For the third straight year the 49ers and Cardinals will kick off the NFL season as the NFC West rivals face each other on September 7th. Much was made of these teams matching up when the 49ers took quarterback Alex Smith number one overall in 2005 and Arizona selected his counterpart, Matt Leinart out of USC with the 10th pick in 2006. At the time it was thought that the two signal-callers would meet twice a year and give their fans and the NFL a few “battles for the ages.” This has yet to come to fruition however as both men will be carrying clipboards this Sunday when their squads meet at Candlestick Park. The last two seasons the 49ers have swept their neighbors to the southeast in what have been some well fought, grind it out games. In the two contests from 2007 the outcome was not decided until the final minutes with San Francisco winning both on an end-around touchdown from wide receiver Arnaz Battle and an end-zone fumble recovery by Tully Banta-Cain respectively.
Both teams will have somewhat of a different look this weekend when they square off as the 49ers have completely revamped their receiving corps, signing Isaac Bruce as well as the Cardinals third receiver the last few years in Bryant Johnson. Said Johnson of the match-up; “The thing you have to be careful about going into a situation like this is o.d.ing on your emotions. I’m here now. I’m not there anymore and I’m taking the approach (that) they’re an opponent now.”
On defense the Cardinals have moved last years interception leader, Antrel Rolle (5) to free safety this season and hope that he can pay dividends as he teams with strong safety Adrian Wilson who is making his return to the field after missing most of last season with a heel and calf injury. Arizona also lost linebacker Calvin Pace via free agency to the New York Jets however they signed pass rush specialist, DE Travis Laboy and linebacker Matt Stewart. Neither should equal what Pace brought to the team but they do add some depth on defense. The 49ers are returning 2007 Defensive Rookie of the Year (and some say should have been Rookie of the Year) linebacker Patrick Willis as well as outside linebacker Manny Lawson who saw last years campaign cut short due to an ACL injury after only two games. San Francisco also brought in free agent Takeo Spikes and claimed Ahmed Brooks off of waivers last week from the Cincinnati Bengals and suddenly what was a strong unit last season becomes what might be the teams best overall.
In last seasons opener the 49ers held Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin to seven receptions, 42 yards and one touchdown combined en route to a 20-17 victory at Candlestick. That should not happen again but you won’t see head coach Mike Nolan complaining if it does. Losing Bryant Johnson to the 49ers via free agency was a significant blow to the Cardinals offense with Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner admitting as much this week. ““We lose a lot,” admitted Warner. “Bryant was a great complement to our other two guys. He was very explosive and could give us the big play and stretch the field for us.” That said Arizona still has their two starters and the 49ers defensive backs have to be weary of that. Much of the success or lack thereof the secondary can expect in this area will hinge on the ability of their front seven to break through what is now a good Arizona offensive line and get in Warner’s face. The QB has proven that his game is negatively affected when his cage is rattled. Look for the Niners to attack him with multiple blitz schemes and stunts in an attempt to do so.
By his own standards Frank Gore did not have a good season in 2007. By the NFL’s standards he still managed to break the 1,000 yard rushing mark in what was one of the worst offenses in the league history. Arizona’s defense was very solid against the rush last season, surrendering less then 100 yards per game and finished as the ninth run defense in the league. Things appear to be going that direction again in 2008 as the team returns all starters from last year however injuries have beset this unit going into the opener. Gabe Watson is doubtful for the game and backup Alan Branch is ailing as well. Gore has always had good games on the ground when playing Arizona, evidenced by his 4.5 career YPC average against them. With the 49ers offensive line appearing to gel in the preseason after moving Joe Staley to left tackle and getting back right guard David Baas from a torn pectoral muscle, look for this battle to be won by San Francisco as Gore has another productive outing.
This could prove to be a significant deciding factor in who wins this game. San Francisco must protect their new starting quarterback and give him time to hit his receivers as it is what the Mike Martz offense is predicated on. Last season the 49ers in their abysmal offense surrendered 55 sacks, tied for most in the league while the Cardinals defense registered 36 against their opponents. Look for defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to attack the line all day in an attempt to get into O’Sullivan’s head who is making his first start at the NFL level. If the 49ers can manage to give him time however it could be a long day for the Arizona defense as Martz will continue to utilize a heavy mix of run and pass in trying to keep Adrian Wilson and company off balance.
San Francisco: For the first time in years the 49ers are beginning the regular season with a fully healthy squad. The only two players who were of any concern in this department were OLB Parys Haralson (shoulder) and NT Aubrayo Franklin (knee) took part in full practice on Thursday and TE Delanie Walker rested a sore calf but was expected to go through practice today. All three are expected to play this Sunday.
Arizona: The Cardinals injury report is not as yielding as the 49ers as Al Johnson or Alan Branch have practiced this week and Gabe Watson, Ben Patrick and Jermane Tuman have all been limited this week. Word is that Watson will not play and Branch who backs him up might be hobbled as well. Without Watson alone their front line takes a significant hit and even though Lyle Sendlein can fill in for Johnson at center he is not accustomed to starting.
As I stated in my initial season preview article I fully expect the 49ers to win on Sunday. 49ers: 20 Cardinals: 17