At 5-3, the Arizona Cardinals have their best record since 1984 and are on a comfortable track to win their first divisional title since moving to the desert in 1988 with a three-game lead in the division.
The last two times these NFC West opponents went head to head was in week one when Arizona outmuscled San Francisco in a 23-13 outcome. It was an opening day performance that was marred by five turnovers by the 49ers offense.
With turnovers continuing to plague the offense, specifically quarterback JT O'Sullivan, head coach Mike Singletary opted in favor of Shaun Hill, who will see his first start since last December when he guided the 49ers to a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
|Total Offense||24||Total Offense||2|
|Passing Offense||18||Passing Offense||2|
|Rushing Offense||19||Rushing Offense||28|
|Total Defense||19||Total Defense||18|
|Run Defense||19||Run Defense||11|
|Pass Defense||20||Pass Defense||19|
|KOR Average||16||KOR Average||21|
|PR Average||8||PR Average||29|
|KO Coverage||24||KO Coverage||2t|
|PR Coverage||18||PR Coverage||16t|
Arizona's defense slides back and forth between a 3-4 and a 4-3 front, meaning the 49ers offensive line will have some extra studying to do this week in order to be prepared for their various assignments.
Although Travis LaBoy was given the starting nod over former Pro Bowler Bertrand Berry at the season's inception, both outside linebackers have been productive and are tied for the team lead in sacks at four apiece. Berry has forced two fumbles on his sacks, while LaBoy has forced one. LaBoy was out last week with a groin injury, giving Berry the lion's share of reps on the right side. Starting outside linebacker Chike Okeafor at times moves over to give Berry a breather with Clark Haggans then taking his spot on the left side.
The Cardinals boast an extremely active linebacker corps, led by Karlos Dansby, who is living up to his franchise tag billing. In addition to his three sacks and one forced fumble, Dansby leads the teams in tackles with 55 stops on the year. Dansby has excellent range, and is complimented inside by Gerald Hayes, who is second on the team in stops with 47. The pair seldom leave the field.
Slotted originally as a backup, defensive tackle Brian Robinson has meanwhile held on to his starting role ahead of Gabe Watson and Alan Branch at nose, playing alongside Darnell Dockett, who is mostly working this year as a left end. 49ers may recall Dockett best for his hit on Zak Keasey on opening day, a play that resulted in one of the 49ers turnovers. Last year's Pro Bowler leads the Cardinals defensive linemen in tackles with 23 stops, and is tied for second on the team with Dansby with three sacks apiece.
Defensive lineman Antonio Smith also takes part in the Cardinals rotation, usually coming in for Robinson in nickel situations.
Rounding out the Cardinals defense is a secondary that is headlined by Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson, who led the Cardinals in tackles last week in St. Louis with 6 stops. Wilson also notched a sack and a forced fumble and a pass defensed.
Starting opposite Wilson at safety is Antrell Rolle, who also had a big game last week with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Starting right corner Eric Green, who was banged up with a knee injury, was replaced in the game by rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie after getting beaten deep. Green still saw extensive action inside as the nickel back.
Roderick Hood has held down the left starting spot at corner, and ranks fifth on the team in tackles.
While the Arizona defense is physical and aggressive, the real strength of the Arizona team right now is their high octane offense.
Kurt Warner appeared to be the odd man out all last off-season and well into training camp as Arizona looked to Matt Leinart as the heir apparent to the offense, but selecting Warner as the eventual starter in the week prior to the season opener has proven to be an extremely wise option. Warner's 2,431 passing yards rank him second among NFL starting quarterbacks. His 16 touchdowns, six interceptions and a 104.2 QB Rating are a huge reason why the Cardinals lay stake to the NFL's number one scoring offense, and the second ranked overall and passing offense.
Warner heads into the Monday night show down with back to back 300-yard games under his belt.
At receiver, the 49ers are well versed in his dynamic duo of targets in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald leads the team in receptions, receiving yards, and average yards per catch at 15.1.
Although Boldin missed two games after having surgery on his face, the receiver trails Fitzgerald by only seven receptions, is second on the team in both catches and yards, and is the league's number one receiving scorer with eight touchdowns
During Boldin's absence, Steve Breaston also proved to be a capable playmaker in his own right. He's currently third on the team with 39 catches for 503 yards and a touchdown.
Arizona prefers to get their tight ends, Leonard Pope and Ben Patrick, involved in the passing attack as well, but both players missed the Rams game due to injuries. The Cardinals have two other tight ends in the roster in Jerame Tuman and recently signed Stephen Spach, but both players are better suited for blocking.
As potent as the Cardinals have been through the air, getting a legitimate ground game going has yet to materialize. The Cardinals have averaged only 93.5 yards a game, prompting a significant change in the starting lineup from veteran Edgerrin James to rookie Tim Hightower last week. In his first start in St. Louis, Hightower finished with 22 carries for 109 yards.
Mostly used in short-yardage situations through the first seven games, Hightower has been excellent. Although he was stopped on a third and goal from the 1 up in St. Louis, the rookie is 8 of 10 on third and one situations on the year, and 3 of 3 on 4th and 1's. His seven rushing touchdowns are tied for third in the NFL among running backs.
J.J. Arrington was utilized in St. Louis as Hightower's primary backup with James suiting up, but never seeing the playing field.
Arizona's head coach Ken Whisenhunt said in his Monday press conference that James "is a valuable part of this team," and that "we are going to need Edge." Whether or not that includes on Monday night against the 49ers seems improbable.
Paving the way for the Arizona running backs is the same starting offensive line group that the 49ers saw in week one. Back then, center Lyle Sendlein was expected to be eventually replaced by last year's starter Al Johnson, but Arizona opted to part ways with the veteran center and instead stuck with the second-year undrafted free agent.
The line has allowed 16 sacks on the year, which tie them for 17th in the NFL, but when broken down to sacks per pass play, they are ranked 12th.
Arizona's special teams sealed the Cardinals an overtime victory a few weeks ago over the Cowboys, but not as one would expect. Instead of kicker Neil Rackers hitting a game-winning field goal, the Cardinals scored when Sean Morey blocked a punt that was returned by teammate Monty Beisel for the winning touchdown.
Steve Breaston remains as the team's primary punt and kickoff returner, although Arrington has also been used on kickoffs, returning one for a 93-yard touchdown, also in the game against Dallas.
Arizona did lose a key contributor this week on their special teams in rookie linebacker Ali Highsmith, who was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury. The Cardinals plucked linebacker Pago Togafau off the Saints practice squad as a replacement for Highsmith.
The 49ers head to Arizona fresh off the bye, prepared to take on the Cardinals in all three phases of the game. San Francisco is desperately in search of a win to snap a five-game losing skid, and what better way to get over the hump than on national television.
Tune in to ESPN on Monday night for the 5:30PM PST kickoff to catch the action.