NFL Nation: 49ers-Cardinals 091309
|Christian Petersen/Getty Images|
|Linebacker Ray McDonald takes down Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner for a sack as the 49ers made it known that they will be contenders in the NFC West.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Cardinals will not be coasting to another NFC West title this season.
They're much more likely to take an 0-3 record into their bye week based on what they showed during a Week 1 defeat at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Also obvious Sunday: The San Francisco 49ers will not be giving away games the way they did when former offensive coordinator Mike Martz was trying to run a Formula 1 offense with personnel better suited for a tractor pull.
The 49ers' 20-16 victory served notice of that while providing clear evidence that the NFC West race will feature more than one team this season.
"We think so," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "I think the big thing going back from last year to this year is just playing smart football, not turning the ball over. I think that is what killed us last year. It's all a snowball effect, for sure."
The 49ers have played the Cardinals tough in the past. Defensive end Justin Smith, outside linebacker Parys Haralson and Nate Clements have given Arizona's offense problems. They did so again Sunday. This time, the 49ers played to their run-oriented strengths on offense. And when they needed to pass the ball, Shaun Hill and the short passing game responded. There was nothing fancy most of the time.
The game-winning touchdown drive spanned 15 plays -- 13 of them passes -- while covering 80 yards and using more than 7 minutes of the fourth quarter. Trailing 16-13, Martz successor Jimmy Raye stuck with conservative personnel groupings featuring two backs or two tight ends or both. This was precisely the approach Mike Singletary sought when he fired Martz and sought a replacement. No more watching J.T. O'Sullivan take seven-step drops before taking sacks or throwing into coverage deep downfield.
Hill worked the ball to tight end Vernon Davis and receiver Isaac Bruce as the 49ers converted four times on third down during that drive alone. The Cardinals had four third-down conversions all game.
"[Singletary] has set an identity for us and he has done a terrific job of that, keeping us together and keeping us poised and confident," said Smith, who ended the Cardinals' final drive with a sack. "The biggest thing to me personally is, it's a division opponent and you have to beat division opponents if you want a shot later in the year."
Whisenhunt issues threats
The gap between the Cardinals and 49ers in football IQ was striking.
The 49ers committed four penalties for 31 yards. The Cardinals committed 12 for 82.
"Guys who are going to have penalties are not going to play," coach Ken Whisenhunt said.
The edict sounded good, but there's a problem. Whisenhunt can't afford to bench starting left tackle Mike Gandy (false start, holding). He cannot afford to bench strong safety Adrian Wilson (offsides, unnecessary roughness). He cannot afford to bench Darnell Dockett (two offsides). He cannot afford to bench Kurt Warner (delay of game).
|Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE|
|Kurt Warner and the Cardinals made a handful of costly mistakes.|
Benching the other offenders -- rookie Rashad Johnson, backup tight end Anthony Becht, special-teamer Ali Highsmith and tight end Stephen Spach -- isn't going to accomplish much.
At their worst, the Cardinals are simply undisciplined. They have a hard time focusing game to game.
That must change for the Cardinals to disprove perceptions of them as a 9-7 team that feasted on a poor division and got hot at the right time last season.
49ers stand by pass rush
Haralson and the 49ers pressured Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner somewhat consistently. Both Arizona tackles had problems in protection. Warner seemed to hold the ball too long a few times while the 49ers continued to play the Cardinals' receivers better than anyone.
The knock on the 49ers all preseason was that they couldn't mount a pass rush. They sacked Warner three times and hit him eight times, including four times by Haralson.
"We sit back and play vanilla in the preseason, that is just how it is going to look," Spikes said.
Even 49ers defensive coordinator Greg Manusky lamented his pass rushers' failure in preseason to win individual matchups.
"The coaches have got to stay political during the preseason and say what they've got to say," Smith said, "but they would come talk to us and be like, 'We believe in you guys and know you can get it done.' We have a good solid group."
Wilson blew the coverage
The Cardinals' best players weren't nearly good enough.
Warner tossed two interceptions. Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin didn't catch a pass until midway through the second quarter.
And Wilson, a team captain, blew the coverage on Frank Gore's winning touchdown reception.
The Cardinals had lost dime safety Matt Ware to injury earlier in the drive. Without Ware, the Cardinals stayed in their nickel package when they usually would have played dime. Wilson blitzed off the right side of the defense when he should have played coverage on Gore.
"Ralph [Brown] ended up coming into the game and I didn't know that he was playing the nickel at the time," Wilson said. "That's a blown coverage on my part. I take full responsibility."
Hope for Cards' run game
Cardinals first-round choice Beanie Wells struggled early in the game. Warner was hit for a loss when he turned to hand off the ball and Wells wasn't in position for what should have been his first NFL carry.
There were also times when Wells appeared fully capable of breaking the long runs Whisenhunt has sought.
Wells carried for 15 and 8 yards on consecutive plays in the third quarter. Starter Tim Hightower caught 12 passes for 121 yards as the 49ers took away Fitzgerald and Boldin, but Wells can provide a needed big-play threat in the running game. I think he'll be starting before long.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald started for the Cardinals at receiver, but you'd never know it from watching the first 12 minutes of this Week 1 matchup between Arizona and San Francisco.
Kurt Warner hasn't completed a pass to a wide receiver. With a first-quarter interception, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis has caught more passes from Warner than Fitzgerald or Boldin.
There have been a lot of penalties and overall sloppy play to this point.
Both defenses have played well. The Cardinals have not made an effort to involve Beanie Wells as a runner. They did play LaRod Stephens-Howling in the backfield with Tim Hightower for one play.
The crowd of mostly Cardinals fans seems to be waiting for one big play to ignite the Cardinals. It hasn't happened to this point and the 49ers lead, 3-0.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Anquan Boldin, slowed by a hamstring injury, warmed up for the Cardinals and is active against the 49ers.
Teammate and fellow receiver Steve Breaston, who suffered a knee injury during preseason, was among the inactive players for Arizona. That leaves Larry Fitzgerald, Boldin, Jerheme Urban, Sean Morey and Lance Long as active receivers for the Cardinals.
Also inactive for the Cardinals: cornerback Greg Toler, linebacker Reggie Walker, tackle Herman Johnson, guard Brandon Keith, receiver Early Doucet and tight end Dominique Byrd. Brian St. Pierre is the third quarterback.
The 49ers' inactive players include safety Curtis Taylor, safety Reggie Smith, center Cody Wallace, linebacker Ahmad Brooks, receiver Jason Hill, receiver Brandon Jones and defensive lineman Ricky Jean-Francois. Nate Davis is the third quarterback. The 49ers have four receivers active: Josh Morgan, Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle and Micheal Spurlock.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Nine thoughts from Sea-Tac's Gate C9 on my way to Phoenix to see the Cardinals and 49ers:
- LaDainian Tomlinson is one of my running backs in the NFC West Gridiron Challenge. He has 402 carries for 1,906 yards and 19 touchdowns in 16 career games against the Raiders.
- Barring a lopsided game, Steven Jackson's rushing numbers against Seattle will provide a feel for the Rams' offense and the Seahawks' defense. Jackson has rushed for 64, 70, 93 and 66 yards in four road games against the Seahawks. The Rams spent lots of cash in free agency for center Jason Brown this year and left guard Jacob Bell a year ago. How those two play against Seattle's Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane could be telling. Cory Redding and Aaron Curry give the Seahawks more size in their front seven. Based on my most recent listed weights and projected starters, the Seahawks have on average the second-heaviest front seven in the NFL.
- The Cardinals had only five runs of 20 yards or longer during the 2008 regular season, tied with Indianapolis for fewest in the league (the Panthers and Giants had 24 apiece). The Cardinals were one of five teams without a run of at least 40 yards. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, speaking Saturday on Sirius radio, said he was encouraged when Cardinals broke two 20-plus runs during the exhibition season. The 49ers allowed only eight 20-plus runs last season, tied for seventh-fewest in the league. The Cardinals drafted Beanie Wells to break long runs.
- The 49ers' Justin Smith, Parys Haralson and Nate Clements have given the Cardinals' offense some problems in the past. I thought Smith was particularly disruptive against the Cardinals in Arizona last season. Haralson had two sacks against the Cardinals in the 2008 opener. Clements has played Larry Fitzgerald tough most of the time.
- NFC West teams are taking different approaches to encouraging leadership. The Rams' Steve Spagnuolo has emphasized team while going out of his way to avoid anointing players as leaders. The Rams are electing captains on a week-by-week basis. The 49ers' Mike Singletary has taken a different approach. His decision to anoint Vernon Davis a season-long team captain seemed to be made with the intent of the designation becoming self-fulfilling. Davis had made strides, no question. Naming him a captain puts pressure on Davis to live up to the designation. It's a smart gamble by Singletary given how much the 49ers have invested in Davis.
- The Seattle and Arizona defenses have stressed accountability this offseason. Seahawks coach Jim Mora and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley have called out players in front of their teammates. Coaches pointed out "loafs" as part of team video study sessions early in the offseason. Players took on those duties as training camp approached. Both defenses need the emphasis to carry over into the regular season.
- None of the current starting quarterbacks in the NFC West was drafted by his current team. The Seahawks and 49ers have extra first-round picks in 2010. The Rams could be in the market for a quarterback -- and in position to draft one early -- depending on how Marc Bulger plays this season.
- Rams tackle Alex Barron can't escape Seahawks pass rusher Patrick Kerney. Barron moved from right tackle to left tackle, only to have Kerney move from left defensive end to right defensive end. Should be a good matchup.
- The 49ers and Seahawks are each counting on an unproven safety. The 49ers went with Dashon Goldson. The Seahawks went with Jordan Babineaux. Both teams wanted more playmaking from the position. I'm anxious to see whether those players justify the moves.
That's it. About to board my flight.
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