49ers: NFC West race much tougher in 2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals will not be coasting to another NFC West title this season.

They're much more likely to take an 0-3 record into their bye week based on what they showed during a Week 1 defeat at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Also obvious Sunday: The San Francisco 49ers will not be giving away games the way they did when former offensive coordinator Mike Martz was trying to run a Formula 1 offense with personnel better suited for a tractor pull.

The 49ers' 20-16 victory served notice of that while providing clear evidence that the NFC West race will feature more than one team this season.

"We think so," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "I think the big thing going back from last year to this year is just playing smart football, not turning the ball over. I think that is what killed us last year. It's all a snowball effect, for sure."

The 49ers have played the Cardinals tough in the past. Defensive end Justin Smith, outside linebacker Parys Haralson and Nate Clements have given Arizona's offense problems. They did so again Sunday. This time, the 49ers played to their run-oriented strengths on offense. And when they needed to pass the ball, Shaun Hill and the short passing game responded. There was nothing fancy most of the time.

The game-winning touchdown drive spanned 15 plays -- 13 of them passes -- while covering 80 yards and using more than 7 minutes of the fourth quarter. Trailing 16-13, Martz successor Jimmy Raye stuck with conservative personnel groupings featuring two backs or two tight ends or both. This was precisely the approach Mike Singletary sought when he fired Martz and sought a replacement. No more watching J.T. O'Sullivan take seven-step drops before taking sacks or throwing into coverage deep downfield.

Hill worked the ball to tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Isaac Bruce as the 49ers converted four times on third down during that drive alone. The Cardinals had four third-down conversions all game.

"[Singletary] has set an identity for us and he has done a terrific job of that, keeping us together and keeping us poised and confident," said Smith, who ended the Cardinals' final drive with a sack. "The biggest thing to me personally is, it's a division opponent and you have to beat division opponents if you want a shot later in the year."

Whisenhunt issues threats

The gap between the Cardinals and 49ers in football IQ was striking.

The 49ers committed four penalties for 31 yards. The Cardinals committed 12 for 82.

"Guys who are going to have penalties are not going to play," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

The edict sounded good, but there's a problem. Whisenhunt can't afford to bench starting left tackle Mike Gandy (false start, holding). He cannot afford to bench strong safety Adrian Wilson (offsides, unnecessary roughness). He cannot afford to bench Darnell Dockett (two offsides). He cannot afford to bench Kurt Warner (delay of game).

Benching the other offenders -- rookie Rashad Johnson, backup tight end Anthony Becht, special-teamer Ali Highsmith and tight end Stephen Spach -- isn't going to accomplish much.

At their worst, the Cardinals are simply undisciplined. They have a hard time focusing game to game.

That must change for the Cardinals to disprove perceptions of them as a 9-7 team that feasted on a poor division and got hot at the right time last season.

49ers stand by pass rush

Haralson and the 49ers pressured Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner somewhat consistently. Both Arizona tackles had problems in protection. Warner seemed to hold the ball too long a few times while the 49ers continued to play the Cardinals' receivers better than anyone.

The knock on the 49ers all preseason was that they couldn't mount a pass rush. They sacked Warner three times and hit him eight times, including four times by Haralson.

"We sit back and play vanilla in the preseason, that is just how it is going to look," Spikes said.

Even 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky lamented his pass rushers' failure in preseason to win individual matchups.

"The coaches have got to stay political during the preseason and say what they've got to say," Smith said, "but they would come talk to us and be like, 'We believe in you guys and know you can get it done.' We have a good solid group."

Wilson blew the coverage

The Cardinals' best players weren't nearly good enough.

Warner tossed two interceptions. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin didn't catch a pass until midway through the second quarter.

And Wilson, a team captain, blew the coverage on Frank Gore's winning touchdown reception.

The Cardinals had lost dime safety Matt Ware to injury earlier in the drive. Without Ware, the Cardinals stayed in their nickel package when they usually would have played dime. Wilson blitzed off the right side of the defense when he should have played coverage on Gore.

"Ralph [Brown] ended up coming into the game and I didn't know that he was playing the nickel at the time," Wilson said. "That's a blown coverage on my part. I take full responsibility."

Hope for Cards' run game

Cardinals first-round choice Beanie Wells struggled early in the game. Warner was hit for a loss when he turned to hand off the ball and Wells wasn't in position for what should have been his first NFL carry.

There were also times when Wells appeared fully capable of breaking the long runs Whisenhunt has sought.

Wells carried for 15 and 8 yards on consecutive plays in the third quarter. Starter Tim Hightower caught 12 passes for 121 yards as the 49ers took away Fitzgerald and Boldin, but Wells can provide a needed big-play threat in the running game. I think he'll be starting before long.