Remember when the Arizona Cardinals were 4-0 to start the 2012 season and some pundits (yes, yours truly included) wondered if they could be a surprise Super Bowl entrant?
Yeah, us neither.
Since that hot start, the Cards have lost three straight games, franchise quarterback Kevin Kolb is injured (again), John Skelton has replaced him (again), and people around the NFL are wondering if someone can sneak Larry Fitzgerald out of Glendale to a city with a functional offense (again). A surprising and aggressive defense is worth the price of admission, but as it's been since Kurt Warner retired, that offense is tough to watch.
Meanwhile, the San Francisco 49ers are playing to type -- as they did last season when they went 13-3 and came a few fumbles away from the Super Bowl, they've built their new-look franchise around the concepts brought from Stanford by head coach Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. Start with a sound, punishing defense, add in the most multiple running game in the NFL, and give your quarterback just enough rope. It's a paradigm that many "tough" teams would like to adopt (hello, New York Jets), but few have the personnel and coaching to make it stick.
The 49ers do, and the Cardinals could walk out of Monday night's game at University of Phoenix Stadium with a series of major headaches -- literally and figuratively.
When the Cardinals have the ball
I really liked Mississippi tackle Bobby Massie as a 2012 draft prospect, but I had some doubts about his ability to kick outside in pass protection -- over time, I thought he'd be an ideal right tackle in a power offense. Whatever Arizona's offense claims to be these days, Massie is far from ideal in it -- he's been a virtual turnstile against every pass rusher the Cardinals have faced. Admittedly, it's not all his fault -- if left tackle Levi Brown was healthy, Massie would probably be a reserve/swing tackle, and current right tackle D'Anthony Batiste would be on the right side.
Masse has faced a lot of good pass rushers in his seven NFL games, but he's never seen anything quite like what the 49ers unleash on the defensive left side with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. Not only are the two Smiths able to straight-out beat offensive lines with pure power, there's also no duo in the game today better at the end-tackle stunt -- this is where Justin will hold the point and engage up to three blockers, while Aldon loops inside to cause instant quarterback destruction. If the Cards want to keep Skelton alive through this game, they'd best keep extra blockers on that side. Per Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate metric, Massie, Batiste, and the rest of Arizona's offensive line are allowing QB takedowns to a truly alarming degree -- 11.6 percent of all pass plays through Week 7.
Skelton is a big, slightly logey, quarterback with a good arm and some toughness (think of a less-talented Joe Flacco), and aside from the always-great Fitzgerald, we've seen Andre Roberts emerge as a decent target -- he actually has more touchdowns (five) than Fitzgerald (three). The running game is a less-defined issue -- Ryan Williams is out for the year with a knee injury, and Beanie Wells won't return from a toe injury until at least Week 12, which leaves La'Rod Stephens-Howling as the main man in the backfield. San Francisco's defensive line isn't as stout as you might imagine, averaging some middle-of-the-pack numbers this season -- but Arizona really isn't set up to exploit that.
When the 49ers have the ball
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of San Francisco's current success pattern is a running game that alternates between confusing opposing defense and just beating the daylights out of them. Two Thursdays ago, Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter ripped up the Seattle Seahawks' usually impressive front seven with a confounding combination of traps, whams, counters, and just about every other power concept under the sun. While Arizona's front seven is active in the pass rush and athletic enough to chase people down, there isn't really an elite hole-plugger in the Brandon Mebane or B.J. Raji sense.
Against Seattle, center Jonathan Goodwin and left guard Mike Iupati drove Mebane back with devastating double-team and combo blocks. Darnell Docket and Calais Campbell are Arizona's primary threats to that run game, but both are speed players who rely on power as secondary issues. If San Francisco's line can keep Dockett in check, expect Arizona's linebackers to be very, very busy cleaning up those messes.
Where the Cardinals excel on defense is in the pass rush, and defensive coordinator Ray Horton has done an absolutely unbelievable job coaching his guys up. Horton calls all kinds of blitzes from every position imaginable -- three linebackers straight up the A-gaps, jailbreaks with defensive backs to either side -- and Horton's players are effective enough to rank first in FO's Defensive Adjusted Sack Rate metric.
This is where the 49ers could be vulnerable. As he proved in Week 6 when the New York Giants took him apart, quarterback Alex Smith does not do well when asked to process multiple reads, nor is he particularly effective when throwing under pressure. Smith is an effectively mobile quarterback in designed plays, and he can read half a field well enough, but he does not possess the full palette required of the game's truly great signal-callers. You can bet that Harbaugh will want to counter that by running the football right down Arizona's throats -- and if this turns into a pure smashmouth battle, the 49ers have the horses to turn this into a rout.
We're assuming the 49ers will do just that.
Prediction: 49ers 27, Cardinals 13
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