First off, thanks again to cgolden from Revenge of the Birds. We've got the final four matchups to keep an eye out for come Sunday. I was a bit of a homer in my picks, but I have a good feeling about some of these matchups. I couldn't find any good pictures to post with the matchups, so we'll just have to go picture-less for now.
Match-Up #5: 49ers Defensive front 7 vs. Cardinals OL (rushing)
CG: Advantage: Cardinals - The Cardinals actually ran the ball decently against the Niners last year totaling 257 yards on 62 carries last year just over 4.1 yards per carry, which is better than they did against the rest of the league. They've also worked tirelessly this offseason to improve the running game and are even going to incorporate some zone blocking schemes to better suit Edgerrin James' running style. The Niners run defense took some shots last year and ended up ranking 22nd in the league but they only allowed 3.8 yards per attempt. With the Niners front seven being fresh and the Cardinals offensive line looking solid so far, I'd really like to call this match-up a 'push,' but I won't take the easy way out. I'll give the Cardinals a slight edge with the one-two punch of James and Hightower.
Fooch: Advantage: 49ers - While the Cardinals performed well in rushing against the 49ers, the 49ers front 7 has been dramatically improved. The addition of Justin Smith at OLB and defensive end gives the team a nasty presence now that Bryant Young is retired. Manny Lawson played in the opener, but was out for the second SF-AZ matchup and he is an integral part of their run defense. Patrick Willis has a full year under his belt and should only improve. The one drawback is that Aubrayo Franklin is consistently getting pushed around at the nose tackle position, making it more difficult for the linebackers to make plays. However, the 49ers will be able to rotate enough guys into the defensive line to cover for that deficiency. While Michael Lewis plays strong safety, he is excellent in the running game and provides some second level support to the linebackers if they miss a tackle.
Match-Up #6: Cardinals defensive front 7 vs. 49ers OL (rushing)
CG: Advantage: Niners - The Cardinals defense might have had some faults in 2007 but the front seven was solid against the run. They gave up less than 100 yards per game and finished 9th in league in run defense, but they do have some question marks heading into Sunday. The biggest question mark is at the biggest position in a 3-4 defense, nose tackle. Gabe Watson, last years starter, has already been ruled out for the game and primary backup Alan Branch is questionable at best right now. He hasn't practiced since injuring his ankle in the final preseason game and he'll have to get healthier if he wants to suit up against the Niners. That leaves the nose tackle position to veteran Bryan Robinson, who was signed in the offseason to backup the nose and defensive end positions. He's a consummate professional but he's not a true nose tackle and if he has to play the entire game, he could get pushed around pretty badly by the fourth quarter. If he's the only nose tackle that's available, I'd expect them to go with more four man fronts to try and give him some help. I'd love to take the Cardinals here but there are too many question marks at this point to vote against Frank Gore, who's averaged 4.5 yards per carry against the Cardinals throughout his career.
Fooch: Advantage: 49ers - I will be honest and admit I don't know a whole heck of a lot about the Cardinals. The injuries to the defensive line are certainly something you want when you're facing a running back like Frank Gore. Gore has slimmed down as he expects to carry a Marshall Faulk type of rushing/receiving role. The 49ers offensive line was a weakness for much of last year, but Gore was still able to surpass 1,100 rushing yards. The line has gotten younger and healthier and while Gore may not reach his 2007 goal of 2,000 yards, he will be the engine of this offense. I'd expect the 2007 offensive line issues to be an anomaly and the 2006 excellence to return.
Match-Up #7: Cardinals return team vs. 49ers return coverage
CG: Advantage: Niners - The Niners were pretty good covering kicks in 2007 (22.3 yards per KO return) but they only recorded 4 touch backs all season so Steve Breaston and JJ Arrington will get some chances to make plays. On punts though the Niners' Andy Lee is one of the best and they only allowed 7.6 yards per punt return. This is an interesting match-up because the Cardinals are better returning punts than kickoffs so it's somewhat of a strength on strength duel. Steve Breaston ranked second in league in total return yards in 2007 and he took a punt back for a touchdown. JJ Arrington has looked better returning kicks in the preseason and could see an increased role in that department as Breaston gets integrated into the base offense. Looking at the big picture, I'd have to go with the Niners considering the kicking abilities of Andy Lee and Joe Nedney. Breaston is an above average punt returner but Lee is pretty good at neutralizing return men.
Fooch: Advantage: Even - That's a bit of a copout, but after excellent return coverage in 2007, the preseason saw the 49ers give up a long return in 3 of the 4 exhibitions. While that is a pretty small sample size, it certainly created some worries in myself and other 49ers fans. However, one of the key special teamers, Michael Robinson, was out for the first three games after knee surgery. Additionally, Jeff Ulbrich, a special teans standout was starting at inside linebacker for the preseason. However, Robinson is back and healthy, while Ulbrich may see a decrease in regular playing time due to the addition of Takeo Spikes. Spikes and Ulbrich are splitting the inside linebacker role, which means more special teams time for Ulbrich. Andy Lee set a record for most punts insie the 20 last season but part of that was due to all the time on the field. If he can maintain his net punt average, the 49ers special teams should be fine.
Match-Up #8: 49ers return team vs. Cardinals return coverage
CG: Advantage: Niners - The Cardinals had issues bottling up returners last season and so far through four preseason games, they look to have the same problems. Neil Rackers is a very good kick off guy sending 17 kickoffs into the end zone for touch backs in 2007, but when opponents did return kicks they averaged 23.2 yards per return. Their punt coverage was even worse allowing 13.1 yards per return (31st in the league) and it could be even worse this year considering that Dirk Johnson hasn't been all that impressive during training camp or preseason, although he does punt it out of bounds pretty often (which will kill a return game). Allen Rossum doesn't strike much fear any more but he's still somewhat dangerous returning kickoffs. Regardless of who's returning kicks, I can't in good conscious give the Cardinals a 'thumbs-up' in any match-up that involves Neil Rackers and Dirk Johnson.
Fooch: Advantage: 49ers - After relying on Maurice Hicks and Arnaz Battle, the 49ers signed a dedicated return man in Allen Rossum. Rossum is #2 all-time for combined kick and punt return yards. Of course, that means he's starting to get up there in age, as he's now 32. However, he showed some spark in the preseason with a return for a touchdown. Aside from Rossum, the 49ers are that rare team that will occasionally use a tight end, in their case Delanie Walker. Walker played wide receiver in college and has impressive speed for a converted tight end. The 49ers have had decent return men, but they always seemed to be missing that game-breaker that could change the momentum within a few seconds. Rossum showed a tendency to avoid fair catches and while I like the big-play instinct, it could also lead to turnovers or poor field position. If you can shorten the field by 10 or 20 yards consistently, you're offense will look considerably better.