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49ers vs. Cardinals preview: Carson Palmer and the Cardinals present difficult matchup for 49ers

The 49ers are going into Week 3 looking to rebound from a difficult loss in Pittsburgh, but find will a similar team waiting for them in Arizona.

Point differential, schmoint differential. That’s Bruce Arians, probably, after two weeks of the NFL season, whose Arizona Cardinals just refuse to die.

In 2014, the Cardinals were the league’s hottest team out of the gates, starting 9–1 on their way to 11 wins and a playoff berth. Their underlying performance, however, didn’t quite match the gaudy record. Arizona rarely blew teams out in the manner you would expect from an 11-win team, instead relying on a number of close victories. Toss in a couple of ugly losses at the hands of Denver and Seattle, and the Cardinals barely managed to outscore their opposition on the season, finishing with a plus–11 point differential that painted them as a .500 team masquerading as a playoff contender.

Along with several more qualitative factors, this all created a strong case for Arizona’s decline back to the middle of the pack, yet they’ve done anything but. Arians and the Cardinals are 2–0, blowing out the Saints and Bears on their way to the best point differential in football so far. Arizona is the best team Football Outsiders has tracked through two weeks since the 2007 Patriots, who as you might remember, turned out to be pretty good.

Arizona still has a long ways to go before we start talking about undefeated regular seasons. And they’re not out of the regression woods just yet, as there’s a good chance we look back at the Saints and Bears as two of the worst teams in football, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, when all is said and done. But there’s no denying Arizona has been impressive thus far. And unfortunately for 49ers fans, the Cardinals match up incredibly well with what San Francisco has shown us through two weeks.

Bombs Away

Few offenses love to push the ball downfield the way Arians & Co. do, but his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are one of those other teams. Of course, the Steelers recently torched this 49ers secondary to the tune of 369 passing yards and three touchdowns on just 27 attempts. If visions of Antonio Brown streaking open downfield haven’t haunted your dreams this week, I’ll remind you that Pittsburgh’s success through the air stemmed largely from deep passes (For the rest of you, I’m very sorry). Ben Roethlisberger connected on 7-of–9 deep throws for an absurd 286 yards. When the 49ers take the field in Arizona on Sunday, you can bank on the Cardinals attacking in a similar fashion.

"We’re always going to continue, no matter what the defense is doing, to push the ball down the field," Cardinals quarterbacks coach Freddie Kitchens told Grantland’s Robert Mays. "That’s the way they stay off you underneath. That’s a general principle that every offense should have. We always have a built-in shot on every play. If it’s there, we take it."

And take it they have. Over one-quarter of Arizona’s passing attempts this season (26.8%) have traveled 15 yards or more in the air, the fourth-highest rate in football so far this season. Seeing the bulk of those targets are wideouts Larry Fitzgerald and John Brown, who have been the second- and fourth-most valuable receivers, respectively, through the first two games, according to Football Outsiders.

Brown’s usage in Arians’s offense isn’t unlike the way that other Brown is deployed in Pittsburgh. You can expect a steady diet of screens and quick slants underneath, but when the Cardinals want to take a shot deep down the sideline, Brown is often the target.

Brown has yet to haul in one of his deep targets in 2015, but as you can see in the play above, he’s doing his best Torrey Smith (with the Ravens) impression, creating big yardage for his offense on plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet. In addition to the defensive pass interference penalty on Alan Ball depicted above, Brown also blew by second-year corner Kyle Fuller earlier in the Bears game, with an underthrown pass helping to get some more yellow laundry on the field. So far this season, Brown is the only wideout to draw multiple DPI calls, adding 97 yards to Arizona’s offense on three flags.

Filling in the gaps to Brown’s work in the deep and short areas of the field is Larry Fitzgerald. While aging, Fitzgerald has experienced a bit of a resurgence this year, showing he’s still pretty damn good at this football thing. The veteran wideout piled up 199 yards and three scores on 14 receptions against the Saints and Bears, and his size makes him an obvious weapon in Arizona’s top-ranked red zone offense.

Fitzgerald is spending a lot of time closer to the tackle box, whether in the slot or just in a condensed split like the play above, where he gets a two-way go and can cause problems for the interior of the defense. Defenses have to be aware of Fitzgerald on the deep crossing route out of the slot, where he can take advantage of linebackers and safeties in coverage, particularly when defenses run zone as Chicago did on this play:

Start to overplay the inside routes, though, and Fitzgerald will break it back to the corner for a big gain.

Of course, the man responsible for getting Brown and Fitzgerald the ball plays a pretty important role in all of this as well. When previewing the Cardinals before the season, I wrote, "If the Cardinals are going to be anywhere near the team they were a year ago they’re going to have to get consistent, quality play from their quarterback." Carson Palmer has given Arizona that and much more.

Palmer’s 93.6 QBR trails only Roethlisberger, and the 35-year-old quarterback has been dropping dimes, none better than this throw over the middle to Fitzgerald against the Saints:

The way to cause problems for Palmer, and every other quarterback, of course, is to put him on his back. That’s been a tall order for opposing defenses so far, however. Palmer has been pressured on just over 37 percent of his drop backs, according to Pro Football Focus, but he has yet to be sacked this season. Only Andy Dalton can also make that claim.

While it would be easy to assume Palmer’s sackless pair of games is due to some excellent work by his offensive line, a lot of that credit goes to Palmer himself. His work avoiding pressure in the pocket has been excellent, as evidenced by plays like this one:

Arizona will get right tackle Bobbie Massie back from suspension this week, who the Cardinals surely hope improves a porous right side. Calling Massie a quality tackle would be a stretch, but he’s likely an improvement over the man he’ll be taking over for, Earl Watford. Whenever Palmer has been bothered in the pocket, it’s been a relatively safe bet that Watford was the responsible party. Watford allowed nine pressures across his 66 pass blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and Palmer likely sleeps easier at night knowing that Watford will be on the bench this Sunday.

Eric Mangini’s ability to adapt will be tested early this season. His defense rarely forced Roethlisberger to move from his spot in Week 2, and the disguised coverage looks Mangini deployed left his secondary vulnerable when Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea were out of position to help on a streaking Antonio Brown or Darrius Heyward-Bey. Arizona’s offense presents many of the same challenges that Pittsburgh presented a week ago. This time around, Mangini will need to prove he has different answers.

Ground and Pound

Outside of what the numbers told us, the biggest reason to expect decline from the Cardinals this season was what happened to their defense. Thanks to some creative handy work from defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, the Cardinals overcame several notable departures along the front seven to finish with the league’s seventh-ranked defense in 2014.

Bowles departed for the head coaching gig with the Jets this offseason, as did several more veteran defenders. Antonio Cromartie followed Bowles to New York. Defensive lineman Dan Williams and Tommy Kelly joined linebackers Larry Foote and Sam Acho as offseason casualties in the front seven. It wasn’t unreasonable to think new defensive coordinator James Bettcher would have more difficulty piecing things together than Bowles did a year ago, but so far the returns have been solid.

Granted, the Cardinals lined up across from Jimmy Clausen for three quarters last week, which always helps. But they’ve got the eighth-ranked defense through two weeks (without opponent adjustments), and their run defense has been particularly impressive.

San Francisco has relied heavily on zone runs to the left side of the offensive line so far this season, but when they run that direction in Week 3, they’ll be running into the strength of Arizona’s run defense. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards, the Cardinals defense ranks first in runs off the left tackle, and seventh on runs to the left end. Those marks have a lot to do with Calais Campbell, who mans the defensive end position to that side of the field.

Campbell can be a destructive force in the run game, sometimes single-handedly ruining plays in the backfield. When at the top of their games, San Francisco’s left side of Joe Staley and Alex Boone are some of the best run blocking offensive lineman in football, but they’ll have their hands full with Campbell. Even when Campbell isn’t making plays himself, he’s helping his teammates run to the ball and make tackles.

Chicago has an outside zone to the left side called on this play. Arizona’s gap assignments are noted at the beginning of the GIF, and you’ll notice that Campbell and outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley are slanting inside. Campbell nearly bursts into the backfield and makes the tackle immediately after the handoff, but Matt Forte is able to bounce the play outside. However, the action by Campbell and Woodley on the slant pulls the left side of Chicago’s offensive line inside, opening a lane for linebackers Kevin Minter and Deonne Bucannon to meet Forte on the outside and make the stop for a minimal gain.

Outside of Campbell, many of the names are different from previous matchups with the Cardinals. But with Campbell still wreaking havoc, and players like Minter and Josh Mauro providing quality contributions in run support, this is still an effective unit that has put together the fifth-best run defense through two weeks. Bettcher will surely have them keying on the bevy of Carlos Hyde zone runs that will undoubtedly come. Much like Mangini on the other side of the ball, we’ll find out if offensive coordinator Geep Chryst is simply banking on improved execution from his offensive line in the run game, or if he’ll have different answers when the opposing team sells out to stop Hyde.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS (–6.5) over 49ers