra point. Punter Ben Graham punted six times in the game averaging nearly 55 yards per boot. Additionally, the team's kick coverage looked vastly improved from a year ago and both LaRod Stephens-Howling and Antrel Rolle were adequate in the return game.

While the Super Bowl hangover is certainly understandable for Arizona, the team has already experienced the ramifications of an improved NFC West division. The Cardinals will square off against non-divisional opponents for the next three contests, starting with a road game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Arizona then returns home for a Sunday night matchup against the Indianapolis Colts and hosts the Houston Texans following a bye in Week 4.

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