It's that time of the year again, when NFC West rivals start going head-to-head.
Sunday's game at University of Phoenix Stadium will be the division opener for both the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers. Both teams have been decimated by injuries and suspensions but are out to prove that their stock in the West is rising. This matchup hasn't quite been the rivalry Arizona wants it to be, with the 49ers winning nine of the past 10. But all it takes is one game to swing the momentum.
ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss and 49ers reporter Paul Gutierrez discussed Sunday's game.
Weinfuss: What did the Chicago loss do for the 49ers' psyche, especially coming so early in the season and after that win over Dallas?
Gutierrez: Publicly, the Niners say every loss hurts, that this one is no different from any other. And yet, this one would seem to sting a little more, especially with how it went down. The 49ers, under Jim Harbaugh, have been known to never really let an opponent rally after taking a lead, especially a big lead. But the Niners blew advantages of 17-0 and 20-7 in eventually losing 28-20, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick melted down with three interceptions and a lost fumble. So, yeah, this one was different. The key, then, is seeing how they respond in Arizona, especially in such a key early-season divisional matchup against an opponent not named the Seattle Seahawks.
That being said, they do have to prepare for the possibility of facing two different quarterbacks. So what are the big differences between the grizzled vet Carson Palmer and career backup Drew Stanton?
Weinfuss: There aren’t many major differences between the two. Palmer is 6-foot-5; Stanton is 6-3. Both are considered pocket passers but Stanton is better on the move than Palmer. He’s four years younger and it shows in his athleticism -- which I also think is more of a natural gift compared to Palmer’s. When you get deeper into the pair, it’s easy to see how much more comfortable Palmer is in the offense. He knows where guys will be -- even if he’s not making his progressions as he should -- whereas Stanton, who’s been embedded with Bruce Arians’ scheme for three years now, is learning the nuances that come with actually playing in the offense. Stanton held on to the ball a little more last weekend against New York because his familiarity and timing with his receivers just isn’t there like it is for Palmer.
Gutierrez: In a word -- very! How can it not be? Besides being without Smith, who is two games into his nine-game, NFL-mandated suspension, and Bowman, who is on the PUP list recovering from that devastating left knee injury suffered in the NFC title game, the Niners are also missing starting nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, on the IR/designated to return list with a biceps injury. And the situation for defensive lineman Ray McDonald, arrested on suspicion of domestic violence on Aug. 31 but allowed to play as the investigation goes on, can change at any moment. The Niners have only four sacks through two games and they need to generate more pressure, otherwise a rebuilt secondary -- three new starters with one, Tramaine Brock, sidelined with a sprained toe -- will pay the price in coverage.
Speaking of coverage, but on the other side, why has Patrick Peterson seemingly been on the wrong end of things when it comes to matching up with Michael Crabtree, who has caught 41 passes (his most against any opponent) for 618 yards and six TDs against the Cardinals?
Weinfuss: Before we begin debating how good Peterson is or isn’t because he hasn’t played like the elite player he’s supposed to be this season, let’s point out that Crabtree had 456 of those yards from 2011 to 2013, and in 2013 against Arizona he had just three receptions for 29 yards. Let’s break it down even more. In 2012, when Crabtree had a career-high 1,105 yards, it was in large part because the Niners’ offense was playing well and he was the primary option when he went off for 244 yards in two games against Arizona. Let’s go another level deeper. He had 18 catches on the right side from 2011 to 2013 compared to 12 on the left, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Peterson split his time almost evenly between the two sides so a very strong explanation for why Crabtree has torched the Cardinals is that if Peterson was covering him, Peterson tends to rely on his athleticism more than his skills, especially against top-tier talent.
Having won nine of their past 10 against the Cardinals, do the Niners consider this a rivalry? If not, how many wins by the Cardinals would San Francisco need to consider Arizona a bona fide rival?
Gutierrez: Not really. Sure, they respect them -- publicly. But the Niners’ big rival resides in the Pacific Northwest, rather than the Southwest desert. No disrespect, but the Seahawks have been where the Niners have, and want to go back. The Cardinals starting out 2-0 might actually work against them as the 49ers will have to take them as a viable threat in the division and not sleepwalk through the game. I don’t know if there is a certain number that would make this a bona fide rivalry, where the players and fan bases have a genuine dislike for each other, besides the Cardinals winning a Super Bowl and talking trash with aplomb while dispatching the 49ers along the way. They are rivals, in a sense, simply because they have to be, being in the same division and all.
Niners rookie nickel cornerback Jimmie Ward had a baptism by fire last week with Brandon Marshall often lining up in the slot against him and beating him three times for TDs. I would expect the Cardinals to watch that tape and put Larry Fitzgerald, another big, physical wideout, in there to test out Ward. What say you?
Weinfuss: I say the Cardinals will do it. And I’m sure Fitzgerald is ready for the matchup. He was more productive from wide outside last season than he was from the slot but he’s spending more time inside than he has in his career. He’d be a fine test for Ward -- probably even more so than Marshall -- because of Fitzgerald’s skill set, which, despite his speed slowing with age, hasn't started to dwindle yet. Fitzgerald would teach Ward a thing or two about how a receiver uses his body to shield defenders from the ball. He’d also teach Ward about covering a receiver with impeccable hands. Fitzgerald has 20 drops in his career and one in each of the past three seasons. It could be one heckuva education for Ward.