Arizona Cardinals Preview: Can the 49ers Continue Their Bird Dominance?

I'm taking a huge gamble here. I'm going to assume that most of you haven't seen much of John Skelton this season. He's been pretty solid in the two games he has started, and there is some talk of him still being the starter once Kevin Kolb is healthy. The 49ers did not face him last season if my memory is correct. Instead they got to go up against Derek "that's fine" Anderson and Richard Bartel. The Cardinals did not get to double digits in either of those games and were outscored 65 to 13.

It's looking like Kevin Kolb will miss another week and therefore a chance to throw a couple more interceptions. Remember when there was talk about trading Aldon Smith and a pick for that guy? Dodged a bullet and a $60 million contract there. But at least he can take comfort in his former team having the same record as his new team.

The most important thing to remember going into this game is this: What Duece and Derek talk about on the sideline is nobody's business. That's fine. Let's take a closer look at the match-up after the jump.

Football Outsiders Rankings

Arizona Cardinals (3-6)

Team Offense: 26th
Pass Offense: 26th
Rush Offense: 22nd
Team Defense: 29th
Pass Defense: 23rd
Rush Defense: 30th
Special Teams: 4th

San Francisco 49ers (8-1)

Team Offense: 18th
Pass Offense: 9th
Rush Offense: 20th
Team Defense: 7th
Pass Defense: 13th
Rush Defense: 1st
Special Defense: 1st

Besides Patrick Peterson special teams, the Cardinals don't fare very well in their rankings, and for good reason. They have been able to gain yards on offense, but turnovers have killed them all season. Kolb has thrown as many interceptions as touchdowns (8) and has lost three fumbles this year.

The Cardinals rank 22nd in the league in turnover differential, and are actually lucky to be there. They have fumbled 15 times already this season, but have recovered all but four of them. This bodes well for the 49ers. They rank first in turnover differential with +13 and lead the league in forced fumbles with 21. They have recovered nine of them.

The Cardinals offensive line is one of the worst in the NFL. NFL films analyst Greg Cosell called left tackle Levi Brown "the worst tackle in football" when he was a guest on KNBR's  Murph and Mac Show Thursday. Brown will be going up against Aldon Smith and Justin Smith on Sunday. The 49ers have to like their match-up against the Cardinals offensive line. I'd expect Aldon Smith to put a stop to his two game sack drought.

John Skelton has actually looked pretty good in the two games he has started. 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio compared Skelton to Joe Flacco in his press conference Thursday and said he had the arm talent to make the throws. Skelton has a pretty strong arm, and hasn't hesitated to throw deep to Larry Fitzgerald. Last week they combined for seven receptions and over 140 yards.

Against the 49ers front seven, though, he may not have time to attempt those throws. The deep ball has been the Achilles heel of the pass defense this year, so it's worth noting. Skelton is completing just 54 percent of his passes, but is still averaging 7.2 yards an attempt.

Running back Beanie Wells has had his moments this season, but I don't see the Cardinals getting their run game going against the 49ers. They have not given up a rushing touchdown this season and have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 games. Jim Tomsula has coached the defensive line during all of those games and I think he deserves some major recognition for that. He is definitely one of the best position coaches in the game today.

Defensively, the Cardinals have struggled all season. Safety Kerry Rhodes and linebacker Joey Porter did not participate in practice Thursday, so that defense could be even weaker. Calais Campbell has stood out as of late, though. He has notched 2.5 sacks in his last three games. It will be interesting to see how the 49ers decide to attack this defense, but I'm sure Greg Roman has a good idea of what to do. I'd love to see the 49ers continue to expand their passing game. They are going to need it come January regardless of how the running game performs.

Key Matchups

49ers secondary vs. Larry FItzgerald

The pass defense is much improved, but they have given up big plays to the Giants, Cowboys, Doug Baldwin and Eagles. Larry FItzgerald is one of the premier wideouts in the game and can catch anything in his general direction. Skelton has the arm to find him deep if he has time, which brings me to my next key match-up.

49ers pass rush vs. Cardinals offensive line

The 49ers have the best front seven in the NFL (no homer). The Cardinals offensive line is one of the worst. The 49ers should be able to get pressure on Skelton and shut the run game down. The more pressure they get, the better chance of turnovers and the less likely the 49ers are of giving up big plays down field.

49ers punt/kick coverage units vs. Patrick Peterson

Patrick Peterson is incredible. He isn't a shutdown corner yet, but he has all the potential to be. For now, he's arguably the most electric return man in the game. I believe he's won the Cardinals 67% of their games with returns for touchdowns. Luckily, the 49ers have a great coverage unit and two of the best specialists in the game in David Akers and Andy Lee. Still, if the 49ers lose this game there's a good chance special teams came into play.

Prediction

49ers win 27-10

Pregame Pump-Up Music
Last of the Mohicans Theme (ignore the Irish dancing, or don't)
Refused - New Noise (for you hard rockers out there)
Muse - Map of the Problematique

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