The three biggest things to watch for Sunday when the Cardinals play the 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California:
A Running Back Room In Flux
The then-undefeated 49ers came to State Farm Stadium a couple of weeks ago featuring a defense that had been hell on opponents – and the Cardinals dented that unit, thanks to a rushing game featuring a man who had just arrived: Kenyan Drake. Drake went off for 110 yards rushing, a shiny new piece in a backfield that would surely be bolstered when David Johnson was able to return from an ankle injury. Except Johnson returned (albeit against an excellent rush defense with the Buccaneers) and struggled mightily, to the point of getting benched in the fourth quarter in favor of Drake. Now the Cardinals play the same team which Drake excelled against. Where does Johnson fit this Sunday? Bigger picture, can Johnson start to recapture the production he had earlier this season, when he was able to make some huge plays – especially as a receiver out of the backfield – to help the Cardinals?
A Third Of The Problem
The Cardinals have gone through a stretch in which they are able to force teams into third down a lot of the time. The last two games – against the 49ers and Bucs – the Cardinals actually had the opposition in a third-and-6-or-longer 23 times. Those teams got first downs on 12 of those plays. Overall, the Niners and Bucs converted 18 of 32 third downs. That’s a backbreaking way to live as a defense, and ultimately the biggest reason the Cardinals lost both games by three points each. It isn’t just a singular place for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph to try and fix. The pass rush overall has been inconsistent. The youth on the back end has had expected hiccups. There hasn’t been the progress expected by players like inside linebacker Haason Reddick. The Cards have to force more punts when they have a chance.
Two Weeks Apart, A Close Loss And The Beat-Up 49ers
The Cardinals and 49ers just played. The Cards, had they come up with a third-down stop, would’ve had a chance to get at least to overtime. Then the 49ers had to play Monday night against the Seahawks, losing a tough game to end their undefeated season and in the meantime, suffered a mountain of injuries. The Niners won’t have tight end George Kittle – who killed the Cards the first time – and might not have wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who also killed the Cards the first time. The entire 49ers inactives list is expected to be filled with players forced there by injury. The Cardinals, even on the road, have to find a way to take advantage. Is that easier or more difficult when you see a team for a second time in a three-game span?