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Defense Eyes AZ, Division Title

Posted Dec 26, 2012

Brian Hoyer will be under center for the Arizona Cardinals this Sunday at Candlestick Park.

The recently signed signal-caller will be Arizona’s sixth starter in the past three seasons. He’ll also have to face an irritated San Francisco 49ers defense, one that’s coming off its largest defeat and the most points allowed by the unit in two seasons working under coordinator Vic Fangio.

Hoyer’s emergence even caught members of the 49ers defense off-guard.

When discovering that Hoyer would start in place of sixth-round pick Ryan Lindley – outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks was surprised. After all, he’d just spent time that morning getting a feel for Lindley’s skill set.

Nonetheless, the 49ers have a lot to play for this Sunday, much more than erasing last week’s difficult road loss in Seattle. With a win, San Francisco would clinch consecutive division titles for the first time since the 1994-95 seasons and the franchise’s 19th overall division crown.

So while the Cardinals have gone 1-10 since a 4-0 start, the 49ers are still expecting a football fight when the teams meet in the 2012 regular season finale.

“They’re all professionals,” Jim Harbaugh noted on Wednesday. “We’ve played against this team three times. We know what they’re capable of. Sometimes in a game like this, anything goes. And their mindset will be to win the game. So, you have to be ready. You have to be alert for just about anything… Anything’s possible.”

Hoyer stands as the first example of anything being possible.

After spending three years with the New England Patriots, a stint that saw him play in 13 games, Hoyer was released in training camp and was picked up for a short time mid-season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Signed for insurance, the Steelers let Hoyer go when Ben Roethlisberger returned to the starting lineup. Hoyer, however, was claimed a second time this year when the Cardinals picked him up earlier this month.

Now, with Hoyer in the starting 11, Arizona will be on to its fourth starting quarterback this season. Hoyer, who went 11 of 19 for 105 yards and one interception in a home loss to the Chicago Bears, will be the second Cardinals quarterback to face the 49ers.

John Skelton was held to a 68.6 passer rating when the 49ers were dominant in a 24-3 road win back in late October. Skelton replaced an injured Kevin Kolb and was later benched in favor of Lindley, who has now been passed over by Hoyer.

Confused? Not to worry, the 49ers are plenty motivated to bounce back against any of Arizona’s passers.

“You try to forget about the last game, but you can’t forget about it,” Brooks said of the reality of getting back to work. “It was just a few days ago. It is what it is, but we’ve got to move on this week and capitalize on what we want and that would be a division title.”

Brooks feels like playing in front of the team’s home crowd at Candlestick Park, the second to last season finale remaining at the storied home stadium,  will only help the defense play with increased intensity.

“Any time you play in front of the home crowd you’ve got momentum from hearing your home fans cheering you on,” Brooks explained. “But, as a defense, we’ve got to come out and play aggressive. We’ve got to go out there and let it all out. We don’t know what’s going to happen with the playoffs and who we’re playing next week or if we do have to play next week. All we know is that we have to win this game.”

Brooks wants to redirect that frustration towards Arizona.

“We’ve got to take it out on the Cardinals,” the linebacker stressed. “They’ve improved since the last time we played them early on. We know what they’re capable of and have to come out with the mentality of shutting them down and getting a win.”

It’s not known whether or not star defensive tackle Justin Smith will return to the lineup after missing action last week for the first time in 186 weeks.

Jim Harbaugh’s brief account of Smith’s status went like this:

“Continue to rehab there.”

If unable to go, fourth-year defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois will make his fifth career start, third of the season and second at defensive tackle.

“It’s going to be big shoes to fill,” Brooks said. “He’s a Pro Bowl defensive tackle, not seeing him out there felt a lot different. Not practicing him out there also felt different. But I think we’ll be more prepared for it this week. You’ve got to roll with it.”

For his part, Jean Francois spent a great deal of time reviewing the tape from the loss in Seattle. The Seahawks ran a lot of plays that required the 49ers to use base personnel. Jean Francois said it caught him off-guard, but it was something he’ll be better prepared for the longer Smith is out of the lineup.

“We didn’t pack the defense,” Jean Francois said of the loss to the Seahawks. “It felt like we didn’t bring Candlestick with us. When we tried to get a spark, the spark wasn’t there.”

Knowing what’s at stake this Sunday, Jean Francois expects the spark to return to the defensive huddle.

He also knows that the Cardinals are looking to play spoilers.

“Don’t look down at them for a second just because of that record,” the defensive tackle stressed. “A team like that out of the playoff position can still be dangerous…We’re looking to win another division game, another division title for the franchise and possibly get another bye week.”

Jean Francois admitted he’ll be rooting for the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. Should the Vikings beat the Green Bay Packers at home, all the 49ers have to do is beat the Cardinals to clinch the NFC’s No. 2 seed.

“Yeah, I am,” Jean Francois said when asked if he’d be cheering for the Vikings. “I hate that I have to worry about another team because we’re the people who control our own destiny from the jump, but this might be the one time you have to worry about that.

“If they win, good. If they don’t, forget it. We’ve just got to keep playing.”

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