The San Francisco 49ers will close out their series against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday as they look to even the score following their 17-10 loss in Week 5. San Francisco looks to carry its momentum from their Week 8 win against the Chicago Bears. Meanwhile, Arizona is coming to town rested, however with a number of questions surrounding key players following their Thursday night loss against the Green Bay Packers.
Cardinals senior writer Darren Urban joined 49ers.com to break down several storylines and help preview Sunday's divisional matchup. Here are Week 9's Four Downs:
1st Down: Biggest Takeaway from Week 8
@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Offense Has Best Outing Yet
San Francisco came out of Sunday's game against the Bears with a 300-yard passer, 100-yard receiver and 100-yard rusher as the 49ers offense looked to have finally found its groove. Outside of a missed field goal on the 49ers opening drive, the unit managed to score on each of their seven offensive drives of the game. Much of their success is credited to the performance of San Francisco's offensive line. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo remained untouched for the entirety of the contest and was under pressure on just six of his 28 drop backs (21.4 percent) against a Chicago defense who led the league in sacks.
It was also a clean game for the offense, taking care of the football and managing to sustain drives. San Francisco improved from its lowly 1-of-11 on third downs the week prior to 4-of-10. Improving that stat will still be a focus for the offense in Week 9 against Arizona's fourth-ranked defense that's limiting opponents to under 320 total yards a game and has garnered 14 takeaways on the season. Rolling over Sunday's momentum will be key in the 49ers getting off to a hot start and not playing from behind against Arizona's stout defense.
@CardsChatter: Kyler Murray's Health
The biggest takeaway from Week 8, undoubtedly, was the ankle injury to quarterback Kyler Murray. This league is built on what your quarterback can do – and if he is healthy – and there is no question Murray getting his ankle tweaked at the end of the Thursday game against the Packers jumped to the top of the list. Murray's status will likely be unknown all the way up to when the inactives show up Sunday (or when one of the national info guys tweets it out after it's leaked to them that morning). Even if his practice time is limited or eliminated as he tries to get right, both he and coach Kliff Kingsbury said Murray could still play because of his knowledge of the offense. Otherwise, they will turn to backup Colt McCoy, who certainly isn't the athlete Murray is, but is smart enough to run the offense and get the Cardinals through a game.
2nd Down: Areas of Improvement Since Week 5 Meeting
@KeianaMartinTV: Rushing Offense
San Francisco looks to have found their footing as of late, which if we look back to the start of the season, was pretty chaotic. Following the loss of Raheem Mostert (knee) in the season opener, San Francisco was forced to shuffle ball carriers amid a flurry of injuries in the backfield.
Elijah Mitchell has developed into a fitting replacement for Mostert, as the sixth-round running back has led San Francisco in carries and is coming off of a career-outing where the rookie put up 137 yards on 18 carries and a score against the Bears.
The 49ers are now averaging 123.7 yards per game on the fround (11th-best in the NFL), compared to 114.5 yards back in Week 5. The potential return of Jeff Wilson Jr. (knee) from Injured Reserve, could give San Francisco even more of a boost in their heralded ground game.
@CardsChatter: Run Defense
The run defense took a step back against the Packers, but for the most part, the Cards have handled the run better as the season has progressed. They have also gotten back their cornerback group, which was missing their top two guys (Byron Murphy and Marco Wilson) in the first meeting. Since that game, the defensive line has lost J.J. Watt but gained Jordan Phillips. The Cards were playing at a high level when the Niners visited; if anything, the team has solidified its proper way of handling each week's outcome – which benefits them coming off their initial loss.
3rd Down: Matchup/Rematch You're Most Looking Forward To
Both the Cardinals and 49ers were missing key players in their Week 5 matchup. Namely for San Francisco, their All-Pro tight end was just placed on Injured Reserve while working through a calf injury sustained in Week 1. While the 49ers are still assessing Kittle's readiness to return to the field, he'll certainly add a boost for the offense if he is elevated to the active roster, and not just as a pass catcher.
Kittle is undoubtedly crucial to San Francisco's rushing success due to his proficiency as a run blocker. He can also take the pressure off of San Francisco's leading receiver Deebo Samuel. In the tight end's seven-career games against Arizona, he's amassed 417 yards on 29 receptions for an average of 14.4 yards per catch.
Undeniably, Kittle brings another level of energy when he takes the field – something this team can use as they look to turnaround their season entering into the midway point. He said this week he hasn't been able to hit anyone in a long time (four weeks to be exact) and he's eager to do so again. Optimistically for Kittle, that opportunity could come on Sunday.
The rematch I'm most looking forward to isn't a rematch at all. Murphy missed the first game, and he's the guy who usually should be matched up with Deebo Samuel. Samuel is having a wonderful season. Murphy is the Cardinals top cornerback. With all the injuries/COVID issues with the Cards' offense, the defense will have to come to play, and Samuel vs. Murphy should be fun to watch.
4th Down: Player(s) Who Must Step Up in Week 9
While San Francisco's defense took steps forward in Week 8, the unit was gashed by Chicago's ground game – and I'm not even referring to their running backs. Quarterback Justin Fields put on a rushing clinic last week, posting career-highs with 103 yards on 10 carries as Chicago's leading rusher (running back Khalil Herbert totaled 72 yards on 23 carries). It's the second-straight week the 49ers have allowed a single player to post 100-plus yards after not allowing one in over 20-plus consecutive games.
While a lot of Arizona's offensive game plan will weigh on whether Kyler Murray is active or not, the 49ers will still have to prepare for the Cardinals three-headed rushing attack. Murray adds to running backs James Conner and Chase Edmonds, who have aided in Arizona's seventh-ranked rushing offense. Wide receiver Rondale Moore has emerged as a versatile playmaker, who has also done damage in the backfield. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said the 49ers will have to play with "heightened awareness" for when Moore is on the field, because the ball finds its way to him regardless of where he is aligned.
San Francisco enters the contest giving up an average of 127 yards to opposing ball carriers, the 27th-worst mark in the league. Even if Murray and his elusiveness with his legs isn't able to dress on Sunday, the 49ers certainly can't overlook Arizona's threat on the ground.
@CardsChatter: QB Colt McCoy
Well, if Murray doesn't play, Colt McCoy is the only answer. The veteran has seen it all in his decade-plus career, and with some prep time, the hope is that he can still make a few things happen (albeit not as dynamically as Murray). Aside from McCoy, the Cardinals are going to need a good game from wide receiver Christian Kirk – especially if A.J. Green (COVID) is out and DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) isn't at full strength, and the running backs Chase Edmonds and James Conner as well. A good run game would help McCoy. On defense, Jordan Phillips needs to lead the defensive line.