The Arizona Cardinals and the San Francisco 49ers are two NFC West teams trying to find their way, but on different routes and separate timelines. The youthful Cardinals are in a full-on rebuild mode with a new head coach in Steve Wilks and a new franchise quarterback in Josh Rosen. The Cardinals aren’t worried so much about who they are now, but what they will be in the future.
On the other side of the road, the 49ers are losing ground. San Francisco had hoped to compete with the Los Angeles Rams for NFC West supremacy this season, but after losing Jimmy Garoppolo to a torn ACL two weeks ago, the Niners have looked marginal at best, especially on defense. The Garoppolo injury isn’t the only one affecting the team, as All-Pro tackle Joe Staley is likely out while cornerback Richard Sherman’s health is a toss-up.
While a division title is bordering on impossible this season, the 49ers still have a chance to compete for a playoff spot in what has been an underwhelming NFC thus far. How does head coach Kyle Shanahan turn it around? Well, playing the winless Cardinals twice in four weeks is a good place to start.
Arizona at San Francisco
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 7 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: San Francisco -4
Three Things to Watch
1. The Josh Rosen show
No one’s expecting much out of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018 and so far the desert birds are every bit as underwhelming as we all figured they would be. If there is one glimmer of positivity shining from Phoenix — well, Glendale, actually — it was last week's debut of Rosen.
Rosen, one of five quarterbacks taken in the first round of May’s draft (10th overall), is known for his outspoken tendencies, advanced intellect, and howitzer of an arm. The intellect and the arm were on full display in his debut against Seattle, while the mouth has let the game do the talking since Rosen showed up at training camp.
The rookie’s numbers last week won’t jump out at you (15-of-27, 180 yards, TD) but his pocket presence, poise and accuracy were something to behold for a 21-year-old getting his first start, especially in the fourth quarter where Rosen delivered a game-tying TD drive followed by what should have been a go-ahead field goal. Cardinal receivers didn’t help their young quarterback’s cause either with three first-half drops, two of which would have been sure-fire touchdowns.
Whether or not the Cardinals win many games (or any games, honestly) this season is almost a consolation prize to the development of their youthful core, starting with their franchise cornerstone in Rosen.
2. Beathard back under center
If you’re familiar with the name C.J. Beathard, I assume you’re from the great state of Iowa, or NFL TV rules forced the cruel and unusual punishment of a mid-season 49ers game upon your television last fall. If you’re unaware of the young Mr. Beathard, well, we’re learning together.
The 2017 third-round pick from Iowa was thrust into the starting quarterback position a season ago in the midst of what would turn out to be an 0-9 start for the Niners. In six games, Beathard threw four touchdowns, six interceptions, completed less than 55 percent of his passes and posted a 69.2 passer rating before Jimmy Garoppolo, after he was acquired via trade with New England, took over in Week 12.
With Garoppolo out for the rest of the season, head coach Kyle Shanahan turned the offensive reigns back over to Beathard last week against the Chargers, and the second-year signal-caller actually played pretty well, going 23-of-37 for 298 yards with two touchdowns and two picks against a highly touted pass rush.
This week the 49ers and their shuffled offensive line that has allowed 13 sacks in the first three games, take on another talented front seven that features Robert Nkemdiche and Chandler Jones bearing down on the edges, while cornerback Patrick Peterson figures to take away half of the field in the Cardinals’ secondary. With no Jerick McKinnon in the 49er backfield, Matt Breida and Alfred Morris listed as questionable, and only one true reliable receiver in tight end (and fellow Hawkeye) George Kittle, Beathard could have his hands full Sunday afternoon.
3. Paging David Johnson
Through the first four weeks of the season, there has been plenty to bring about melancholia if you’re a Cardinals fan: not winning being chief among them. (Note: If you’re disappointed that Sam Bradford isn’t going to pan out for $40-million, I’ve got some ocean front property in Kingman, Arizona, you’re gonna love!)
Second to being winless, the complete fall-off of Arizona's do-it-all running back has to be at the top of the list of anguish. So far in 2018, Johnson is struggling to fit into offensive coordinator Mike McCoy’s scheme, getting six fewer touches per contest (17) than in ’16 (23), and averaging a yard-and-a-half less per touch (4.2 vs. 5.7), underscored by a measly 3.3 yards per carry.
However, last week McCoy did a better job of utilizing Johnson by lining him up at wide receiver several times, and Johnson responded with 112 all-purpose yards (71 rushing, 41 receiving) and a touchdown run. According to head coach Steve Wilks, Johnson could see more time lined up in the slot, out wide, and in two-back formations with Chase Edmonds going forward.
A month ago the Cardinals' front office made it clear that they believed in Johnson bouncing back, signing him to a three-year deal worth $39 million with $30 million guaranteed. While that might seem like a bargain for a guy who amassed 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 total touchdowns just two seasons ago, it’s clear that Johnson hasn’t recovered from missing 15 games last season due to a dislocated wrist.
It’s certainly fair to say that even if Johnson were performing at 2016 levels, the Arizona offense would still be lousy. Frankly, it’s hard to be much worse. The team ranks dead last in total offense, points per game, total first downs, and time of possession, while ranking 31st in rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, and yards per play.
A fully capable Johnson is a fierce weapon for any offense, but for a unit that is so bad and a rookie quarterback now calling the shots, it’s imperative that Johnson find his mojo.
It’s hard to get a grasp for two teams that have one win and seven losses between them. It’s even harder to get a grasp on two teams that feature a lot of unknowns at the quarterback position. One quarterback is a rookie making his second start and the other... I literally thought was Ryan Fitzpatrick when I saw his NFL.com profile. My bad.
That said, I’ll take 49ers at home. Just don’t ask me why.
Prediction: 49ers 19, Cardinals 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.