Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming home game against the Arizona Cardinals.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 12 of the 2015 regular season, where the 49ers will look to avenge a Week 3 loss to the Cardinals from University of Phoenix Stadium.
1st Down: What is the best matchup to watch?
@Joe_Fann: Larry Fitzgerald vs. 49ers secondary
Fitzgerald got the best of the 49ers in the Week 3 meeting. Arizona's star receiver caught 9-of-11 targets for 134 yards and two touchdowns. Often times, Fitzgerald would get clean releases off of the line of scrimmage and found wide open spaces in the middle of San Francisco's zone defense. The 49ers will need to make life harder on Fitzgerald this Sunday. That means you could see more man-to-man coverages. The receiver spends most of his time in the slot, sp Jimmie Ward will be that man to cover Fitzgerald.
@TylerEmerick: Mike Iupati vs. Quinton Dial
After missing the Week 3 tilt between the division rivals with a knee injury, Iupati is on track to face his former team for the first time. The Pro Bowl left guard signed with the Cardinals in free agency after spending his first five seasons in San Francisco. In seven games this year, Iupati has allowed two sacks and been flagged for holding just once. Dial has played right defensive tackle all season for the 49ers, totaling 35 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He and Arik Armstead could line up opposite of Iupati, a player 49ers fans will surely have their eye on come Sunday.
@TaylorPrice: Blaine Gabbert vs. Tyrann Mathieu
Arizona's starting free safety has three interceptions on the year. Two of the takeaways were at the expense of Colin Kaepernick in Week 3. When speaking to the Bay Area media this week, Mathieu was complimentary of San Francisco's new starting quarterback. The third-year defensive back said Gabbert has been impressive on film in his two starts with the 49ers. "He's a hell of a passer," Mathieu said. So was the Cardinals defender sincere in his praise or playing mind games? Gabbert's ability to diagnose Mathieu's whereabouts will be key.
2nd Down: Which 49ers player will make a splash play?
@Joe_Fann: Torrey Smith
Smith has been quiet since he hauled in a 76-yard touchdown catch in Week 6 against the Baltimore Ravens, catching five passes for 79 yards in his past three games. This means San Francisco's best downfield threat is due for a breakout game. The 49ers have to find ways to get Smith a few early touches as he continues to build chemistry with Gabbert. I know the matchup is tough against Patrick Peterson, Mathieu and Arizona's heralded secondary, but I still think Smith finds the end zone on Sunday.
@TylerEmerick: Aaron Lynch
To me, it's a surprise that Lynch has yet to create a turnover this season. The second-year linebacker is tied for third in the NFL with 12 tackles for loss. He also ranks second in quarterback hurries with 24 and 11th in sacks with 6.5. That type of production from a pass-rusher typically generates turnovers. So to me, this feels like the week Lynch breaks through with a strip-sack of Carson Palmer. A Pro Bowl nod could be on its way next.
@TaylorPrice: Shaun Draughn
The journeyman running back has San Francisco's longest rush of the season with a 30-yard scamper in Week 9. Although he's averaged 3.4 yards per carry in two games with the 49ers, Draughn has fresher legs than anyone on the field this Sunday. Arizona's rush defense has allowed 93.5 yards per game on the ground, which ranks seventh best in the NFL through 11 weeks. The defense he'll face will be a tough test, but Draughn's story has been one of the best to follow this season on the 49ers. I have a feeling he'll add to his impressive tale.
3rd Down: The 49ers can beat the Cardinals if they... @Joe_Fann: Win the turnover battle
Turnovers doomed the 49ers against the Cardinals in Week 3. Four interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns, put San Francisco in an insurmountable deficit. Arizona has been no stranger to turnovers with 19 giveaways in 2015 and a differential of zero. That differential is only one better than San Francisco's, who sit at -1. In fact, the 49ers have only turned the ball over nine times all season, one off the fewest in the league. @TylerEmerick: Take away the deep ball
The Cardinals boast the league's top-ranked offense, averaging 33.6 points and 417 yards of offense per game. Completely stopping Arizona's potent attack is unlikely, but slowing it down is not. The key is to not surrender the home run. Palmer has completed 46 passes of 20 yards or more this season, just one shy of Drew Brees' league lead. The quick strikes are backbreakers, so the 49ers secondary will have to be strong against the likes of Fitzgerald, John Brown and J.J. Nelson. San Francisco has played excellent defense at home this season. Let's see if that continues. @TaylorPrice: Score points early
The 49ers have yet to score a touchdown on their opening drive this season. Putting together a successful drive will go a long way against an opportunistic Cardinals defense. It's no secret that Arizona likes to blitz early and often. The aggressive defense tends to help Arizona's offense with favorable field position. The formula has the Cardinals leading the NFL with 33.6 points per game. If the 49ers want to match that kind of offensive output, early touchdown drives will be a must.
4th Down: A bold prediction for the game is... @Joe_Fann: The 49ers will score a defensive touchdown
Keeping with my third-down theme, I think it's the 49ers turn to get a defensive touchdown. San Francisco's defense is one of seven in the NFL that has not gotten a score yet this season. The 49ers do have seven interceptions on the season and picked Palmer once in Week 3. However, San Francisco has only forced two fumbles this season (recovered one), the second lowest total in the league. The defense has played vastly better at home, and I think this is the week they find the end zone.
@TylerEmerick: Anquan Boldin goes for 100 yards
The 49ers sorely missed their leading receiver during his two-game absence with a hamstring injury. Boldin returned last week versus the Seahawks and caught five passes for 93 yards. Against his former team on Sunday, the wideout should have some extra fire beneath him. Boldin has averaged 75.8 yards per game versus the Cardinals in his career and Gabbert seemed to rely heavily on him in Seattle. All that leads me to believe No. 81 is in store for a big game.
@TaylorPrice: Armstead will record multiple sacks on PalmerThe rookie defensive lineman stands to have a greater role with Glenn Dorsey being placed on season-ending Injured Reserve. Armstead's first NFL sack was on Palmer in Week 3. So why not drop the Cardinals quarterback more than once on Sunday? That would be bold. Armstead recorded four quarterback hurries against the Seahawks last week, according to Pro Football Focus. The rookie was unable to bring down Russell Wilson, but Palmer is far less the athlete of last week's opponent.* *