The 49er find themselves battling the 2-0,division-leading Arizona Cardinals tomorrow as they try to "pick themselves up off the canvas", as Jim Harbaugh aptly put it, after the collapse against Chicago last weekend. As San Francisco attempts to assert themselves atop the division, here are some things to ponder:
Colin Kaepernick is looking to bounce back from a four-turnover, self-admitted "terrible" performance last weekend in the Levi's Stadium debut. On Thursday, he appeared on the injury report with a back issue. Jim Harbaugh has said he has not heard Kaepernick mention the ailment or express discomfort thus far but that sentiment should be taken with a huge grain of salt. After all, not much was said of the foot issue Kap was "working through" last season, only to find out a few months ago it was a chipped bone in his foot. With that said, we won't truly know the extent of Kap's back injury beyond what we can deduce from his on-field performance.
Bruce Ellington's return game
Ellington has the speed and shiftiness to be a real threat as a return specialist but the number one goal is to cleanly field the ball. The rookie out of South Carolina had 49ers fans holding their breath last weekend when he bobbled a punt return against Chicago. He managed to recover it, but it wasn't a reassuring sight. The 49ers and Cardinals game could be a tight, defensive contest; one in which special teams makes a big difference. If that ends up being the case, Ellington would be a very big factor, whether good or bad.
Gore's continued quest to silence doubters
After a quiet debut in Dallas and what seems like the 5th straight offseason of pundit assertions proclaiming Gore's demise, the 49ers all-time leading rusher came into Week 2 with something to prove. Had it not been for a blown victory and a bogus holding call on Anquan Boldin during a vintage 50+ yard touchdown run by Gore, you can be sure a lot of talk this past week would have centered on the running back's ability to still get it done at age 31. Unfortunately, the Niners lost and, although Gore responded with an impressive 8-yard scamper into the end zone to make up for it, the luster of that run went the way side of the game's outcome. Arizona has a very staunch defense, despite the absences of John Abraham and Daryl Washington, so it will be tough sledding for Gore but rest assured, he'll have no lack of motivation heading into this divisional slugfest.
Derek Carrier's debut?
With Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald looking like long-shot, game-time decisions, the stage could be set for Derek Carrier to get the starting nod in Arizona. Carrier, a former basketball player, showed off his athleticism last week, hauling in three passes from Kaepernick. If he does indeed get the start, look for the 49ers to leverage the Cardinals' lack of film and Carrier's skill set as a former basketball player and wide receiver in a couple specifically-designed plays to catch the defense off guard.
When the 49ers are good, they travel pretty damn well on the road, as evidenced by a 49ers Faithful takeover of MetLife stadium in a 2012 contest with the Jets and Week 1's invasion of Dallas. Arizona isn't all that far from California and the Cardinals are not a franchise known for its rabid fanbase, so you can be sure 49ers fans in the desert are looking to make their presence felt this weekend. It will be interesting to see just how much red and gold there is in the stands and what the overall crowd atmosphere is like.
Pressure on Stanton
As noted in a piece by Niners Nation's David Neumann, the 49ers would be wise to lend a hand to their secondary by dialing up some heavy blitzing against Arizona quarterback Drew Stanton early and often. Jimmie Ward struggled mightily against Brandon Marshall last weekend, surrendering three scores to the bigger, veteran wideout. One would expect Arizona to try to similarly expose Ward's lack of size by getting him matched up on Larry Fitzgerald. In mitigating that potential matchup, the 49ers should get creative and pressure Stanton from the onset. It would not only help Ward but it will harry Stanton and force him into some poor decisions early. Remember, this is a pivotal game for Arizona and a huge stage for Stanton—one he's not accustomed to. There will be a lot of pressure on him and the Cardinals to show they're a contender. That kind of big-game pressure either propels quarterbacks or sinks him. If the 49ers can get in Stanton's face and head early, it will go a long way in rattling the backup quarterback.