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NFL Preview - San Francisco at Arizona

NFL Preview - San Francisco at Arizona


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The first official game at Cardinals Stadium is on tap this Sunday afternoon, as Arizona welcomes the San Francisco 49ers to the newest building in the NFL.


The most unique characteristic of the stadium is the first retractable natural-grass playing surface in the United States. The field will be slid outside the stadium when not in use, in order to maximize exposure to the sun. Cardinals Stadium is also equipped with a retractable roof.


Now that the Cardinals have improved their home facility, they hope the success of the franchise will follow. The team has made the playoffs just once in 18 seasons since moving to Arizona, and that was back in 1998.


Dennis Green will be in his third season with the Cardinals, after leading the club to a disappointing 11-21 mark over the past two campaigns, including a 5-11 mark in 2005.


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The Cardinals had the top passing offense in the NFL last year, but were ranked dead last at running the ball. The club made an eye-catching move to fix the discrepancy in the offseason, as they signed four-time Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James, the all-time rushing leader in Colts' history.


The 49ers also hope to be vastly improved this season, their second under head coach Mike Nolan. The once-model NFL franchise suffered its third straight losing season in 2005, as it stumbled to a dismal 4-12 record. The only good news for Nolan and San Francisco was that the four wins were a two-game improvement from 2004, Dennis Erickson's last year as the head coach.


Unlike the Cardinals, the 49ers didn't make a big splash this offseason by signing a marquee player. Instead, San Francisco brought in Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, and expect the former Redskins and Raiders head coach to assist with the development of second-year quarterback Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft.


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SERIES HISTORY


San Francisco has a 17-12 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals, but was swept in a pair of games against its NFC West rival last season. The Niners were 31-14 losers when the teams met in Mexico City in Week 4, and fell by a 17-10 count at Monster Park in Week 13. Prior to 2005, the 49ers had prevailed in eight of the previous nine head-to-head meetings. The Niners won by identical 31-28 marks, both in overtime, in a 2004 home-and-home. Arizona's last home victory in the series came in 2003, a 16-13 overtime decision.


Green is 4-7 in his career against San Francisco, including a 2-5 mark while head coach of the Vikings from 1992 through 2001. Green's Vikings were 38-22 losers to the 49ers in a 1997 NFC Divisional Playoff. Green was an assistant with San Francisco in 1979, and again from 1986 to 1988. San Francisco's Nolan is 0-2 against both Green and the Cardinals as a head coach.


49ERS OFFENSE VS. CARDINALS DEFENSE


The 49ers struggled in nearly all aspects of the game last season, but their biggest problems may have come in the passing offense, which was ranked 32nd in the NFL. San Francisco's offensive line was beset with injuries, and the replacements were ill-equipped to protect the quarterback, no matter who it happened to be that week. Smith will be the No. 1 QB this season and hopes to improve upon a dreadful rookie season that saw him go just 2-5 as a starter while throwing one touchdown pass and 11 interceptions. The offensive line has recovered from the injuries, and that should give Smith more of a chance this year. In order to assist in Smith's development, the team signed free agent wideout Antonio Bryant (69 receptions, 4 TD with Cleveland) in the offseason, and also selected tight end Vernon Davis (Maryland) with the sixth overall pick in the draft.


The Cardinals' defense was solid in terms of yardage allowed last year, yet the team was still ranked 26th in points surrendered per game. A strength for this Arizona club could be its ability to stop the passing game, but that more or less hinges on second-year cornerback Antrel Rolle (28 tackles, 1 INT). The eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft was limited to just five games because of knee injuries. Starting opposite Rolle will be David Macklin (61 tackles, 2 INT), who was a consistent performer for Arizona last season. Strong safety Adrian Wilson (109 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT) will return as a starter, as will free safety Robert Griffith (64 tackles, 1 INT). Providing the pass rush for Arizona will be defensive ends Bertrand Berry (33 tackles, 6 sacks) and Chike Okeafor (51 tackles, 7.5 sacks).


Even with a dreadful passing game, the 49ers were able to run the ball effectively at times last season. Frank Gore had an impressive rookie season, rushing for 608 yards on 4.8 yards per carry and the club made him the undisputed No. 1 back by trading Kevan Barlow to the New York Jets in training camp. Gore, a second-round pick out Miami (FL), also caught 15 passes for 131 yards, and the 49ers expect those numbers to increase greatly now that he is the starter.


Arizona was 10th in rushing defense last season and hopes to build on that success this year. The Cardinals tried to improve this aspect of their game by acquiring free agent defensive tackle Kendrick Clancy (37 tackles, 2 sacks with the Giants). Clancy will be paired with Darnell Dockett (29 tackles, 0.5 sacks), who is returning at the other tackle position. James Darling (88 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) figures to get the start at the middle linebacker position after narrowly beating out Gerald Hayes, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.


CARDINALS OFFENSE VS. 49ERS DEFENSE


Arizona's pass offense was downright prolific last season, and finished first in the NFL in that category. Kurt Warner (2713 passing yards, 11 TD, 9 INT) displayed flashes of the form that made him a two-time NFL MVP with St. Louis. However, he is 35 years old and missed six games last season due to injuries. If Warner goes down in Week 1, the Cardinals will turn to rookie Matt Leinart, the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft and 2004 Heisman Trophy winner at USC. The main reason for the success of Arizona's aerial attack last year was the dual threat of wideouts Larry Fitzgerald (103 receptions, 10 TD) and Anquan Boldin (102 receptions, 7 TD). Bryant Johnson (40 receptions, 1 TD) can also do some damage as the team's third wide receiver. Leonard Pope (Georgia), a third-round pick in the 2006 draft, will attack the middle of the field as the team's starting tight end. James (44 receptions, 1 TD) was always an excellent receiver with Indianapolis and the Cardinals hope he brought those pass- catching skills with him to the desert.


The 49ers ranked last in NFL passing defense last season, enduring several devastating injuries to their secondary that assisted in that performance. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer (83 tackles, 4 INT) was the only projected starter not to suffer a serious injury last year, and is back for San Francisco this season. The likely starter at the other corner will be veteran Walt Harris (57 tackles, 1 INT with Washington). Tony Parrish (34 tackles, 2 INT) is back at strong safety after playing in just nine games last year, and Mike Adams (74 tackles, 4 INT) will be the starter at free safety. San Francisco needs to get more pressure on the quarterback this season after managing just 28 sacks as a team in 2005.


The Cardinals were dreadful at running the ball last year, averaging an NFL- worst 71.1 yards per game. The acquisition of a superstar back like James (1,506 yards, 13 rushing TD) is an excellent way to fix that problem. Many critics believe that James will not perform at the same level as he did with the high-powered Colts offense, but his presence will almost certainly improve a team that managed just two rushing TDs all of last season. Still, it could be a bit tougher for "Edge" in Arizona, considering the Cardinals offensive line is not nearly as strong as Indy's.


San Francisco did a decent job at stopping the run last season, finishing 18th in the NFL in that category by allowing 114.5 yards per game. The 49ers will play the 3-4 system once again and will have the same starters returning at the defensive line positions. Bryant Young, a tackle for most of his career, switched to defensive end last year and posted 36 tackles. At the other end is Marques Douglas (58 tackles, 1 sack), and back at nose tackle is Anthony Adams (40 tackles, 2.5 sacks). Also returning at inside linebacker will be Derek Smith, who led the team with 116 tackles last season. Jeff Ulbrich (41 tackles) is also healthy again after missing the final 11 games of last season due to a torn biceps muscle.


OVERALL ANALYSIS


Much of the Cardinals' tenure in Arizona has been marked by fan indifference, but that shouldn't be the case this week, when they show off their new digs. The crowd will be pumped for this occasion, and that will make things even more difficult for still unproven Alex Smith. On the other side, expect the veteran Warner to relish in the atmosphere, as he leads his boys to a solid opening week performance.


-> Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 28, 49ers 17, bet the game now and take your 0 bonus FREE


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About the Author: -> Predicted Outcome: Cardinals 28, 49ers 17, bet the game now and take your 0 bonus FREE


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