The 49ers are down a key member of their talented defense heading into Week 1 after placing outside…
Keys to the game: 49ers/Cardinals
Get Gore and ground game rolling again
There's no reason for the 49ers to pussyfoot around in this game. After rushing for only 77 yards in last week's 27-20 victory over the New York Giants – their lowest total since Week 3, and their first time under 138 yards rushing since then – the Niners need to re-establish their grinding, tempo-setting run game that has carried the offense during the team's long victory skein. Arizona ranks 21st in the NFL in rushing defense, but has been showing some improvement recently in first-year coordinator Ray Horton's 3-4 system. But the Cards are still getting familiar with gap control on their defensive front, and San Francisco needs to exploit any advantage it can find there. This will also be a good time to get star tailback Frank Gore back in the flow and in a rushing rhythm after he was limited to zero yards on the ground for the first time in his career last week. Gore may relinquish more carries to his backups after battling ankle and knee injuries the past two weeks, but he has 219 yards rushing on just 30 carries in his last two games against the Cards and figures to have an opportunity to do some damage again on what could be a wet, sloppy field after a night of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Gang up on Larry Fitzgerald
Athletic, big-play wide receivers have had success against the 49ers this year, and Arizona's star wideout definitely falls into that category. The Niners must be aware of Fitzgerald at all times and make him work hard for everything he gets – and that includes even getting off the line of scrimmage. The Niners won't alter their basic defensive strategy just to stop one player, but Fitzgerald should see regular bump coverage and also a safety leaning to his side of the field more often than not. One of Arizona's best hopes of pulling off an upset is for Fitzgerald to go wild and single-handedly keep the Cards in the game, or even win the game. The 49ers need a concerted team defensive effort to keep Fitzgerald from becoming a constant go-to target while containing him from doing any kind of considerable damage.
Keep mixing it up with Alex Smith and passing game
The 49ers made big strides with their passing game last week, when they came out featuring their aerial attack as the primary game plan and stuck with that approach the entire afternoon. Smith spread the ball around and completed passes to eight different targets, and this is no time for the Niners to take a step backward and return to a conservative, game-managing approach that has characterized their offense most of the season. Arizona ranks 24th in the NFL in pass defense and has some vulnerable young cornerbacks and an old safety that can be isolated in coverage. The Niners need to take their shots through the air and keep working toward that 50-50 balance on offense that coach Jim Harbaugh strives for to keep the Cards honest.
Contain Patrick Peterson in punt coverage
The Arizona rookie has taken three punts back for touchdowns already in his first nine NFL games, including one each in two of the past three games. Peterson averages 17.6 yards per return and has been a game-breaker that has made a difference for the Cardinals. The Niners need to make sure he doesn't make a difference in this game. San Francisco's coverage teams have been strong all season – opponents are averaging 8.2 yards on punt returns – and punter Andy Lee has done a great job of not letting returners have the whole field to work with when they indeed are able to return one of his kicks. Lee leads the NFL with a 43.8-yard net average. The Niners' coverage unit must keep Peterson's average return closer to what they are giving up than what he's been getting this season.
Bang on Beanie
Arizona's running game revolves around Beanie Wells, who has displayed a more physical style of play this year in his third NFL season. The 229-pound Wells can be tough to bring down and already has scored seven rushing touchdowns this season. He'll be going against a defense that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown in 10 consecutive games. The Cards would like to establish a ground game to set a tempo and take some pressure off second-year quarterback John Skelton, but Wells will have to be the man to make that happen. He'll be going against the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense, which will be looking to hit Wells early and often and add him to the list of big backs that have been shut down this season by the Niners.
Justin Smith vs. Levi Brown
This could be a considerable mismatch in favor of the 49ers, since Brown has been struggling as much as any left tackle in the league and Smith is having a terrific season. But Smith must make it a mismatch by applying pressure and making himself big on almost every down as he's done consistently all season. Brown will see Smith across from him most of the game, and if he can't neutralize San Francisco two-time Pro Bowler to some degree for the Arizona offense to be successful, it will force the Cardinals to give him help with extra blockers. That could weaken the offense in other areas and cause a chain reaction that could help fold the Cards.
Win in the red zone
The 49ers have been outstanding at stopping opponents in the red zone this season, leading the NFL in red-zone defense while allowing a touchdown just once every three times an opponent gets inside San Francisco's 20-yard line. The Niners could get tested by an Arizona offense that has been very good in the red zone, converting touchdowns on 57.7 percent of their trips to rank ninth in the NFL. Meanwhile, the San Francisco offense continues to lag in the red zone, ranking 24th in the NFL with a 43.75 percentage of touchdowns scored, and that has allowed several opponents to stay within striking distance in games the 49ers have controlled. The 49ers can't let allow a seemingly-overmatched, heavy-underdog Arizona squad to be another one of those teams.