Cardinals host the 49ers in a matchup between desperate NFC West foes
The San Francisco 49ers (1-6) and Arizona Cardinals (1-6) will square off for the second time in three weeks on Sunday afternoon. A Week 5 matchup between these two NFC West rivals resulted in a 28-18 victory in favor of the Cardinals. It stands as Arizona’s only win so far this season and marked the Cardinals seventh consecutive win against the 49ers dating back to 2014.
These two teams enter the Week 8 rematch with a lot in common. Most notably, the 49ers and Cardinals currently share the basement in the NFC West with just one win a piece. Both teams are also coming off their biggest defeat of the season. And both teams find themselves in desperation mode, making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
That is particularly true for the Arizona Cardinals, who have had quite the eventful week following their 45-10 dismantling at the hands of the Broncos in front of a national audience on Thursday Night Football. The Cardinals’ worst loss at home since 2003 turned out to be the final game for Mike McCoy as offensive coordinator. McCoy was promptly fired by head coach Steve Wilks on Friday and replaced by quarterback’s coach Byron Leftwich. And if that weren’t enough, star cornerback Patrick Peterson created quite the stir when reports began to surface that he had demanded a trade. Peterson has since changed his tune, publicly reaffirming his commitment to the Cardinals while also expressing his frustrations. Arizona will now attempt to get past the drama and bounce back against the rival 49ers at home.
Things have been slightly less dramatic for the snake-bitten 49ers. However, the adversity continues to pile up for Kyle Shanahan’s squad in the form of injuries and costly mistakes. The Niners lost their fifth game in a row in week 7, as San Francisco committed four turnovers, and quarterback C.J. Beathard was sacked seven times in a 39-10 drubbing at home against the Rams. The 49ers will now try to regroup in search of their first road win of the season and their first win at Arizona in five years.
San Francisco at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Oct. 28 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: 49ers -1
Three Things to Watch
1. The Arizona offense under new OC Byron Leftwich
You don’t often see an offensive coordinator fired before midseason. But when that offense ranks dead last in the NFL, and the team is averaging 13 points per game, it’s probably justified. Not only that, but it seems like a really tall order to make elite talents like David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald look mediocre, and Mike McCoy definitely succeeded in doing that. Thus, exit McCoy and enter Byron Leftwich.
While Leftwich lacks coaching experience, particularly at the coordinator level, the former NFL quarterback does know what it takes to make an offense work. Leftwich also served as an intern under former Arizona head coach Bruce Arians in 2016 when this offense ranked among the best in the league. Leftwich’s plan seems to be to revert to Arian’s model. When asked what he wanted to replicate from Arian’s offense, Leftwich’s response was, “Everything.”
That would suggest going back to the formula that helped transform Johnson into one of the NFL’s premier players in 2016. A formula that includes reasserting the versatile running back as an integral part of the passing game and calling plays that enable him to get into open space, where Johnson is at his best. Things rarely seen under Mike McCoy. Leftwich hopes to find ways to get Fitzgerald back to 2016 form as well.
That all sounds well and good. However, this isn’t 2016 and Leftwich has some major obstacles to overcome with the 2018 Cardinal offense. Chief among them — a struggling rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen and a suspect offensive line. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see what changes Leftwich has in store for this offense in his Week 8 debut. The new offensive coordinator may even prove to be just the spark the Cardinals need to get over the hump. His first test will come against a San Francisco defense that is giving up 31.1 points (31st in the NFL) and 371.7 (19th in the NFL) yards per game.
2. San Francisco run game vs. Arizona run defense
The Cardinals problems on offense have been well-documented. However, Arizona has a glaring weakness on the defensive side of the football as well — stopping the run. In fact, the Arizona run defense ranks last in the NFL, allowing 148.3 rushing yards per game. The Cardinals also have allowed the most rushing touchdowns in the league (12). That bodes well for the NFL’s second-best rush offense. The 49ers are averaging 137.4 rushing yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry.
It is looking more and more like 49ers’ leading-rusher Matt Breida will miss out on the favorable matchup. Breida has not practiced at all this week while nursing a lingering ankle injury. That said, Raheem Mostert has led the 49ers in rushing in each of their last two contests, while averaging more than six yards per carry. Mostert should be able to fill-in admirably for Breida. Alfred Morris, whose role in the San Francisco backfield has diminished significantly over the last couple of weeks, will likely be more involved this week as well. San Francisco rushed for 147 yards and a touchdown against the Cardinals' defense back in Week 5.
3. 49ers turnovers
The 49ers have plenty of issues, but it isn’t difficult to pinpoint their biggest problem — turnovers. They can’t stop giving the football to the other team, and they seem to have an equally difficult time taking it away. San Francisco has committed a league-high 18 turnovers so far this season, while a not-so-opportunistic 49er defense has generated a league-low three turnovers through seven games. For those that don’t feel like doing the math, that makes for a turnover margin of minus-15, the worst in the NFL. In the last three games alone, the 49ers have committed 12 turnovers, while their opponents have committed zero. One of those games was against these very Cardinals back on Oct. 7. San Francisco turned the ball over five times in that matchup en route to a 28-18 loss at home.
Since taking over the starting quarterback job in Week 4, Beathard has been responsible for 10 turnovers all his own. That doesn’t even include a pair of Beathard fumbles that the 49ers were lucky enough to get back. If you turn a blind eye to the numerous interceptions and fumbles on Beathard’s stat sheet, his numbers are actually fairly impressive. However, this team will never get anywhere if he continues to shoot himself, and the 49ers offense, in the foot. And the San Francisco defense isn’t helping by coming up empty in the turnover department on a weekly basis. Regardless of how bad the Cardinals may be at the moment; the 49ers will once again find themselves in the loss column if this trend continues into Week 8.
This is actually a really tough matchup to predict. If the 49ers can stay out of their own way and avoid the costly turnovers, they probably win this game. They have the better team right now, even with all the injuries. But that was also the case in Week 5, and the Cardinals still managed to beat the 49ers on the road. The Niners are the road team this time around, where they have not won a game inside State Farm Stadium (formerly University of Phoenix Stadium) since 2013. Arizona has had 10 days to rest up and prepare for this matchup as well. And new offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich might just be able to breathe a little life into the Cardinals offense. On top of that, the Niners have yet to prove that they can stay out of their own way. Arizona wins a close one in the desert.
Prediction: Cardinals 24, 49ers 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.