It's time to break down the San Francisco 49ers first divisional game of the season, a Week 3 road contest against the Arizona Cardinals.
The trio of 49ers.com writers returns with four topics to preview the matchup. Feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments section of this post.
1st Down: Who will lead the 49ers in catches?
@Joe_Fann: Vernon Davis
Anquan Boldin is the easy choice here as the wideout has led the 49ers in receptions the past two seasons. But I'm going with Davis. The 49ers have made it a point to get their top tight end involved offensively, and Davis' eight catches currently rank second on the team. The tight end's 13 targets are also the second most among 49ers pass catchers. There are no specific statistics or in-depth analysis to provide on this pick, but I have a hunch that this could be the game Davis breaks out.
@TylerEmerick: Torrey Smith
The most likely answer to this is Boldin, as he leads the team with 15 targets this year and has flourished against the Cardinals since being traded from Arizona in 2010. But maybe that could prompt the Cardinals into zeroing in on their former wide receiver. Against the Steelers last week, Smith turned in the type of performance that the 49ers hoped they would get when they signed him to a five-year deal in the offseason. The wideout caught six passes for 120 yards and a touchdown, which went for a career-long 75 yards. Can Smith get behind the Arizona safety duo of Tyrann Mathieu and Rashad Johnson? The Cardinals have given up some deep plays already this year: Saints wide receiver Willie Snead caught a 63-yard pass in Week 1 and Bears wide receiver Joshua Bellamy hauled in a 48-yard touchdown in Week 2.
@TaylorPrice: BoldinYes, Joe and Tyler. Boldin is the easy choice... And I'm making it. Partly because you guys took the other names I was considering, but also because Boldin loves to get his grown-man on against the franchise that drafted him in 2003. The veteran wideout has been Colin Kaepernick's favorite target over the past two seasons, and he has continued that bond this year through two games with 10 catches for 96 yards and a 14-yard touchdown, which he caught last week against Pittsburgh. Boldin caught eight passes for 117 yards and had a 76-yard touchdown in two games against the Cardinals last season. He also led the 49ers with four catches in Week 1 and tied Smith for the team lead with six grabs in Week 2. The smart money says Boldin will be heavily involved again in San Francisco's passing attack. So while your selections are solid, I feel pretty good about taking this category.
2nd Down: The most intriguing matchup to watch is...
@Joe_Fann: John Brown vs. the 49ers Secondary
It's no secret that Carson Palmer loves to throw the ball downfield and that Bruce Arians loves to dial up those play calls. Whether it's 2nd-and-14 or 3rd-and-2, there's never a situation when the Cardinals won't take a shot in the passing game. Brown is Arizona's go-to guy in that respect. Although Brown hasn't caught a deep pass yet this season, he's drawn two long pass interference penalties, which is ultimately the same as a completion. Palmer will look for Brown deep downfield at least twice on Sunday, and you can bet the Cardinals have seen the tape of Antonio Brown getting behind the 49ers secondary. Tramaine Brock and Co. will look to ensure there is no aerial encore in Week 3.
@TylerEmerick: Aaron Lynch vs. Bobby Massie
The Cardinals have yet to allow a sack this season, and the 49ers failed to register a quarterback hit last week on Ben Roethlisberger. Getting pressure on Palmer will be critical for San Francisco to limit Arizona's deep passing game. After serving a two-game suspension, right tackle Massie returns to the Cardinals lineup this week. It's unclear at this point if the veteran will regain his starting job over Earl Watford, who filled in at the position for the first two games. Massie, however, is considered a better pass blocker than Watford, so it seems probable that the Arians-led coaching staff would go with that option. Regardless, Lynch, who has primarily rushed from that side of the line, will have to get in the backfield at some point on Sunday. The second-year linebacker recorded a sack in Week 1 versus the Vikings and Week 17 of last year against the Cardinals.
@TaylorPrice: Quinton Dial vs. Mike Iupati (or Ted Larsen)
Dial's matchup against Arizona's left guard will be watched by many on Sunday. It will be even more noteworthy if it comes against Iupati, a first-round pick of the 49ers in 2010. Iupati signed a five-year contract with the Cardinals in free agency. However, he's yet to make his 2015 debut due to a knee injury that he suffered in August. Iupati has been limited in practice this week and told the Arizona media that he's unsure if he'll play this week. "We'll see," he said via ESPN's Jose Romero. "It's one of those things where you've got to make sure you're good to go." If Iupati can't go, expect Larsen to continue to start at left guard. Dial's matchup will be key no matter who lines up opposite of him. The 49ers will look to stifle a Cardinals offense that leads the NFL in points per game (39.5) and is 10th in yards (363.5).
3rd Down: Over or under 20 carries for Hyde? @Joe_Fann: Under
The 49ers are going to do everything they can to keep Pierre Garçon healthy throughout the 2015 season. The running back is the unquestioned No. 1 back on the team. Hyde has shown the ability to carry a 20-plus carry workload as evidenced in his 26-carry, 168-yard performance against the Minnesota Vikings. However, that doesn't mean Jim Tomsula will risk overusing Hyde. I think he'll be in the 15-20 carry range and catch a few passes, but expect to see plenty of Reggie Bush (if healthy), Mike Davis and Jarryd Hayne to spell Hyde on Sunday.
In the season opener, the 49ers ran the ball 39 times. That number dropped in Pittsburgh, but not by as much as you might think. San Francisco's running backs still recorded 31 carries even though the team was forced to abandon the run game for the most part in the second half due to the lopsided score. So if the game remains close, which is the case in most divisional matchups, or the 49ers jump out to a lead, expect Arizona to get a steady dose of Hyde, who has been in a full participant in practice this week. @TaylorPrice: Under
I say this because of what Kaepernick did in the second half against Pittsburgh. The fifth-year passer put up 274 yards in the final 30 minutes of play. It was the most he's had in any half of NFL football, and he threw two touchdowns in the half, which he's done three times before. So with that being said, I foresee the 49ers getting Kaepernick going earlier in the game and not using the "13" personnel as often against a stingy Arizona defense that allows 81.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks 10th in the NFL currently. Hyde is more than capable of breaking off big runs with extra defenders in the box, but my gut says Geep Chryst will look to open up the field with Kaepernick connecting to his bevy of pass-catching targets.
4th Down: The most underrated storyline for this game is... @Joe_Fann: Palmer's return to health
Maybe this has been made a big deal and I've just missed it. Remember when Adrian Peterson returned after an ACL tear and ran for 2,000 yards? It was worthy praise, but people were calling him a robot when he won the MVP in 2012. Palmer may not break any records this season, but his seven touchdowns are tied for the league lead and the quarterback's 124.4 passer rating ranks third. Palmer has won his last seven starts dating back to last season and 15 of his last 17 dating back to 2013. When Palmer is healthy, which is a big qualifier given his history of injuries, the quarterback has been an MVP candidate for the Cardinals.
@TylerEmerick: Will Reggie Bush play?
Bush (calf) has told reporters that he plans on playing in Arizona, but the veteran running back will have to prove to the coaching staff on the practice field that he's ready. Bush tallied just two touches against the Vikings before he got hurt, so it's still somewhat of a mystery how the 49ers plan on using the versatile weapon. If Bush does play, his presence adds a wrinkle to San Francisco's offense that Arizona hasn't seen before. In Week 1 versus the Saints, the Cardinals allowed running back Mark Ingram to catch eight passes for 98 yards, including a long of 59 yards. Then last week against Chicago, Arizona surrendered 44 receiving yards to running back Matt Forte.
@TaylorPrice: The "Honey Badger"
Maybe it's just me. I'm still not over how cool Mathieu's nickname is. I guess I'm just stuck in 2013. Monikers aside, Mathieu's growth on and off the field has been a positive development for Arizona's defense. The Cardinals free safety has 12 tackles and three pass breakups in two games. He's an active player who lines up in a variety of spots in James Bettcher's defense and that means the 49ers must locate No. 32 in their pre-snap reads. Arizona built quite the reputation as a blitzing defense under Todd Bowles, who has since moved on to be the New York Jets head coach. The trend has seemingly continued under Bettcher's watch. Stopping Mathieu and the other Cardinals defensive backs from disrupting the 49ers offense is a big key to this game.