Preview: How the Niners match up against the Cardinals

We’ve broken down the Niners matchups with the Green Bay Packers and the Seattle Seahawks. Now let’s break down their matchup with another rival – the Arizona Cardinals.

49ERS DEFENSE VS. CARDINALS OFFENSE: The Niners pass rush is young, excellent and improving, and the Cardinals pass protection is no good. They gave up 52 sacks last season, 2nd worst in the NFL. They gave up four to the Niners – they might give up eight to them next season. LT Levi Brown shouldn’t even be a left tackle. He should be a right tackle or a guard. He won’t be able to block Aldon Smith next season.

WR Larry Fitzgerald is one of the top-10 players in football, and he’s probably going to score at least one TD every season against the Niners, but it will be tough for the Cardinals quarterback, whoever that may be – Kevin Kolb or John Skelton – to buy enough time get Fitzgerald or any receiver the ball downfield against San Francisco. This matchup is a clear advantage for the 49ers.

49ERS OFFENSE VS. CARDINALS DEFENSE: Alex Smith turned in two of his worst performances against Arizona’s defense last season. His QB rating against them was roughly 70 and his completion percentage was about 50, far below his season averages (90 QB rating, 60 percent completions).

Arizona blitzes and gets a lot of pressure on quarterbacks – they were tied for seventh in sacks last season (42) with the 49ers and Cowboys. They don’t just attack the left tackle, they attack from everywhere with middle linebackers and safeties and corners. They identify the weak spot in the offensive line and exploit it. Against the Niners they blitzed right up the middle and sacked Smith five times in the second game. They’re going to blitz the Niners next season, too, until Alex Smith makes them pay for it.

Here’s a stat I bet you didn’t know about the Cardinals defense: It ranked No. 1 in the NFL last season in opponents’ third down conversion percentage (31.42). To put that in perspective, the Niners defense ranked 11th in the league with a 35.06 opponents’ third down conversion rate. When the Cardinals’ defense knows an offense is passing, they become elite.

But here’s the rub: They can’t force offenses to be one-dimensional because they’re not good at stopping the run. They ranked 21st against it last season. They also ranked 18th in first downs per play. So you can move the chains against the Cardinals, just not on third down. You need a balanced offense. You need to commit to your running game.

Frank Gore averaged 4.7 yards on 34 carries against the Cardinals last season. If he’s healthy enough to carry about 20 times a game against the Cardinals next season, the Niners should win both games. If he isn’t healthy, the Niners have big a problem, because neither Brandon Jacobs nor Kendall Hunter ran well against Arizona last season – each guy averaged less than three yards per carry. When the Cardinals beat the Niners last season, Gore only rushed 10 times. Smith passed 37 times, got sacked 5 times and the Niners lost. Gore is the x-factor in this matchup. If he’s healthy, the edge goes to the Niners. If he isn’t healthy, the edge goes to the Cardinals, especially when they play in Arizona.

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