3TFO: 49ers @ Cardinals, Week 17
This matchup involves two of the hottest teams in the league, with San Francisco (11-4) having won five straight, while the Cardinals (10-5) have taken seven of their last eight. The 49ers also enter Week 17 having both clinched a playoff spot and bid farewell to Candlestick Park, all in the same night. It took some late heroics from NaVorro Bowman with Atlanta driving for the winning score late, but they managed to wrap up at least a wild card spot. Ironically, a 49er loss on Monday night would’ve given Arizona the ability to clinch a playoff spot with a victory against San Francisco in the finale, but now the Cardinals must hope for a Saints loss at home to make the postseason.
The Cardinals return to the desert having pulled off their biggest win of the year, becoming the first team to beat Seattle at home in two years, thanks to a stifling defense that held both Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson in check. A victory over the 49ers on Sunday (combined with a Saints win) would make them just the third 11-win team in the last 40 years to miss the playoffs. This is an important game for the Niners as well, as they can still win the division (and garner a bye) with a win, combined with a loss by the Seahawks.
Running the Ball
Will either team be able to establish a running game? This game features the No. 1 (Arizona) and No. 5 (San Francisco) run defenses in the league (by yardage). In their first meeting in Week 6, the 49ers were able to secure the victory by pounding the ball on a long drive late in the game, a contest that featured the only time the Cardinals have allowed a 100-yard rusher (Frank Gore) all season. Overall, the 49ers managed 149 yards on 38 carries, including an impressive 95 Yards After Contact. While having been one of the catalysts that got the 49ers to their first Super Bowl under Jim Harbaugh last year, the Niners’ offensive line has been having a down year this season, at least by 2012’s lofty standards. After combining for a grade of over +115 last year, the unit’s starting five is hovering around +42 going into the season finale. Almost all of the discrepancy has been in the run blocking department, with their Pass Blocking Efficiency remaining almost unchanged in the last two years (80.0 vs. 79.1 in 2013). Gore’s numbers have dropped accordingly, going from 4.8 yards per carry to 4.2 this season.
For Arizona, Andre Ellington and Rashard Mendenhall both had solid performances in the first meeting, combining for +2.8, and 96 yards on 17 carries. The run blocking from the Cardinals as a whole has been dreadful this year though, so any gains from the Arizona backs will be hard-earned. As a team, Arizona is at -67.8 in run blocking this year (and they struggle equally in pass protection). The offensive line has been the Achilles’ heel for the Cardinals all season, and their backs will no doubt have to overcome some blocking deficiencies, as they have for most of the year.
Michael Crabtree vs. Patrick Peterson
With Michael Crabtree missing the first meeting this year due to injury, this game becomes Patrick Peterson‘s chance at redemption after last season’s contest in Arizona, where Crabtree basically embarrassed Peterson in a much anticipated matchup on Monday Night Football. That evening, although he was targeted only three times against Peterson, Crabtree (+3.0 that game) snagged all three passes from Alex Smith for two touchdowns, including one where he caught the ball short of the goal line on third down, and juked Peterson out of a tackle that could have forced a field goal.
Crabtree has been coming along slowly since his return four weeks ago, totaling 16 catches on 25 targets for 255 yards and a touchdown, but he passed the century mark for the first time Monday night against Atlanta. Aside from one surprisingly poor performance against Kendall Wright in Tennessee two weeks ago, Peterson has continued to have another solid season, rarely being challenged by opposing quarterbacks. In fact, he is the fourth-least targeted cornerback in the league to date, with a rate of 7.5 Cover Snaps Per Target. Peterson has spent the entire season mirroring the opponent’s best receiver, so expect these two to be matched up quite a bit.
One pattern that has gone unbroken almost the entire season has been the damage done by tight ends against the otherwise stalwart Cardinals’ defense. That story line held up again last week in Seattle, with Seahawk tight end Zach Miller scoring the only touchdown of the day. In his first meeting with Arizona, Vernon Davis had by far his best game of the season, with eight catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns. In fact, his next highest receiving yardage total is just 88, although he does have 12 scores on the year. With safety/slot corner extraordinaire Tyrann Mathieu out for the year, that will leave Arizona without an important piece of the puzzle in their coverage schemes, so Davis may have another opportunity to bust out against the Cardinals. Although his year has been up and down (he didn’t register a single catch Monday night against Atlanta), he has been the biggest deep threat among tight ends, with 11 catches on passes of 20 yards or more, four more than the next highest player.
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