Five things to watch for in the Cardinals-49ers game Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium:
Blocking out all the offensive line problems
It's hard to get away from the talk about the Cardinals' offensive line at this point. That's understandable, because the struggles have made it difficult on an offense that isn't perfect otherwise. The Cowboys made a painful point by an ability to pressure QB Carson Palmer – heavily – using only a three-man rush, gumming up the passing windows with eight men in coverage. That's a recipe for disaster for the Cards. The line is decimated, with Mike Iupati out long-term now, Alex Boone sitting this week and a lot of questions still on D.J. Humphries. Somehow, the Cardinals have to make the patchwork work.
Running as a lost art
Losing all-pro running back David Johnson was always going to be a problem. His abilities as a receiver in the passing game are unparalleled across the league among running backs. But he is a running back, one of the better ones around, and without him, the Cards' running game has struggled. Chris Johnson was the best runner in Indy; he took a step back last week with Andre Ellington emerging. In three games, the Cardinals have just 177 total rushing yards, next-to-last in the NFL, and have averaged a tiny 2.8-yards per carry. Those numbers aren't conducive to any kind of winning streak.
Hyde and seek
The 49ers haven't had an issue running the ball themselves. Carlos Hyde, who had gotten somewhat lost under previous coach Chip Kelly, has been rediscovered, and he has 253 yards rushing already this season, good for third in the NFL. New coach Kyle Shanahan showed his offensive excellence as the coordinator for last year's NFC champion Falcons, and he's brought that west. While passing is important, the Niners like to grind on the ground – including use of a fullback – and the Cards have to clamp down. Making former Cardinals QB Brian Hoyer throw the passes to beat you is the logical strategy.
Red-zone can't mean the stopped-zone (unless it's on defense)
The Cardinals have moved the ball. But they get inside the opponent's 20-yard line and everything stalls. It speaks to the impact David Johnson's injury has had, and that makes sense given that Johnson scored 20 touchdowns last season. But through three games, the Cardinals have just three touchdowns on 11 red-zone trips, a disappointing 27 percent conversion rate. On the other side of the ball, it's worse – opponents have scored TDs on 7-of-8 red-zone trips against the Cardinals, or 87.5 percent. Those two stats don't come together and produce many victories. It has to change.
Staying relevant in the NFC West
Whatever hiccups the Cardinals might have had thus far this season, a win Sunday is a division victory, and a realistic chance to be tied atop of the less-than-stellar NFC West. Losing would give the Cardinals an 0-3 record within the NFC and what would be worse, an 0-2 start at home. Teams and players usually like to stay away from the "must-win" talk, but the Cards are creeping closer to such a situation. If the Seahawks beat the Colts and the Rams lose in Dallas, a Cardinals' win would make every team in the division (except the 49ers) 2-2. And then it's like you are starting fresh.