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Defense Not Ready to Crown Cards

Posted Sep 10, 2009

Patrick Willis isn’t caught up with the accomplishments of the Arizona Cardinals from last season.

And neither are the rest of his teammates on the 49ers defense.

The 49ers two-time Pro Bowl linebacker respects last season’s NFC champions, but he’s not going to let them pick up their third straight win over the 49ers without a fight this Sunday in Arizona.

“It’s a new season. It’s a new start. It’s us or it’s them. That’s how we look at it,” Willis said. “I don’t even look at them being the NFC champions. That’s what they were last year; to us they are just a team on our schedule.”

Willis said he and his teammates can’t get caught up in how members of the media have given the Cardinals extra attention based on their postseason run. Instead, they’re focused on putting together their best performance.

If the 49ers do that, “It’s going to be hard for anyone out to play with us,” Willis said.

And just like how the 49ers want to move past Arizona’s impressive season, the 49ers defensive unit wants to not dwell on their improved play in the second half of last season.

That’s in the past too.

“I think for the most part its last season. It’s not the same starting 11 for us,” defensive end Justin Smith said. “But we’re just going to move forward and try to build off of week one. It’s a big test, but we’re ready for it.”

Possibly the most difficult aspect of the 49ers first on-field examination will be finding ways to stop the production of Cardinals Pro Bowl quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

“Warner is smart,” said strong safety Michael Lewis, who will start this Sunday after sustaining a concussion in the preseason. “He’s one of those guys who knows what you’re going to do before you do.”

Lewis said the key to stopping Warner is disguising coverages and getting to him early because of his ability to throw quick passes. Smith also noted that Warner’s offensive line does a good job of establishing a pocket for him to throw quick out routes from.

“As a defensive line and a front-seven, we have to make sure we penetrate that pocket that he feels comfortable in,” Smith said.

On the back end, veteran cornerback Nate Clements will likely be responsible for quieting Arizona’s other main offensive threat, when he lines up opposite of Fitzgerald.

Although Clements has struggled at times in the preseason, he still presents a threat against the NFC’s leading wide receiver in yards last season. Clements held Fitzgerald to his lowest single-game totals of 2008, holding the 6-3, 217-pound wideout to 31 and 46 yards respectively.

Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said in his conference call on Wednesday that Clements does as good of a job against Fitzgerald as any cornerback in the NFL.

Arizona’s leader might know a thing or two about Clements, but when it comes to the 49ers other starting cornerback, Whisenhunt will surely have to watch more game film.

Shawntae Spencer, who missed most of last season with an ACL tear, will get the nod opposite of Clements as the 49ers starting right cornerback. Spencer actually played as the 49ers nickel corner in the team’s season opener last season against the Cardinals, but this go around he’ll have much more responsibilities.

Mainly, Spencer will be following Anquan Boldin, Arizona’s other talented wideout.

For Spencer, the opportunity to compete against one of the NFL’s most prolific passing offenses is one he’s looking forward to.

Even if it’s in his first week back on the job.

“It would fall that way, going against the best receiving tandem in the game now and maybe ever,” Spencer said. “Down there, they have three 1,000-yard receivers. Not only those two, but their No. 3 [Steve Breaston] is good too. They’re outstanding; we really have to play fundamentally-sound. We can’t make any mental mistakes against those guys.”

As much as it’s important to limit Fitzgerald, Boldin and Breaston, quieting what they do once the ball in their hands is equally as crucial.

“They have talented guys who make a lot yardage after the catch,” defensive coordinator Greg Manusky said of Arizona’s top three pass catchers. “What we have to do is focus on covering those guys up when they do catch the ball we have to make sure we tackle them.”

The 49ers will also have to do a good job of bringing down the Cardinals two-headed rushing attack in second-year back Tim Hightower and first-round pick Chris “Beanie” Wells.

“Stopping the run is one of our mainstay goals of every week,” linebacker Takeo Spikes said. “We have to be able to stop the run to be successful.”

Whether it’s stopping the Cardinals air attack or ground game, the 49ers defense is confident they will be able to be leave the desert victorious.

“We feel like we can compete with anyone, and that’s not a knock against them, that’s just how we feel,” Lewis said of the team’s confidence level. “With the guys we have in this locker room, we feel like we can get the job done.

INJURY REPORT: View the injury report for both teams on 49ers.com.

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