In the final segment of our exclusive four-part series, SFIllustrated.com's Craig Massei and…
Game breakdown: 49ers vs. Cardinals
SITE Candlestick Park in San Francisco
SURFACE: Natural grass
2007 RECORDS: 49ers 5-11, 3-3 in NFC West, 3-9 in NFC, third-place finish in division; Cardinals 8-8, 3-3 in NFC West, 5-7 in NFC, second-place finish in NFC West
TV: FOX (Sam Rosen, Tim Ryan, Chris Myers)
SERIES HISTORY: 34th meeting, 49ers lead series, 19-14. Two of San Francisco's five victories last year came against the Cardinals. The Cardinals committed six turnovers in those games, including four in an overtime loss in Arizona. Those losses were damaging blows to the Cardinals' hopes of winning the NFC West and making the playoffs. The players view the 49ers as one of their key rivals.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt turned to QB Kurt Warner in an effort to provide more consistency to the offense and hopefully cut down on turnovers. Warner isn't as mobile as Matt Leinart, so there's an increased onus on the offensive line. RB Edgerrin James remains the featured back, but watch for rookie Tim Hightower, a fifth-round pick who has impressed the coaching staff with his decisive cuts and burst through the hole. The 49ers open their sixth consecutive season with a new offensive coordinator, and this time it's Mike Martz. Seven years after playing for UC Davis, QB J.T. O'Sullivan will make his first career regular-season NFL start while former No. 1 overall pick Alex Smith rides the bench. The 49ers want O'Sullivan to manage the game, avoid turnovers and get the ball into the hands of RB Frank Gore on the ground and through the air.
NEED TO KNOW: James is 13th in NFL history with 11,607 career rushing yards, 467 behind Thurman Thomas. ... 49ers WR Isaac Bruce's 942 career receptions are more than any receiver currently in the Hall of Fame.
BY THE NUMBERS: 6 -- Number of consecutive seasons in which the 49ers have had new offensive coordinators: Greg Knapp, Ted Tollner, Mike McCarthy, Norv Turner, Jim Hostler and, this season, Mike Martz.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"Playing well and being yourself, those kinds of things take care of themselves. It's not something I'm consciously trying to exert or anything like that. I think if I play well and try to be myself, those thing's will take care of themselves" -- 49ers quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan on whether he views himself as a leader on the team.
49ERS GAME PLAN: A lot of the 49ers' offense will go through RB Frank Gore, who is excited about the prospect of playing in Mike Martz's offense. Gone are the days of facing eight men in the box to stop the run, Gore says. The 49ers' varied passing attack should take some of the pressure off Gore's running. He led the 49ers in receptions each of the past two seasons, and again he figures to be featured in both the run and pass games. QB J.T. O'Sullivan will try to spread the ball around in the passing game, and TE Vernon Davis could emerge as an important target down the field. Defensively, the 49ers will mix things up as coordinator Greg Manusky tries to get as many hits possible on Cardinals QB Kurt Warner. DE/OLB Justin Smith will move around throughout the game, as he shifts from DE in the team's 4-3 front to OLB when the team moves to a 3-4. He will also line up at DT when on passing situations. CB Nate Clements will be singled up for a good portion of the game, as the 49ers try to keep WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in check.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
--- 49ers RB Frank Gore vs. Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson and LB Karlos Dansby: Gore figures to be active in the run and pass games under new offensive coordinator. Wilson might be responsible for moving up into the box to key on Gore's running ability. Dansby, who has great range and is a playmaker, also will be keying on Gore in a strength vs. strength matchup.
--- 49ers CB Walt Harris vs. Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin: Harris, a 13-year veteran, showed some signs of slowing down last season. Boldin begins this season unhappy about his contract situation.
--- 49ers CB Nate Clements vs. Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald: Clements usually guards the most dangerous receiver, and that likely is Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will try to use his size and strength and can be dangerous if he's covered by one man, even if that man is pretty good.
--- 49ers QB J.T. O'Sullivan vs. Cardinals FS Antrel Rolle and SS Adrian Wilson: O'Sullivan is making his first NFL start. In Rolle, he'll face a player making the transition from cornerback to free safety. O'Sullivan also must know where Wilson is at all times. That's harder than it sounds because Wilson will line up at safety, inside linebacker and will blitz up the middle and off the edge.
The 49ers expect to have all 53 players healthy and available for Sunday's game. NT Aubrayo Franklin (knee) and LB Parys Haralson (shoulder) are on the injury report but they've been able to go through full work in practice.
The Cardinals start the season in reasonably good health. NT Alan Branch (ankle) is hobbling. He needs to play to give starter Bryan Robinson a rest. If Branch can't play, the Cardinals will have to get creative to give Robinson a breather. That shouldn't be a problem because the team often goes to a 4-3 look in passing situations. DE Kenny Iwebema is practicing at nose tackle in case Branch can't play. NT Gabe Watson (knee) is expected to begin practicing soon. He suffered a fractured kneecap in the off-season and hasn't been cleared to practice. C Al Johnson (knee) remains out but is expected to begin practicing in a week or two.
--NT Alan Branch didn't practice on Thursday, so it looks like starter Bryan Robinson will be holding down that spot alone on Sunday. Branch (ankle) needs to practice on Friday in order to play Sunday.
--TE Leonard Pope has looked better in recent weeks after struggling early in training camp. Pope suffered a dislocated ankle and fractured leg late last season and didn't seem up to speed when camp started. He's been running better of late and has made some nice catches.
--C Al Johnson is at least a week, and probably more like two, away from returning to the lineup. Johnson underwent knee surgery in late July. Lyle Sendlein has taken his place and is a solid player.
--WR Steve Breaston will be the team's No. 3 receiver, but he's being pressed by Jerheme Urban. Neither has filled that role on a consistent basis. Breaston is in his second year, and Urban has struggled through some injuries and has dropped some passes in traffic.
--RB Edgerrin James likely will have some of his workload reduced this year due to the emergence of rookie Tim Hightower. Hightower could get between five and 10 carries a game if he produces like he did in preseason.
--TE Delanie Walker, the team's backup to Vernon Davis, missed practice Thursday with a calf strain. The club expects him to be available for action Sunday against the Cardinals.
--FS Mark Roman is the defensive player who will be in charge of wearing the radio communications device in his helmet. Roman will be in charge of announcing the personnel group and play call in the 49ers' defensive huddle.
--NT Aubrayo Franklin has returned to full practice, and is on schedule to start against the Cardinals. Franklin sustained a knee strain in the 49ers' final exhibition game.
--LG Adam Snyder won the starting job over David Baas, who returned last week for his first game since sustaining a torn pectoral tendon. Snyder is coming back from a high-ankle sprain.
--LB Jeff Ulbrich is scheduled to split play time with Takeo Spikes at strong inside linebacker. Ulbrich has been the starter for the entire offseason.
--LB Takeo Spikes is scheduled to split time Sunday in the 49ers' regular-season opener. It is uncertain whether Spikes or Jeff Ulbrich will start the game, but both are expected to see significant playing time.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Coaches have worked hard with quarterback Kurt Warner this offseason on ball security in hopes that is the remedy for his fumbling problems.
Ball security is the key, said coach Ken Whisenhunt. That's obvious, but how have the Cardinals gone about it.
Warner and the other quarterbacks have gone through daily drills to practice moving around in the pocket while keeping both hands on the ball. They move in and around bags and also work on rolling out.
The emphasis to Warner has been to keep both hands on the ball. He has had trouble in the past with holding the ball in one hand, while trying to look downfield for a receiver and avoiding the rush. That allowed defensive linemen, especially ends, to just reach out and knock the ball loose. It also made him more susceptible to fumbling when he was sacked.
Improving this area was one of Warner's biggest points of emphasis this offseason, he said. Warner also said he needs to realize when it's time to give up on a play. Too often, he holds on to the ball in a crowd, hoping to get rid of it at the last second.
The 49ers might have improved themselves while chipping away at one of the Arizona's biggest strengths in the offseason.
The 49ers signed receiver Bryant Johnson to a one-year contract. Johnson is expected to start at split end this season. In the process, they affected the Cardinals, who already had perhaps the two best starting receivers in the NFL: Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.
"I thought he did a very good job for us last year and we would love to still have him on this football team," Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "I think he's a good football player and I think he brought a lot to the team, other than just being a good football player."
The 49ers expect him to bring a lot to their team too.
First-time starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan will undoubtedly try to spread the ball around Sunday when the 49ers open against the Cardinals. Johnson and Isaac Bruce are likely to start for the 49ers, with Arnaz Battle and rookie Josh Morgan seeing a lot of time in the team's multi-receiver sets.
Johnson and O'Sullivan have not had much time to develop a lot of chemistry. Johnson played in just one exhibition game this summer, and O'Sullivan sat that one out as a precaution.
O'Sullivan said chemistry is overrated when it comes to his outlook on his position. He said his reads do not change regardless of who is running the routes.
"It's a trust thing that they trust me to put the ball exactly where I'm supposed to and I trust them to be exactly where they're supposed to be," O'Sullivan said.
While Johnson undoubtedly wants to be on the receiving end of many O'Sullivan passes on Sunday, he is not letting on this game is any more important to him. Johnson has tried to keep a balanced approach to this week's game against the organization with which he spent his first five NFL seasons.
"The important thing about going into a situation like this is not to O.D. on your emotions," Johnson said. "I'm here now. I'm not there anymore. Therefore, I'm taking the approach that they're an opponent now."
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