The close of the regular season means one more opportunity for some cross-blog chatter. We'll be chatting with Revenge of the Birds for the next few days to get a better idea of what the Cardinals bring to the table. They've won 7 of 8 games, but for most of us, we've been so focused on the 49ers, we haven't had a chance to figure out what's up with the surging Cardinals.
We'll start things off with a look at under-the-radar players. Jess Root from RotB put together his thoughts. His are first, mine are below that. You can also check out under-the-radar players from the last time these two met.
In Week 17, with both teams already having faced one another this season, it will be hard to have a true "under the radar" type player. Nonetheless, here are some players you might not expect to have a big impact on the offense and defense for the Cardinals.
The last time we discussed this, Andre Ellington was the main name. He is most certainly no longer under the radar, so as great a season as he is having, he certainly does not fit the bill this time around.
One player that could make an impact is tight end Jake Ballard. Rob Housler is banged up and only played four snaps in Seattle. In those four snaps, he managed to blow two pass plays, including a touchdown that became an interception. Ballard has gotten rave review from the coaching staff since his signing, but has not gotten a lot of playing time. With only six catches on the season, he could be in play for some opportunities on Sunday. If he does, he will be a player to watch.
Likewise, a player that had a big impact in the first game between the Cards and Niners, and could do the same, is receiver Brittan Golden. He is the team's fifth receiver, but he is the "burner" guy that Bruce Arians uses to stretch the field. He had a 53-yard reception in San Francisco and a 63-yarder in Seattle. Watch for him to get one or two shots down the field.
Like I said before the first contest, it is hard to say that anyone on this defense is under the radar, However, I will give you two names. One is Jerraud Powers, who had his finest game of the season against the Seahawks in coverage. He gets a lot of criticism as he is the guy opposite Patrick Peterson, but he is playing well recently. He is a sure tackler and on more than one occasion this season he has punched a ball out from an offensive player.
The other player may or may not get a ton of playing time. It will depend on the injury situation. With Tyrann Mathieu out, Rashad Johnson is the starter at free safety. He, though, has a high ankle sprain and might not play. If he does not, undrafted rookie Tony Jefferson gets the call. He plays well near the line of scrimmage and has nade big plays over the past two weeks. In overtime against Tennessee, it was his blitz and hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick that caused the interception that led to the winning Cardinals score. Against Seattle, he tackled Marshawn Lynch inside the 10 by himself, making a very strong tackle.
Watch for those two players to have subtle impacts on the game this weekend.
In Week 6, we pointed to LaMichael James on offense as a guy to watch. He actually ended up inactive that week, and didn't really start making an impact until he took over return duties later in the season. He'll be out there primarily on returns, but he could also get a few snaps in the backfield.
This week, the under-the-radar player I'll choose is actually a pair of guys: Anthony Dixon and Will Tukuafu. The 49ers lost fullback Bruce Miller for the season two weeks ago with a scapula injury. Anthony Dixon had been his backup, but the team also brought in Will Tukuafu, who had left the team with an injury settlement early in the season. Dixon is a running back who focuses on special teams, while Tukuafu is a defensive lineman who got fullback work in his previous stint with the 49ers.
The team ended up splitting the work fairly evenly between Dixon and Tukuafu, with Dixon getting 11 snaps and Tukuafu getting 12. Dixon is more likely to be used in the passing game, while Tukuafu is more likely to handle lead blocking work. Both performed solidly in Week 16 against the Falcons, and will likely see 25 or so snaps combined.
We mentioned Ray McDonald in Week 6, and he has remained solid. This time around, I have a pair of guys to watch on the defensive line. Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs have combined to get 30-40 snaps per game. They spell all three starters on the defensive line.
The current starting rotation is Justin Smith at right defensive tackle, Glenn Dorsey at nose tackle, and Ray McDonald at left defensive tackle. The last two seasons, Smith and McDonald have played an inordinate amount of snaps. This season, the team has found a pair of guys they trust to spell both players. This has allowed Smith and McDonald to get much needed rest, and likely has them fresher now than they have been the last two seasons. As the team gets ready for the playoffs, that is essential.