Can 49ers, Cardinals rise to prominence in NFC West?

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Here are two teams in the wide open NFC West fighting for an identity. Arizona only won five games last year, but four of them were in the division and they swept the 49ers. San Francisco spent a lot of money in the off-season to build up a defense that gave up 412 points and were outscored in 2006 by almost 10 points per game.

Both teams have top-flight running backs headed for 1,000-plus yard seasons, both teams have young first-round draft picks at quarterback who are ready to emerge as stars in the league, both teams have rookie first-round draft picks starting at right tackle and both head coaches believe in the 3-4 defense. Mike Nolan has suffered through the pains of converting a 4-3 defense and realizes it takes time. Ken Whisenhunt is at least a year behind him in the conversion process.

The NFC West could be won with a 9-7 record like it was last year, and the winner of this game has money in the bank when December rolls around. Can the Cardinals' rookie head coach win on the road in his debut? Can the 49ers lean on their rich history of winning close to 80 percent of their home openers since the early 90s? This should be a fairly high-scoring game with Alex Smith and Matt Leinart both throwing close to 32 passes each, even though both teams really want to run the ball.

KEY MATCH UPS

1. CB Nate Clements vs. WR Larry Fitzgerald: San Francisco used an $80 million contract to put Clements on the field, and his first job is to shut down Fitzgerald, who caught 13 for 226 yards against San Francisco last year.
2. CB Walt Harris vs. WR Anquan Boldin: Harris may be the new target in the secondary as Leinart may elect to go away from Clements. Boldin caught eight for 126 yards last year.
3. RB Frank Gore vs. LB Gerald Hayes: Gore had pedestrian numbers against the Cardinals last year with just 27 rushes for 139 yards in two games, but he did catch 12 passes in the two games and more importantly rushed for four touchdowns in the two games.
4. TE Vernon Davis vs. OLB Calvin Pace: Davis is in his second year and the 49ers will feature him like Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez. Pace replaces the injured Chike Okeafor, and Alex Smith will check out this matchup early and often.
5. OT Levi Brown vs. OLB Manny Lawson: Brown is the Cardinals' first round pick and may be a more accomplished run blocker at this point. He must handle the speed rush Lawson in the 3-4 blitz calls.

IF YOU LIKE ARIZONA, THIS WILL HELP YOUR ARGUMENT

1. Mike Nolan has never beaten the Cardinals as the head coach of the 49ers.
2. The Cardinals had the best division record in the NFC West last year (4-2).
3. Last year, the Cardinals averaged 30 points a game against the 49ers.
4. Last year, Kurt Warner threw the ball 50 times vs. San Francisco, and Leinart only 13.
5. The 49ers lost the turnover battle last season, including the two games against the Cardinals.
6. Frank Gore did not rush for 100 yards in either game against the Cardinals.

IF YOU LIKE SAN FRANCISCO, THIS WILL HELP YOUR ARGUMENT

1. In 2006, WR Darrell Jackson (as a Seahawk) caught 10 for 187 and two touchdowns against Arizona.
2. There will be six new starters on the 49ers this season, led by CB Nate Clements.
3. The Cardinals lost their best defender -- OLB Chiki Okeafor -- for the season.
4. The Cardinals were only 2-6 on the road last year.
5. San Francisco was the No. 6 rushing team last year, behind the 1,695 yards by Gore.

WHEN THE CARDINALS HAVE THE BALL

Jed Jacobsohn / Getty Images
Edgerrin James isn't the home-run hitter Ken Whisenhunt had in Pittsburgh with Willie Parker.

»Edgerrin James' career stats
»James' 2006 game logs

Whisenhunt is committed to the Pittsburgh offensive philosophy, which is run the ball. Drafting right tackle Levi Brown with his first pick ever as a head coach was the first sign he is serious about building a better running attack. Edgerrin James is a solid back, but he has never really been a big-play back like Willie Parker was in Pittsburgh. The best offensive weapons on the Cardinals roster are the wide receivers and the left arm of Matt Leinart.

The biggest problem Arizona presents to the 49ers is the three-wide receiver, one-tight end, one-running back package. It will force San Francisco into nickel defenses, and there will be at least one favorable matchup in the passing game and it should open up the running game. If the 49ers try and play base defense against the Cardinals' three-wide package, Leinart knows it's time to pass and it probably is a zone scheme without an outside linebacker blitz to worry about. I think the "new" Cardinals running game emerges if and when Arizona has a decent lead. San Francisco would much rather see James -- who averaged 3.4 a carry last year -- get the ball than Fitzgerald, Boldin and Bryant Johnson streaking down the field.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

Frank Gore is the heart and soul of this football team. He had a broken hand most of the summer, but it may have actually worked to his benefit. He is healthy and has fresh legs. We are in an era where more and more teams aren't letting their "bell cow" back touch the ball in the preseason, and it just worked out that way for the NFC's leading rusher. He will get his 30 touches in this game, but at least 6-8 of his opportunities will come in the short passing attack. Rookie right tackle Joe Staley has tight end speed, and will be an excellent man to lead a screen pass attack.

Smith told me this summer that Jackson is just what the team needed on the outside. Jackson led the Seahawks in receptions last year and will be in the right place at the right time, which is what Smith needs to trust his No. 1 threat in the passing game. Look for Davis to align as a "y open" tight end and create mismatches with the Cardinals secondary. Davis is a better run blocker than many would think, and after San Francisco establishes the run game I expect to see play-action pass with Davis splitting the safeties and the bootleg game with Davis crossing the field.

THE BOTTOM LINE

There is a lot of young talent in this game and many of the future Pro Bowlers for the NFC will be on display for two teams that don't get many MNF opportunities. Mike Nolan will get better pass-rush pressure this year with former Patriot Tully Banta-Cain opposite Lawson. Banta-Cain wasn't a starter in New England, but he did have seven sacks last year in limited opportunities. He looks like a guy headed for double-digit sacks and with Nate Clements on the corner opposite Walt Harris, Nolan can dial up the blitz calls more often. San Francisco was the 26th-ranked defense last year and they will be significantly better in 2007.

The Cardinals were the 29th-ranked defense in '06, and they aren't as far along at this point. I will take the 49ers to win the opener and end the Nolan losing streak against Arizona.

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