Cardinals wide receiver Jaron Brown tries to haul in a pass against th Cowboys on Monday night.
When 2017 began, the Cardinals were hoping to put last year's struggles in the rearview mirror.
Instead, they sit stalled out in rush hour traffic with 2016 on their tail.
The Cardinals' 1-2 start is the same as a season ago, when a subsequent home loss to the Rams dropped them into a rut they could never escape. This year is still in its infant stages, but a home loss to another NFC West foe on Sunday – this time the 49ers – would again be a demoralizing outcome.
"It's still early in the season, but we don't want to dig ourselves out of a hole," cornerback Patrick Peterson said. "It's much easier to be above water, versus under water."
Adversity continues to strike the Cardinals. Quarterback Carson Palmer finally got on track last time out against the Cowboys, but the offensive line was a mess and the defense didn't step up in critical situations.
The injury news looked promising earlier this week, when left tackle D.J. Humphries and left guard Mike Iupati were trending toward a return after two-game absences. Instead, Iupati is likely headed to injured reserve because he needs surgery on a bone spur that is threatening to cut his triceps tendon in half, and Humphries is a game-time decision with his knee sprain.
Backup guard Alex Boone has also been ruled out with a partial tear in his pectoral muscle, leaving the Cardinals scrambling for replacements.
"I'm planning on suiting up here sooner or later," said offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Harold Goodwin.
The Cardinals are more talented than the 49ers and play this game at home, but consistent pressure on Palmer can neutralize that advantage quickly. San Francisco has drafted a defensive lineman in the first round each of the past three years, and if DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead and Solomon Thomas wreak havoc, this game gets scary.
"I know Arizona's got a lot of skill at their receiver positions," 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I know they've got some backs who can really run, and I have a ton of respect for Carson Palmer. I've loved him over his entire career. He hangs in there. He's extremely tough. If you give that guy any time -- with the speed that they have at receiver, plus (Larry) Fitzgerald and that he can make any play -- I know he's going to be very successful. You've got to make sure to get to him or he can tear you apart."
Palmer was sacked six times last week and the running game was virtually nonexistent. If the offense suffers similar hiccups, it will be up to the defense to lead the way. The Cardinals are in the top-10 in total defense this season, but have given up seven touchdowns in eight red zone opportunities, the worst rate in the league, which has pushed them down to a tie for 26th in points allowed per game (25.3).
While defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche (calf) will miss the game, money linebacker Deone Bucannon will make his season debut after offseason ankle surgery, and the group is mostly healthy. The 49ers scored 39 points last time out and have a great play-caller in Shanahan, but their personnel is still subpar as the rebuild continues.
The 49ers are 0-3, but they played the Seahawks tough on the road in Week 2 and nearly staged a furious comeback to knock off the Rams on "Thursday Night Football" last week.
"Their record does not matter," Palmer said. "Every time we play San Francisco, they give us their best shot. They've always played really, really well against us – really, really hard against us. They're playing hard on film, and this is a very good defense. I don't know what's on the other side of the ball, but this is a very good defense. We're in a difficult spot, coming off a loss on a short week with a team that's got 10 or so days rest. This is a huge game for us."
Images of the key players for this week's opponent