First place in the NFC West is on the line in the desert tonight.
Two divisional foes with excellent defenses will meet on Monday Night Football, when the Arizona Cardinals host the San Francisco 49ers tonight at 8:30pm EST on ESPN. Arizona got off to an excellent start at 4-0, but Ken Whisenhunt’s club has since dropped three in a row and needs a win at home. San Francisco stands at 5-2 and atop the NFC West, having won three of its last four games.
When the Arizona Cardinals have the ball:
The Arizona offense began the season with John Skelton at quarterback, but an early injury saw the Cardinals turn to Kevin Kolb. After a Kolb injury (ribs) two weeks ago, Skelton is back at signal caller. He has a pair of targets in Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts who have been very productive this season, but the Arizona offensive line must protect is quarterback. The Cardinals have allowed a league-high 35 sacks, and that must change versus the 49ers tonight. The running game received a boost last week from LaRod Stephens-Howling (104 yards and a score), Arizona’s first 100-yard rushing effort since last season.
The San Francisco defense ranks No. 1 in the league, allowing only 272.3 yards per game. The 49ers have been solid against the run (10th in the NFL), but they have been especially stingy versus the pass (giving up a league-best 173.4 yards per contest). That says a lot for the Niners coverage ability, given the fact that they have totaled only 11 sacks on the season. San Francisco will be tested in that area tonight, as the Fitzgerald-Roberts combo has already produced 848 yards and eight touchdowns this year.
When the San Francisco 49ers have the ball:
The 49ers offense is known for its physical running attack, which ranks second in the league with 176.6 rushing yards per game. Top runner Frank Gore compiled a season-high 131 yards on the ground last week against Seattle, as well as totaling a season-best 51 receiving yards. Quarterback Alex Smith played very well in the first five games with eight touchdown passes and only one interception, but he has struggled in the last two contests with one scoring pass and four picks. San Francisco will need him to play better tonight while protecting the ball.
The Arizona defense has been solid as well this season, ranking seventh in the NFL with 312.1 yards allowed per game. The Cardinals have been excellent against the pass, keyed by 22 sacks and 15 takeaways on the year. That will need to continue tonight against the Niners, who do not tend to give the ball away. Arizona has been susceptible to giving up rushing yards, and the defense must play well in that area versus the powerful San Francisco offensive line and Gore.
The Cardinals have lost eight of their last nine games on Monday Night Football, but they have won three of four contests at home this season. It will be critical for Arizona to keep it close early and not become one-dimensional on offense. The 49ers may not have high sack numbers this season, but their defense could change that fact against a Cards team that allows way too much pressure against its quarterbacks. Look for the Niners to play their usual brand of physical football and stay atop the NFC West.
49ers 23 Cardinals 16
---By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)