Cards must protect Skelton vs stout 49ers D

October, 29, 2012
10/29/12
11:56
AM ET
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesThe key for the Cardinals tonight may be protecting this guy.
First place in the NFC West will be on the line when the Arizona Cardinals host the San Francisco 49ers tonight on Monday Night Football at 8:30 ET on ESPN.

It's a meeting of two of the league's best defenses. The 49ers currently lead the league in fewest yards allowed per game (272.3) and are tied for first in points allowed per game (14.3). The Cardinals are sixth in yards (312.1) and fourth in points (16.9).

This will be the sixth Monday Night Football meeting between these teams, with the 49ers winning four of the previous five.

49ers KEYS TO VICTORY
The key for the 49ers on the offensive side will be their running game. Under Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers are 17-0 when they run the ball at least 25 times and 1-5 when they don’t.

If they maintained their current average of 5.9 yards per carry, it would be the NFL's highest single-season mark since the merger.

The other key is reducing turnovers, particularly with their quarterback. Alex Smith led the NFL with a Total QBR of 81.1 through Week 5, but his last two games haven't been so good. Smith has thrown five interceptions this season (including four in last two games), matching his total for all of 2011.

Perhaps one of the reasons for Smith’s recent struggles is due to a sprained finger in Week 5 against the Buffalo Bills. Since that game, his downfield throwing has taken a hit. Smith has gone 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) on throws more than 10 yards downfield his last two games (third-worst), after leading the NFL in completion percentage on such throws (59.5) through the first five weeks of the season.

CARDINALS KEYS TO VICTORY
The key for the Cardinals will be protecting their quarterback John Skelton.

The Cardinals have allowed a league-high 35 sacks (seven more any other team). Arizona's passers have now been sacked 29 times in their last four games, the most suffered by any NFL team over a four-game span since the Cardinals themselves were sacked 29 times over four games in November 1997 (according to Elias).

Skelton hasn’t been particularly great.

Skelton has thrown an interception in 10 straight games, the longest active streak in the NFL.

Skelton has completed just 44.4 percent of his attempts to Larry Fitzgerald more than 10 yards downfield this season, while Kevin Kolb has completed 62.5 percent of such passes this season.

But the Cardinals defense has kept them in games this season. They’re the only team to hold each opponent this season to 21 points or fewer.

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