Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff Writer 23d

Defensive bounce back, especially in pass-rush, key for 49ers in Arizona

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers visit the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday as they look for their first win of the season. Kickoff is set for 1:05 p.m. PT at University of Phoenix Stadium.

Here are three things to watch from the Niners' perspective in this one:

A defensive bounce back, especially up front

On the heels of a short week, the Niners defense struggled mightily against the Rams last week. Though they didn't want to make any excuses for allowing the Rams to hang 41 points on them, the 49ers looked forward to having a little extra time off before this week's game against Arizona. In order to win in the desert, they'll need a defensive bounce back, particularly from the front four.

In addition to the extra rest, the 49ers could also benefit from an Arizona offensive line that has struggled to pass protect. San Francisco's defensive line hasn't generated much pressure thus far, except in Week 2 against Seattle. On paper at least, this game looks similar to that one, with the Cardinals' front five bearing a resemblance to the porous unit the Seahawks put forth.

Through three games, the Cardinals rank 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game (59) and yards per rush (2.77). Quarterback Carson Palmer has been sacked 11 times (third-most in the NFL) and been pressured on 31.3 percent of his dropbacks, tied for the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.

The 49ers haven't blitzed much under coordinator Robert Saleh, preferring to lean on their front to create pressure. Saleh said this week that he and his coaching staff will explore any way possible to get after Palmer.

"That will never change for me," Saleh said. "I think we blitzed, I don't want to give a number. I don't have it on me. But I do know that we've tried blitzing on third down and have lost. We've tried rushing three and we've lost. We've tried rushing four and we haven't had success.

"So we're digging. We're digging. We're trying to find a way to give our guys a chance to be successful on third down. We had that first third down won. Again, it goes back to silly mistakes here and there. Unneeded penalties. Unneeded fundamental flaws. Every week represents a different challenge. So blitzing is not necessarily the answer."

Chances are, the Niners will look to their front to get after Palmer. It should also help that Palmer isn't as mobile as guys like Seattle's Russell Wilson, which should offer more chances to get home for sacks.

One other thing to watch in this regard: how the Niners fare on first and second down. They were excellent at keeping offenses behind the chains the first couple of weeks but couldn't repeat that performance against the Rams. Getting the Cardinals into second- and third-and-long situations will be paramount in creating opportunities to get after Palmer, regardless of method.

Big-play redux

Brian Hoyer & Co. simply couldn't generate much offense in the first two games but finally had a breakthrough against the Rams. It was no coincidence that said breakout came in the same week in which the Niners passing game finally found some success pushing the ball down the field.

In the first two games, Hoyer was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws traveling at least 15 yards in the air. Aware of that, the Rams basically dared Hoyer to beat them down the field, even sitting on underneath routes early in the game (one of which resulted in an interception on the game's first snap). But Hoyer and his receivers soon got on the same page and made a number of big plays. Against the Rams, Hoyer finished 7-of-9 for 227 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions on throws traveling at least 15 yards in the air.

The goal for Hoyer this week will be to continue to hit on those big plays and to establish them as a threat early in the game.

"You just want to go out there and execute plays," Hoyer said. "Whether it's a run play, pass play. Get a rhythm. Get that first, first down and get things going. Just like any week in the NFL, it’s always a challenge. Even watching the film from the Dallas game the other night, the score maybe wasn't what it turned out to be. [Dallas quarterback] Dak [Prescott] made two great plays getting out of the pocket and throwing the ball deep.

"That's basically 14 points right there. It's going to be a challenge, especially on the road. It always is. You've just got to go out and keep executing. Sometimes it goes great and you go right down on the field and score. Sometimes you've got to grind it out a little bit, get a feel for what they're doing and go and attack what they're doing."

As Hoyer pointed out, the Cowboys were able to find some success down the field and those opportunities should be there for the 49ers against the Cardinals. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals have allowed opponents to complete 12 of 18 passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield. That 66.7 percent completion rate on such plays is tied for fourth-worst in the NFL so far this season.

Finagling Fitzgerald

Saleh has never worked with Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald but has admired him from afar.

"From everything I gather, he's the definition of professional in terms of his approach to the game, his work ethic, the way he approaches practice, studies film, takes care of his body, mentors the younger guys," Saleh said. "Everything I've heard about Larry Fitzgerald is so much more than what he does on the football field. It's my opinion, my belief, my whole philosophy that what he is on the football field is because of what he is as a man off of the football field. It all translates, it all ties in together. Everything I've heard about Larry just shows up on the football field because of who he is."

It's especially translated against the Niners. In 26 career games against San Francisco, Fitzgerald has 2,067 receiving yards and 16 receiving touchdowns, both of which represent the highest total by a player against the 49ers in league history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Fitzgerald's ability to line up all over the formation makes him particularly dangerous for a young Niners secondary. In order to slow him down, they'll need that aforementioned pass rush to get to Palmer. Don't be surprised if they look to roll extra help in his direction.

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