Former 49ers linebacker and KNBR analysis and color commentator Gary Plummer is back again this year with his Points of the Game, a weekly online column that previews the upcoming opponent. Check out his thoughts about Sunday's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. **
I watched two preseason games of Arizona's and Kurt Warner looked great. He is a competitor and is a guy who lit the 49ers up for 400 passing yards last year. Just reading the statistics on Warner, he had more passing touchdowns in the second half of the season than Tom Brady. There's a lot left in the tank for Kurt Warner.
For the 49ers, the good news is nobody other than his wife knows him better than offensive coordinator Mike Martz. I'm sure the 49ers defensive staff has picked Martz's brain, not just this week, but really they started working on Arizona months ago. I'm sure there are some inside things that Martz knows that will be helpful to the 49ers defensive staff.
On opening day, I'm curious to see what kind of play the Cardinals get from their starting offensive line. They've been doing some shuffling up front with their center and that's a tough position. I think that's one of the reasons Eric Heitmann is so respected at the 49ers, it all starts with the center. You can't have a play without the snap. And the center has to be a great communicator. You hear over and over from the offensive linemen on the 49ers about how good Heitmann is at communicating. For Arizona, with a new guy in there in Lyle Sendlein, it might be tough. He has started throughout the preseason, but he's not their starter like Al Johnson. Had Johnson been able to make it back, it would have been the same five guys in there starting for Arizona, which hasn't happened in Arizona in decades. So, that's good news for the 49ers. Especially with 49ers defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin playing as well as he did in the preseason. It's the second year now in this defense, and what we saw a little bit in the preseason was that pocket collapsing. It was a great thing to watch, and I think that's something that Sendlein is going to have to deal with.
Offensively for Arizona, you don't want to downplay the role of Edgerrin James, but in my mind, you have to take care of Warner. I don't think James has the ability to beat you by himself anymore.
Last year we saw an awful lot of defensive pressure from one side, and it's easy for a quarterback to avoid that by stepping up in the pocket or sliding to the side. This year in the preseason, we've seen pressure from both sides and a collapsing of the pocket. It's been textbook. Even if the sacks don't happen, and I think they will since they averaged three per game in the preseason, having people around Warner is going to make a big difference.
Back to James though. One of the benefits of being a veteran player like he is, is that you become more patient. With him, it looks like he's a little too patient these days. They run a lot of stretch plays where he looks for a hole and it doesn't look like he's decisive enough. I think this year they are going to run a few more power runs, whether those are power runs off tackle or lead plays just to change it up. That's really the strength of a Russ Grimm offensive line and a Ken Whisenhunt offense, and so I could see them changing it up. That will be interesting to see if James can make that adjustment.
Last season when these teams met, my fondest memory was watching Anquan Boldin back down from Nate Clements. It was apparent from the press box 100 yards away. You have the smart guy on one side with Walt Harris and the physical guy in Clements on the other side and that's a great matchup. Plus last year, there was always that concern for that third receiver, Bryant Johnson. Even if you shut down their two big receivers, there was always that worry that Johnson can beat you. Right now, they are still searching for a replacement. Early Doucet hasn't been the guy that they expect of him yet, and that's good news for the 49ers too.
Another addition to the Cardinals is Jerame Tuman, who was the blocking tight end in Pittsburgh when Whisenhunt was there. They also brought in linebacker Clark Haggans, and I think that's just what happens. You bring in players that you're familiar with, players that you've won with in other places, players that know your system. But Tuman, he's a good pickup for Arizona. It's always tough to go against a two tight end set, because it's so versatile. It can be a run or a pass set. The NFL has become so specialized now that you have nickel defenses, even dime defenses on first down. With that two tight end set, how are you going to play against it? Are you going to play it with your base defense? Your nickel defense? That's something if you handle it early on, they'll go away from it. If they are successful early on, it could be a long day for the 49ers defense.
Cardinals defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done a tremendous job since he's been there. He's the longest tenured coach on the staff. He's really an aggressive guy. He's got some dynamic players on that side of the ball. Defensive end Travis LaBoy is a guy who reminds of Justin Smith. He's obviously not Smith, but he has the same kind of relentless motor. They're going to do some familiar things to the 49ers, they're going to be in a 4-3 mostly, but they'll also be in a hybrid 3-4 as well. I think Whisenhunt would like to copy the 3-4 he had in Pittsburgh, but similar to the 49ers, it takes a while to get there. It's all about personnel and having the right guys to do it. They've been a 4-3 team for so long, and that's where their players fit best. With LaBoy and Haggans, that gives them some more versatility. I can even see them standing up Bertrand Berry, who has played outside linebacker before. The only thing they really lost on defense was Calvin Pace and I think they made up for that with their defensive acquisitions.
As far as Arizona's interior defensive linemen are concerned, Brian Robinson is a guy who has been around for 12 years. But behind him, they're very thin at the defensive tackle position right now, which could be a huge benefit for the 49ers. I can guarantee you that Martz has installed, if not a no-huddle offense, a very up tempo offense for this game. If he can get guys in and out of the huddle and run a play every 25 seconds, he's going to have some guys sucking wind over there. It's the first game. Remember, a lot of these guys have only played for the most part a quarter to a half of football.
Their most dynamic player defensively is strong safety Adrian Wilson. He got hurt last year, but he looks to be back from what I've seen in the preseason. He's a guy who Pendergast likes to feature.
The great thing about that is it seems that JT O'Sullivan has an amazingly quick release. That's what you need in order to combat strong safety blitzes and that's what you're going to get a lot of with Wilson. If you can get them on their heels, and that's one of the neat things of Martz's offense - there are so many hot reads and routes - you can get the ball out quickly and it's frustrating defensively. What happens when you hear a call in the huddle and it's a blitz? You get jacked up, you're salivating and you're ready to go. And if the quarterback is getting the ball out in two seconds, you don't have a chance to get there and it's frustrating. You go back and try it again, and at some point if it's exploited by the adjustments of the quarterback and the receivers, and then you have to go away from that. So, if O'Sullivan can make them pay, he'll take away a huge part of the Cardinals defense.
I think moving Antrel Rolle to safety was very important for them, because it's no longer a league of strong safety, free safety. This week might be the closest too that, with Wilson, who is one of those Roy Williams-type throwbacks. He's almost like a linebacker really. He does have good coverage skills for a guy his size, but for the most part, they're going to use Rolle as much as they can in coverage. Being a former cornerback, when they face three wide receivers, now they can use Wilson to play the deep middle and you can move Rolle up. That's good versatility having Rolle back there. He never really lived up to the expectations of being a corner. Some guys can make that transition, some guys can't. If he can make that transition, it can really improve the Cardinals defensively.
When the 49ers have the ball, we've seen Mike Martz have the ability to isolate Vernon Davis on the backside of a formation, we saw him do that a couple of times in the preseason and I'm looking forward to seeing much more of those mismatches. That's Martz at his finest. It was a pretty simplistic formation, but you're going to see him doing it out of so much stuff that guys' heads are going to be swimming. I don't think Martz is going to hold anything back. Either you know his offense and the multiple shifts, formations and up tempo or you're not going to play. We saw glimpses of that in the preseason, and I expect at least one defensive timeout in the first half by Arizona.
As far as matchups are concerned, the key one of the game is JT O'Sullivan versus the Arizona defense. You hate to put that kind of pressure on him, but if O'Sullivan plays well and does his job which he's always talked about, putting the ball where he supposed to and trusting his receivers, the 49ers will have a great game. If the pressure gets to him and he doesn't play well, it could be a long day for the 49ers.
I think with the adversity he's had to overcome, he's been competing in a game-like situation the day he was signed, going back to his days at UC-Davis, when he walked on and then having to go play in NFL Europe. He's the Tony Wragge of the quarterback position. Those are guys you can usually count on, because they've already faced so much adversity.
But the other key to this game will be turnovers. It's so generic, but when you look at the Cardinals defense they scored a number of touchdowns last year. It's an opportunistic defense, and so the turnover battle is certainly key to the game.
It's so important for the 49ers to win this first game. You look at teams that qualify for the playoffs, and it's almost 75 percent if you win the first week you qualify for the playoffs.