MNF Preview: Cards' uphill battle vs. 49ers

Arizona's Daryl Washington (58) will be eying 49ers QB Alex Smith (11) to add to his sack list. Jeff Lewis/Icon SMI

The Arizona Cardinals might have won a championship or two by now if coach Ken Whisenhunt could have brought the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense with him to the desert in 2007.

They came close anyway with Kurt Warner threading passes to Larry Fitzgerald a few years back. But without defensive stopping power, they watched Whisenhunt's former pupil, Ben Roethlisberger, lead the winning touchdown drive against them in Super Bowl XLIII.

Whisenhunt, six years removed from his days as the Steelers' offensive coordinator, finally has a defense that would make even Pittsburgh proud. But with an offense rivaling Jacksonville's for NFL-worst status, the Cardinals are losing ground fast heading into their "Monday Night Football" matchup against the San Francisco 49ers.

They've gone from 4-0 to 4-3 and taken 29 sacks in their last four games.

With road trips to Green Bay and Atlanta next on the schedule, this game against the 5-2 49ers looks like a fight for survival. Of course, so is every other game between NFC West teams. Although Whisenhunt couldn't bring the Steelers' defense with him from Pittsburgh, sometimes it seems like he brought the old AFC North.

"This division is becoming a lot like that division -- smash-mouth, defensive," Whisenhunt said, "and these division games become brawls."

The nation has seen two of these already. The Cardinals and St. Louis Rams combined for 20 points in a Thursday-night game Oct. 4. Kevin Kolb took nine sacks and was bleeding from the mouth when that one ended. Last week, Seattle and San Francisco combined for 19 points and more yards rushing (311) than passing (253) in another prime-time street fight.

So it goes in the West.

Calais Campbell, the Cardinals' usually dominant defensive end, declared his hatred for the 49ers earlier in the week. High-profile players from both teams have called out one another over the years. But the Cardinals haven't had much to talk about in the rivalry.

The 49ers had a five-game winning streak in the series before Arizona shocked them, 21-19, when San Francisco was 10-2 last season. That game marked the first time since the 2009 opener that Arizona scored more than nine points in a game against the 49ers. The previous five scores: 23-7, 38-7, 27-6, 24-9 and 20-16.

We should expect a lower-scoring game from both teams this time. The Cardinals remain the only NFL team to limit the opponent to 21 or fewer points in every game this season (Seattle was the other until its 24-23 victory over New England two weeks ago).

The 49ers opened as four-point betting favorites. The line jumped to seven as money flowed toward San Francisco. The sentiment is understandable.

Arizona entered the season expecting its defense and ground game to lighten the load for its quarterbacks. But injuries claimed top running backs Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, and the ground game hasn't provided enough cover. Injuries at offensive tackle have destabilized an already tenuous situation at that position.

Quarterback John Skelton, injured in Week 1 and back in the lineup after Kolb's latest injury, is riding an NFL-long streak of 10 consecutive games with an interception.

Opponents have hit Cardinals running backs behind the line of scrimmage on 21.3 percent of rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That is the second-highest rate in the NFL. The rate is a league-high 30.2 percent (minimum 40 carries) for LaRod Stephens-Howling, who nonetheless carried 20 times for 104 yards against Minnesota last week.

Along comes a 49ers defense that has generally thrived despite getting less help from turnovers this season. San Francisco ranks second to Chicago in points per game allowed (14.3). The 49ers lead the NFL in fewest yards allowed per play (4.6), and the Cardinals' offense ranks 31st in yards per play (4.4).

The Cardinals' defense and special teams could be their best offense Monday night.

49ers quarterback Alex Smith has four picks in his last two games, one fewer than he threw all last season.

Ray Horton, the defensive coordinator Whisenhunt hired from the Steelers before last season, has unleashed frequent blitzes. He sent five or more pass-rushers after Smith on 51.2 percent of pass plays during the Cardinals' Week 14 victory over the 49ers last season. That was the fourth-highest rate of the season and well above the 29.3 percent rate when the teams faced each other three weeks earlier at Candlestick Park.

Smith completed only 8 of 19 passes for 86 yards with three sacks against the Cardinals' added pressure in Week 14. His numbers were about the same against standard pressure that day. The result was a season-low Total QBR score for Smith (7.7 out of 100; 50 is average). A finger injury has bothered Smith the last two games, although it's unclear how much.

Smith had been much more effective during the Week 11 meeting (71.9 QBR, 267 yards, two touchdowns) when the Cardinals sent pressure less frequently. Arizona's offense was particularly futile that day.

The Cardinals are holding opponents to a league-low 40.9 percent completion rate this season when Arizona rushes five or more defenders. Smith has a 69.5 percent completion rate with four touchdowns, one interception and an 80.4 QBR score against such pressure through seven games this season. But he has not faced the Cardinals.

One key Monday night could be whether inside linebacker Daryl Washington (six sacks) can avoid the 49ers' impressive interior linemen, led by left guard Mike Iupati, to disrupt the running game and pressure Smith up the middle.

The Cardinals could also use a lift from cornerback Patrick Peterson, who has yet to find the end zone after scoring four times on punt returns last season. Andy Lee, the 49ers' Pro Bowl punter, helped limit Peterson last season. He was recently named the NFC's special-teams player of the week after helping limit Seattle to the worst average starting field position for any team in a game this season.

"This is a huge game," Peterson said. "One, it's Monday night. Two, this game can pretty much solidify the leader in the division right now. ... Those guys are definitely where we want to be. Those guys are the NFC West champs. We want to get where they are."