It’s finally here, the season opener for the Arizona Cardinals! Now all of the talk, all of the hype, all of the off season moves……everything will play out tonight when the Cards take on the San Francisco 49ers at Monster Park on Monday Night Football. So let’s get right to it and take a look at the keys to the game:
1. The O-Line needs to play at a high level from the get go
This is a no-brainer. Following a season in which they were widely regarded as the worst unit in the league, the O-Line needs to have a big game here to establish themselves quickly if they want to have any kind of success against a much improved Niners defense. Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt has made it perfectly clear that this Cardinals team needs to be able to run the football. Notice that I said ‘be able to run the football’, not ‘run first’ because there is a huge difference. What the Cards need to do is establish the threat of the run with RB Edgerrin James, and make teams respect the line of scrimmage. This is what will open up the team’s potent passing attack. Which leads to the 2nd key of the game….
2. Matt Leinart needs to get into a rhythm early and take care of the football
For all of the talk about Arizona’s vaunted aerial attack with WRs Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, it’s all for not if Leinart doesn’t get them the ball. I’m not saying he won’t continue to dazzle as he has during the last games of the preseason, but I am citing the coaching staff’s concern over his bad habits regarding his footwork and how that throws his timing off. The O-Line looks great and should give him plenty of time in the pocket to make the appropriate reads and deliver the football. The offense needs to score early and often, and Leinart is the key to their success.
3. The defense needs to get pressure on 49ers QB Alex Smith and force mistakes
Every QB in the NFL will pick you apart if given the time to stand in the pocket and throw, I don’t care who it is. With all of the weapons that Smith has now with WR Darrell Jackson and TE Vernon Davis it’s absolutely critical that the Cards defense forces Smith to make bad throws, put him on his back and limit his movement out of the pocket as he likes to scramble when the play breaks down. Hit him early, hit him often and make him flinch every time he drops back in the pocket because in the back of his mind he needs to know that he is going to get smacked in the mouth.
4. Put the Niners in a hole early and limit RB Frank Gore’s role
Gore ran for an NFC best mark of 1,695 yards and torched the Cardinals for over 230 yards in his two outings against the Big Red in 2006. I would look for the Niners to do the same thing, pound the ball with Gore and use the run game to set up the play action pass to hit Jackson on a deep route or to hit Davis on those crossing patterns. But here’s the difference: Gore has not touched a football in a preseason game and did not go through a live practice with the team for the entire month of August. What does that mean? It means he will get off to a slow start, trying to get used to contact and to feel his way out after being off the field for so long with a broken hand. It also means that his hand strength is diminished, which could equal fumbles. If the Cards hope to limit his contribution, then they need to get some stops early and put San Francisco behind by two scores. That will force them to go to the air which is away from their team strength of running the football.
So there it is, my preview of tonight’s matchup. The Cards have owned this team for the past two years and hope to continue that dominance tonight. All of the tools are in place, but they are there for the Niners too.
Prediction: Cardinals win, 31 – 24