The NFC West division crown is at stake on Sunday, as the San Francisco 49ers play host to the Arizona Cardinals in the regular season finale. The 49ers need a win (or a Seahawks loss) to secure the NFC West title, and need a win and a Packers loss to grab the No. 2 seed, and a much-needed bye in the first round.
The Arizona Cardinals are limping home toward the finish, losers of 10 of their past 11 games following a 4-0 start. Here are three matchups to focus on that will help determine whether the 49ers repeat as NFC West champs.
Cardinals Offensive Line vs. 49ers Pass Rush
One of the main reasons the wheels came off the Cardinals’ season was the play of their offensive line. The first half of the season the line was a virtual train wreck, with tackles D’Anthony Batiste and Bobby Massie allowing sacks and pressures at an alarming rate. In the first eight games this year, Batiste allowed 12 sacks and 52 total QB pressures, while Massie surrendered 13 sacks and 49 total QB disruptions of his own. It’s no wonder the Cardinals are now starting their fourth quarterback this season.
The second half of the year has seen some improvement from the line. Batiste was benched in Week 9 in favor of Nate Potter, who, despite struggling himself (seven sacks and 24 total QB disruptions allowed since replacing Batiste), has still been an upgrade. Massie took a peek at his PFF grades and vowed to improve his game, and the hard work has paid off. He hasn’t allowed a sack since the first meeting against the 49ers in Week 8, and has earned six positive grades in his past eight starts. Even Adam Snyder has picked up his game a bit, as he’s had a clean sheet (no QB disruptions allowed) in the pass blocking department in four of his past seven games.
However, with Potter nursing an ankle injury, it looks like Batiste will be making the start at left tackle. This has Aldon Smith dreaming once again of breaking Michael Strahan’s sack record. Smith needs three sacks to tie Strahan’s mark of 22.5 set back in 2001. Smith had two sacks and five pressures against Arizona in their first meeting, with both sacks and two of the pressures coming against Batiste.
With Justin Smith out for this game with a torn tricep, Aldon will not have his counterpart to help him on their infamous twist play. However, he should should still be able to find his way to the quarterback on Sunday.
Brian Hoyer vs. 49ers Secondary
The quarterback play from Arizona this year has been downright awful. What does it say when Ken Whisenhunt decides Bobby Hoyer, a guy they picked up off the street a couple weeks ago, gives them their best chance to win? Since Kevin Kolb’s season-ending injury in Week 6, the trifecta of John Skelton, Ryan Lindley, and Hoyer have combined to throw just two touchdown passes and 16 interceptions.
Amazingly, it gets even worse. Arizona quarterbacks this year have only a 42.4 QB rating when targeting Larry Fitzgerald, which is the lowest rating for any wide receiver in the league with over 50 targets. They’ve also thrown 11 interceptions when targeting Fitzgerald, the most in the league when targeting any individual receiver. On passes of 20+ yards in the air to Fitzgerald, Cardinal quarterbacks have only completed 2 of 26 attempts.
Hoyer replaced Lindley during last Sunday’s loss to Chicago and had 11 completions on 19 attempts for 105 yards and an interception, while earning a -2.9 grade. He will be facing a secondary that contains two of the better cornerbacks in the league in Tarell Brown and nickel back Chris Culliver. Brown leads all cornerbacks in our Tackling Efficiency Rating, and is tied for ninth with 10 passes defensed. Culliver is tied for first among cornerbacks allowing only 0.83 yards per snap in coverage, and is second among cornerbacks allowing a reception per 14.9 snaps in coverage.
Colin Kaepernick vs. Cardinals Defense
Colin Kaepernick will be looking to bounce back from his worst outing (-3.8) of this season. The Seattle defense was able to rattle him, and when pressured he was only two of nine for 6 yards and an interception, which works out to a 0.0 QB rating. Kaepernick has been throwing downfield often the past two weeks, and with success. In the last two games he has attempted 16 passes of 20+ yards in the air, and has completed nine for 248 yards and four touchdowns with one interception. Kaepernick has completed 57.7% of his passes that have traveled 20+ yards in the air this season, and is the only quarterback who is above 50% in that category.
He’ll face an Arizona secondary led by cornerback Patrick Peterson, who has allowed a 53.0 QB rating when targeted this season, fifth-best among corners. Kerry Rhodes currently ranks as the fourth-best safety (+16.6), and has four interceptions this season to go with six passes defensed.
Kaepernick will likely try and pick on William Gay, who is currently allowing 1.41 Yards per Snap in Coverage, and his 10 missed tackles have landed him 63rd among 67 cornerbacks in our Tackling Efficiency Rating.