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NFL Preview - San Francisco (0-0) at Arizona (0-0)
By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - An encore performance from the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals is a lot to ask for this season. Then again, so was last year's improbable run to the Super Bowl.
Arizona will open defense of its conference title on Sunday with a showdown against the NFC West-rival San Francisco 49ers at University of Phoenix Stadium.
The fumes have dispersed from the Cardinals' best season in team history that ended with a gut-wrenching loss to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII, but hopes are still high in the desert. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt is entering his third season with the Cardinals, who went a pedestrian 9-7 in the regular season last year and have won two of their last three season openers.
Whisenhunt has his supporting cast of players in quarterback Kurt Warner and Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but lost offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who accepted an offer to become the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. The Cardinals didn't do much this offseason to bolster their squad, but did re-sign two-time league MVP Warner to a new deal and swept Boldin's persistent need to be traded under the rug. Warner and the offense thrived under Haley, finishing second in the NFL with 311.1 passing yards per game, tied for second with 51 touchdowns and tied for third with 427 points scored.
The once-putrid Cardinals return many of their starters on defense, and that alone should give them hope of a repeat performance in an NFC West race that could be wide open once again. An influx of young talent, including running back and top draft pick Beanie Wells, has the franchise feeling confident but not complacent in repeating as conference champions.
San Francisco enters its first full season under head coach Mike Singletary, who proved last season in an interim role that it's either his way or the highway. Just ask tight end Vernon Davis, who was sent to the showers for extracurricular activities on the field in one game. Singletary's no-nonsense approach helped the 49ers gain some semblance and win four of their last five games. The team finished 2008 with a 7-9 record, and a 5-4 mark after Singletary was tabbed to succeed the fired Mike Nolan midway through last season.
The 49ers hope that late momentum will carry over into 2009, but the offseason didn't start so promising, with a quarterback controversy and top draft pick Michael Crabtree holding out. Shaun Hill beat out former top overall choice Alex Smith with a productive preseason and played in nine games last year, recording a 5-3 record as the starter with 2,046 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Smith, who was chosen with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, spent all of last year on injured reserve with a broken bone in his throwing shoulder. He is making some nice bank, however, as the backup.
Just like the Cardinals, San Francisco has a gleam of hope in the feeble NFC West as it goes in search of its first division title since the 2002 campaign, which is the last time fans by the Bay saw their team reach the playoffs. The 49ers have missed the playoffs six consecutive years and have alternated wins and losses over their past six season openers.
Running back Frank Gore, the only player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons, needs to have a successful year in order to keep pressure off Hill. Standout linebacker Patrick Willis must also do his part to keep the defense in games.
San Francisco has a 19-16 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals, but was swept in last year's home-and-home. The Niners were 23-13 home losers when the teams met in Week 1, and dropped a 29-24 decision in the return matchup in Arizona in Week 10. The 49ers earned a home-and-home sweep of their division rival in 2007, including a 37-31 overtime triumph at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals are 6-2 against the 49ers since 2005.
Whisenhunt is 2-2 against the 49ers as a head coach, while San Francisco's Singletary is 0-1 versus both Whisenhunt and the Cardinals as a head man.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
The quarterback position is still a question mark for the 49ers, although Hill (2,046 yards, 13 TD, 8 INT in '08) enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2008 and played in nine games. The former Maryland quarterback beat out Smith for the job over the summer and will try to improve on San Francisco's 13th-rated pass attack from a year ago. Smith did not see action in 2008 and will serve as a reliable backup. Veteran wide receiver Isaac Bruce (61 receptions, 7 TD) led the 49ers in receptions, yards and touchdowns last season, while Josh Morgan (20 receptions, 3 TD) is expected to also see a lot of time while Crabtree holds out. Morgan is in his second year, while tight end Davis (24 receptions, 2 TD) has gotten on Singletary's good side for the time being. Jason Hill (30 receptions, 2 TD) played well after Arnaz Battle missed the second half of the season with a foot injury. Battle (24 receptions) is healthy and willing to contribute to Singletary's offense.
Arizona will be ready for San Francisco's aerial assault, and has one of the top defensive backfields in the game. The Cardinals brought in cornerback Bryant McFadden (41 tackles, 2 INT) from Pittsburgh to start opposite side of talented young cover man Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (43 tackles), who led the squad with four interceptions last year. Offenses have quickly learned to try to stay away from his side. Defensive coordinator Billy Davis, who took over for the fired Clancy Pendergast, has two talented safeties in Antrel Rolle (89 tackles, 1 INT) and Adrian Wilson (75 tackles, 2 INT), with Wilson carrying a reputation as a big hitter. Rolle switched form cornerback to safety last season, while Wilson was also used in blitz packages and in the box to stop the run. With Gore in the 49ers' backfield, don't be surprised to see Wilson sneaking up from the secondary.
San Francisco will rely heavily on its ground attack led by Gore (1,036 rushing yards, 6 TD), who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his last three seasons. Gore, who suffered devastating knee injuries at the University of Miami, has emerged as one of the top backs in the league and is expected to be the leader of Singletary's offense. He also serves as a pass- catching threat out of the backfield. The 49ers, must not overwork Gore, though, because of his downhill running style injury history. The team drafted Glen Coffee out of Alabama to spell Gore at times for a ground attack that compiled just 99.9 yards per game last season. The offensive line has two solid tackles in Joe Staley and Adam Snyder, while Chilo Rachal started the team's last six games at right guard and showed improvement. The main goal is to avoid sacks, something the line hasn't been able to do over the previous two years.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett (49 tackles, 4 sacks) was a big reason for Arizona's improved defense during the playoffs, and proved he has exceptional quickness and strength by sacking Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger three times in the Super Bowl. Defensive end Antonio Smith left for Houston via free agency in the offseason, but the team feels it has a worthy replacement in Calais Campbell (29 tackles), who played in all 16 games last season. Nose tackle Bryan Robinson (20 tackles, 1 sack) must plug the gaps up front to contain Gore. Three starting linebackers are back in the fold, with leading tackler and inside stud Karlos Dansby (119 tackles, 4 sacks) getting slapped with the franchise tag for the second straight year. The Cardinals will use a 3-4 style of defense to utilize the tremendous speed of Dansby. Outside linebackers Chike Okeafor (60 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Bertrand Berry (22 tackles, 5 sacks) got to the quarterback the most last year, and the Cardinals expect the same this time around. Gerald Hayes (88 tackles, 0.5 sacks) and Clark Haggans (19 tackles, 1 sack) will start alongside Dansby and Okeafor.
WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL
Warner (4,583 passing yards, 30 TD, 14 INT) resurrected his career in 2008 and inked a new deal in the offseason after passing for more than 4,000 yards for the third time. The former supermarket stock boy benefited from a trip of talented wide receivers, none better than All-Pro wideout Fitzgerald (96 receptions, 1431 yards, 12 TD). His speed and hard-nosed approach to the game have transformed the former Pitt product into one of the best in the business, and he gets to face a mediocre 49ers' secondary on Sunday. Boldin (89 receptions, 1038 yards, 11 TD ) didn't get the trade or new contract he publicly requested, so now he has to suck it up and play. That spells doom for San Francisco, because the wideout recorded more than 1,000 yards receiving despite missing four games. The bulky Boldin, who switched agents in the offseason, doesn't have Haley to argue with anymore on the sidelines, either. Third receiver Steve Breaston (1006 receiving yards, 3 TD) enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2008 and hauled in 77 passes, 69 more than his rookie year in 2007. Youngster Early Doucet (14 receptions) is pegged for a promising season.
The 49ers allowed almost 220 passing yards a game last season because of a weak pass rush, and will be in for another aerial assault with Warner and his top three wideouts. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements (63 tackles, 2 INT) is the best defensive back on the team and will be busy with Boldin, Fitzgerald and Breaston. The same goes with cornerback Tarell Brown (30 tackles, 2 INT) and safety Michael Lewis (96 tackles). Brown will also serve as a slot back when the team uses a nickel defense. Lewis finished tied for second on the team in tackles last year. Dashon Goldson (21 tackles) is expected to start at free safety, while veteran cornerback Dre' Bly (62 tackles, 2 INT) will see time as a reserve. Bly is in his first season with the Niners after spending two years with Denver. Mark Roman (53 tackles) will battle for time at safety, while Shawntae Spencer is healthy after missing all of 2008 and will serve as the team's third defensive back.
Edgerrin James is now in Seattle, leaving full-time ball carrying duties for the Cardinals to second-year running back Tim Hightower. James was upset that Hightower (399 yards, 10 TD) garnered all the duties at the goal line last season, but Whisenhunt did what's best for the team and not a single player. Hightower wants to become an elite back in this league, but will be challenged by the rookie Wells, taken by the Cardinals with the 31st overall pick in April's draft who will see action immediately. Wells had a fine preseason for Arizona's running game that finished last in the league in 2008 with only 73.6 yards per contest. Mike Gandy and Levi Brown are bookend tackles on the line, with Gandy protecting Warner's blind side. Center Lyle Sendlein must be more aggressive this season against bigger and faster tackles, with starting guards Deuce Lutui and Reggie Wells aiding the cause. Arizona's front wall shouldn't have much to worry about, because the 49ers have no superstars on the defensive front. Pass protection, however, is the Cardinals' main goal. The Cardinals brought in offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges and released offensive lineman Elton Brown this week in a shift of reserves.
San Francisco finished in the middle of the pack against the run last year, allowing 106.8 yards on the ground, and shouldn't fret about Arizona's two young running backs. The 49ers will run out a 3-4 defense with ends Justin Smith (73 tackles, 7 sacks) and Isaac Sopoaga (40 tackles, 1 sack) applying the pressure on Warner from the corners. Smith played in all 16 games in his first year with San Francisco following seven with Cincinnati. Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (46 tackles, sack) hopes his 6-1, 317-pound frame will be as productive as it was a year ago, when he appeared in all 16 games. His goal is to collapse the pocket and put as much pressure on Warner as possible. Tackling machine and All-Pro inside linebacker Willis (141 tackles, 1 sack) is one of the most feared hitters in the league, and his athleticism makes him one of the best at his position. Often compared to future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis, Willis brings a tenacious attitude to the field in just his third season. Takeo Spikes (96 tackles, 1 sack) and Manny Lawson (45 tackles, 3 sacks) are expected to flank Willis as starters, while outside linebacker Parys Haralson (39 tackles, 8 sacks) led the team in sacks in 2008.
Arizona returns its big three fantasy stars in Warner, Fitzgerald and Boldin. Warner's quick release and accuracy have made him one of the top QB's in fantasy football in the twilight of his career. It seems like yesterday he was leading St. Louis to a Super Bowl title, and now he has Arizona on the brink of another successful run this season. Much of Warner's success can be attributed to a cohesive offensive line which gives him enough time to find his open targets. Fitzgerald and Boldin are perhaps the best duo in the NFL, with Breaston tagging along like pilot fish. Wells and Hightower are tough choices to start, but Hightower gets most of the calls inside the 10-yard line. As for the 49ers, Gore is their top fantasy player. Crabtree would be there too, but he still unsigned. Don't gamble on Shaun Hill, but he is a good emergency choice when your regular starter has a bye week. Bruce and Morgan are decent starts for Week 1, but should be monitored on a week-to-week basis.
The Cardinals are out to prove that last season was no joke and complacency will not set in following their magical run to the Super Bowl. Once a laughing stock of the league, the Cardinals have a shot at winning the weak NFC West for a second straight year. Arizona, which went 6-0 against the division last season, hasn't captured consecutive division titles since the 1974 and '75 campaigns. The franchise made the right move in bringing back Warner instead of experimenting with the team's chemistry that has brought so much success last year. San Francisco is happy with its choice of Singletary as head coach, and the Hall of Fame linebacker will try his best physically and emotionally to get his players to buy into his philosophy. He has some weapons to utilize, with top back Gore aiming for a fourth straight 1,000-yard campaign and Shaun Hill out to show that his coach made the right move making him the starter. Unfortunately, San Francisco's defense has only a few bright spots and will struggle to stop Arizona's high-powered pass attack. Maybe next week will be better for Singletary, whose mission is to guide this franchise to a winning season and playoff berth for the first time in seven years.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 31, 49ers 17
09/10 18:53:37 ET