Young WRs are tonight’s marquee matchups

Here is a dose of intriguing matchups for tonight’s 49ers game against the Cardinals in the desert.


Regardless of how the 49ers fare tonight – and what the remainder of the season holds for the club – this is a significant game for the organization’s future. The reason is because the young receivers will be on full display.


That’s why Josh Morgan and Jason Hill are at the top of the list when it comes to the matchups.


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Niners WR Josh Morgan vs. Cardinals CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie: Morgan has been the main split end, ahead of Bryant Johnson, in the 49ers’ past three games. He has six receptions in those games, including a five-catch, 86-yard performance against the Giants. However, he also had a dropped pass of a nicely thrown deep ball in that game. He shows flashes, but he also has been inconsistent. O.C. Mike Martz says when young players are learning a system and their heads are swimming, it’s quite common for drops to occur. It’lll be rookie vs. rookie in this matchup, as Rodgers-Cromartie gets the nod in place of Eric Green. Rodgers-Cromartie was a first-round draft pick. Morgan was a sixth-rounder.


WR Jason Hill vs. DB Antrel Rolle: Remember back in ’05 when the 49ers owned the No. 1 overall pick? The club brought in four players and touted them as potential selections with that first selection: Alex Smith, Aaron Rodgers, Braylon Edwards and Rolle. After three seasons, the Cardinals moved Rolle from corner to safety, where he now plays. But when Hill is on the field, in place of injured Arnaz Battle, Rolle will move to nickel back and cover the slot receiver. Hill played just 30 snaps of offense all of last season. This will be his first big chance to show what he’s got. Rolle had a 40-yard interception return for a TD last week against the Rams. He has taken back four picks for scores in the past two seasons.


LT Joe Staley vs. OLB Chike Okeafor: Staley has to keep the heat off of Shaun Hill’s blind side. That was a problem with J.T. O’Sullivan, who never was able to sense that pressure. O’Sullivan fumbled 11 times in 7 ½ games. Okeafor, a third-round pick of the 49ers in 1999, is fifth on the Cardinals with 30 tackles. He also has recorded three sacks. Staley got off to a rough start, but his play has improved incrementally.


TE Vernon Davis vs. OLB Bertrand Berry: Perhaps, Davis will not remain into block as much as he did with O’Sullivan taking all those seven-step drops. But he will surely still have to block Berry from time to time. Berry is tied for the team-lead with four sacks. Davis has been used primarily as a blocker. He has seen just 25 passes come his way (he has 16 receptions) through the first eight games, after catching 52 passes in 2007.


RB Frank Gore vs. SS Adrian Wilson: Wilson is one of the top safeties in the game. He will creep down into the box to become the eighth defender. That is why it’s important for Shaun Hill to at least try to get the ball down the field from time to time. Gore becomes even more important with Hill at quarterback. He needs to be able to run the ball to create play-action opportunities for the passing game. Also, Gore said he figures to catch more passes with Hill’s willingness to check it down to the backs if nothing is open down the field.


CB Nate Clements vs. WR Larry Fitzgerald: The last time these teams met, Clements did a very nice job of Fitzgerald. He caught a 1-yard TD pass over Clements, but Fitzgerald finished with just three receptions for 31 yards. Last year at Candlestick, Fitzgerald had three catches for 20 yards. But when Fitzgerald got on his home turf, he torched the 49ers with nine catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns. Clements has been up and down this season, but he has generally played very well against top receivers. Fitzgerald is one of the best in the game.


FS Mark Roman vs. QB Kurt Warner: On the other side, Walt Harris is going to need some help against Anquan Boldin. That’s where Roman comes in. Roman has to put together a strong game while playing center field against the Cardinals’ potent passing attack. Warner enters the game with a 104.2 passer rating, and is a legitimate MVP candidate as we begin the second half of the season. Roman has started 88 consecutive games, the second-longest active streak of consecutive starts in the NFL. But in his 40 starts with the 49ers, he has produced just one interception.


LB Patrick Willis vs. RB Tim Hightower: The rookie runner from Richmond has overtaken Edgerrin James as the Cardinals’ top back. James had 100 yards rushing against the 49ers in the season opener. Hightower has seven touchdowns on the season, and has added 17 receptions for 138 yards. Willis can set the tone for the game with a big hit on Hightower. This is a big game for Willis, as he has a rare opportunity to show the rest of the nation that there’s a star playing on the seldom-seen 49ers.


DE Justin Smith vs. RT Levi Brown: Smith will line up on both sides tonight. He’ll probably be matched against more against LT Mike Gandy. But Gandy is an eighth-year pro. Brown is in his second NFL season. We think that Smith will get a few chances to use his veteran experience and savvy against Brown, one of the top picks in last year’s draft. Despite the national perception, Smith has been very, very good for the 49ers. He’s not going to the Pro Bowl or going to garner any post-season awards, but – in the words similar to those of Dennis Green – he is what we thought he was. He’s very active against the run, and he is relentless as a pass-rusher. Smith has three sacks and 26 QB pressures. And Smith plays almost every down, so Gandy and Brown should be prepared for a full night of work.


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