Game breakdown: 49ers/Cardinals

Niners will look to revive zone run game with Gore

Taking a look deep inside Sunday's game between the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, with snapshot game details, series history, game plans, matchups to watch, NFL rankings for both teams, personnel updates and a look inside both camps before the battle between NFC West rivals as the Niners look for their first 9-1 start since 1997.


KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:05 p.m. PST
SITE: Candlestick Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Natural grass
RECORDS: 49ers 8-1, 1-0 in NFC West, 6-1 in NFC; Cardinals 3-6, 1-1 in NFC West, 3-4 in NFC
LAST WEEK: 49ers defeated New York Giants 27-20; Cardinals defeated Philadelphia Eagles 21-17
NFL RANKINGS: 49ers: No. 25 in total offense, No. 11 in total defense. Cardinals: No. 20 in total offense, No. 27 in total defense
TV: FOX (Thom Brennaman, Brian Billick, Laura Okmin)

SERIES HISTORY: 40th regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 23-16; the 49ers have won four consecutive games – beating the Cards even win Mike Singletary was coach and the Niners weren't good – and are looking to match a franchise-best five-game win streak against the Cardinals. Arizona had won four of the previous six meetings before the current losing streak. The most historic game probably took place in 1988, when the Cardinals stunned the 49ers in Arizona, 24-23. The Cardinals won on a last-second pass play during Bill Walsh's last season as head coach. Walsh also injured his shoulder when he collided with a player on the sidelines The coach was so upset after the loss he stormed out of his post-game news conference. The 49ers traditionally have defended the Cardinals as well as any other team. The Cardinals have averaged just seven points a game in the last four games against the 49ers.

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals won't rush QB Kevin Kolb (turf toe) back to the field with John Skelton winning consecutive games and impressing coach Ken Whisenhunt with his ability to shake off mistakes. Arizona's tackles struggle in protection. RB Beanie Wells' ability to be productive against the league's top-ranked run defense is critical. San Francisco's offense would appear to be no-nonsense – use the power ground game to set up play-action. But the 49ers are mixing up their run formations and staying away from tendencies. The Cardinals are 24th against the run and struggle with gap control up front.

FAST FACTS: Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald has 70 career touchdowns, passing Roy Green for the franchise record. ... 49ers CB Carlos Rogers has five interceptions, three shy of his six-year total in Washington.

QUOTES TO NOTE
"Alex Smith, you (the media) find a way to keep diminishing the guy. They call him a game manager and he is a great game manager, but you read it and you hear people talk about him and they're trying to slight him when they say that." -- 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh
"Now all of a sudden I'm a genius? Give me a break." – Cardinals special teams coordinator Kevin Spencer, on coaching rookie punt returner Patrick Peterson, who has three returns for touchdowns in his first nine NFL games.

49ERS GAME PLAN: Could there be more of a trap game for the 49ers? They are playing a lowly opponent and looming behind them just four days later is a Thanksgiving Day clash against the Ravens, which pits the Brothers Harbaugh against each other. While the Ravens game will get all sorts of national attention, the Arizona game is the more important matchup because it's a divisional contest. The 49ers would like to blow out the Cardinals early so they could rest players in the second half. To do it, they may revive their zone run game, because the Cardinals have had trouble with gap control on their defensive front. They are prone to over-running plays.

CARDINALS GAME PLAN: Offensively, the Cardinals are at their best when they can hit big plays. The best way for that to happen is to be able to run when other teams keep safeties deep to help on Larry Fitzgerald. That's going to be difficult against the 49ers. Defensively, the Cardinals probably will have to play different schemes than they did last week against the Eagles. The Eagles used a lot of three-receiver sets, so the Cardinals used their nickel packages. The 49ers like to run the ball and use two tight ends. That means the Cardinals defensive line must be sound in their gap responsibilities. The Cardinals also must do a better job in covering tight ends than they have previously this season.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- Cardinals S Adrian Wilson, who has linebacker size, vs. the 49ers run game, which had trouble against the Giants' three-safety defense.
--- Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald, who is possibly the best in the game, vs. 49ers CB Carlos Rogers, who is having his best season. Fitzgerald has been as good as ever; the Cardinals have just had trouble getting him the ball consistently.
--- Cardinals LT Levi Brown vs. 49ers RE Justin Smith: Brown is not a good pass blocker, and Smith is one of the best ends in the game. The Cardinals will use backs and tight ends to help Brown.
--- Cardinals ILB Daryl Washington vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore: Washington is one of the more athletic inside linebackers in the league. Gore has rushed for 782 yards but is coming off a knee injury. Washington has a tendency to over-run plays, so he needs to be disciplined in his pursuit angles.

Inside the camps


CARDINALS

Second-year veteran John Skelton is expected to start his third consecutive game on Sunday, but he likely will need to improve greatly if the Cardinals are going to beat the 49ers.

Skelton threw for three touchdowns against the Eagles last week, but he also had two interceptions that cost the team 10 points.

At least two other throws could have been intercepted. For most of the second and third quarters, the Cardinals couldn't escape awful field position because they couldn't gain enough first downs.

An improved defense was the reason for the win.

Skelton, however, did do enough to show that he has a future in the NFL. He's big, 6-6 and 244 pounds, has a strong arm and a quick release. He is mobile for a big man.

Most important, he appears to have the mental makeup to succeed. He didn't go into the tank after his mistakes, and he made great throws afterward.

Kevin Kolb likely will miss another game with his foot injury. Kolb practiced on a limited basis this week, but his participation appeared to be restricted to individual drills.

Kolb's problem is that he suffered three injuries to the foot: turf toe, a mid-foot sprain and a bone bruise on the outside of the foot.

If he didn't have the bone bruise, he could compensate better for the turf toe. If he didn't have turf toe, he could take more pressure off the side of his foot.

It appears he's at least a week away from returning. If the Cardinals beat the 49ers, however, coach Ken Whisenhunt will face a difficult decision about which quarterback to start.

"If it's a problem, then it's a good problem to have," Whisenhunt said. "It means John did his job. We've done a lot of things better, which is what we needed to do."

49ERS

The 49ers are at the toughest juncture of their season with two games to play in five days. One is a run-of-the-mill divisional contest against a relatively weak opponent at home. The other is a nationally-televised showdown against a tough customer on the road in which Jim Harbaugh squares off against his older brother, John.

These two games are going to test the ego of Jim Harbaugh. Of course he wants to beat his brother and he wants his team to make an excellent showing on national television. But in actuality, the game versus the 3-6 Cardinals is probably the more important game because it's in the division. So does Harbaugh save players against the Cardinals on Sunday so he can use them on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore?

"No, we're not going to save anything for the swim back if that's what you're asking," Harbaugh said. "This is a division game, these games are worth two games. It's all important."

The other question is, can we believe Harbaugh? His recent history says yes. He ran an arduous training camp where he basically had his players play a three-hour game every day. Once preseason dawned, he kept up the same rigorous routine.

"He told us, 'I don't care if you're tired (for preseason),'" cornerback Carlos Rogers recalled. "I was like, 'Don't we want to win?'"

Harbaugh's response was that he didn't care about winning exhibitions, he wanted to set the team up for wins in the regular season.

Certainly Harbaugh would rather win both games. But he seems to understand the importance of winning in the division as opposed to winning outside the conference. As he says, it's all about, "Team, team, team."

Personnel news


CARDINALS

--- QB Kevin Kolb is not likely to play because of an injured right foot suffered three weeks ago. Kolb has turf toe, sprained ligaments in the mid-foot and a bone bruise. He has increased his work in rehab but has not practiced.

--- QB John Skelton is expected to get his third start of the season Sunday. Skelton threw for a personal high of 315 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles last week.

--- RB Beanie Wells was limited again in practice this week but should be able to play through a knee injury.

--- TE Todd Heap has missed most of the past five games with a hamstring injury. He might miss a sixth this week.

--- FB Anthony Sherman hasn't played much in two weeks because of an ankle injury. He should see more time this week.

--- TE Rob Housler practiced on Thursday for the first time since a groin injury in Baltimore on Oct. 30. Housler might be another week from returning, however.

--- OLB Joey Porter remains out after undergoing knee surgery two weeks ago.

49ERS

--- RB Frank Gore (knee, ankle) missed Wednesday's practice but was back for limited involvement in practice Thursday and Friday. Gore is listed as questionable, but he said he would play Sunday.

--- FB Moran Norris was off the injury list for the first time since injuring his fibula several weeks ago.

--- CB Tarell Brown, the team's starter on the right side, suffered a knee injury during Friday's practice and was added to the injury report as questionable to play Sunday.

--- DE Justin Smith was given veteran's rest for the third week in a row on Wednesday, but was back to full practice on Thursday.

--- DE Ray McDonald (hamstring) said he's not quite 100 percent from the hamstring he strained against the Browns Oct. 30, but he should be fine for Sunday's game.

--- WR Braylon Edwards (knee) does not look like he can run full speed and was limited in practice Wednesday and Thursday. He was listed as probable on Friday's injury report.

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