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2015 Regular Season
Preview: Cards @ Niners

Last MInuteNews, Rumors etc.
(Updated regularly if or when needed) - TBD
..

Setting the Stage
Cards beat the Seahawks and Bengals on successive Sunday nights and are now 8 & 2 (three games ahead of division rival Seattle and 5 games ahead of the Niners (who lost to the Seahawks 29 to 13 last Sunday). I'm not sure what led to, what seems to have be the wholesale dismantling of a Niners ovwr the past couple of years (could it have been money? Coaching philosophy? Personal Philosophy? Or just the lunacy at the very tippy top of the organization)? Seems like the latter - Coach Harbaugh is gone. Frank Gore is gone. Vernon Davis is gone.
Kaepernick is on IR (and probably gone).

Meanwhile, Arizona appears have become the darlings of a fickle media that, until recently, had dismissed them as a quirky upstart playing an easy schedule. Now they're anointing them one of the top two teams in the NFC (behind Carolina) and a potential Super Bowl champion. Therein lies the danger - The Cards are as good as they want to be; but sometimes success can be their worst enemy - they'll take their foot off the pedal (as in "2 early Palmer interceptions vs. Cincy) and suddenly they can look very ordinary. They're a fun team to follow this year, but I'm afraid the roller-coaster ride is far from over.

Opponent's Last Game
Niners were outclassed by a good (but not great) Seahawk club and lost 29 - 13.

First Quarter
SF received. TB on the KO. Niners held to 3 & out. Seahawks returned punt to their 39. Seahawks reeled off gains of +8, +12, +9, +5 before Wilson hit T Lokckett deep right for a 24 yard TD.. Seattle 7 - Niners 0.

Niners returned the KO to their own 18 and went 3 & out again. Punt was fair caught at the Seattle 41. Again, Wilson & Co. pecked the Niners to death (Yardage sequence: +8. +1, +2, +4, Inc., +9, +8, +8, +7, +10 and a 2 yard TD run over RG by Rawls. XP was no good. Seattle 13 - Niners 0.

SF returned the KO (net penalty) to their own 7. They picked up their first first-down (@ then a second), reaching the 30 as the quarter ended,

First Quarter Score: Seattle 13 - Niners 0..

Second Quarter
Pinion punted frim his own 39. Returned to the Seattle 9 for no gain. Wilson took the Seahawks oin a 13 play (7:37) scoring drive capped by an 11-yard short TD pass to T Lockett. (Once again, yarage sequence was impressive: +4, +20, +9, +7, +17, +7, +2, +8, +5, +7, +4, Minus 4, +11 yards & a TD). Seattle 20 - Niners 0.

KO was returned t the SF 20. Three & outsville. Punt (plus penalty) gave Seattle the ball on its own 40. They moved to the Niner 38 before a sack (by Brooks) helped derail the drive. Punt downed at the Niner 8 yd line with 1:40 left till halftime. Gabbert led his offense on a 9-play (1:31) TD drive. Key plays: 19-yard pass to Draughn. 15-yard pass to Q Patton. 17-yard completion to Boldin. Scramble for +19 yards. Scoring play was a 19-yard completion to V. McDonald.Seattle 20 - Niners 7.

TB on the KO. 0:09 to go. Knee.

First Half Score: Seattle 20 - Niners 7.

Third Quarter
Seattle received. TB on the KO. They were held to 3 & out. Punt was returned to the SF 35. Gabbert's 33 yard dep pass to Celek helped set the stage for a 27-yard FG by Dawson. Seattle 20 - Niners 10.

TB on the KO. A 30-yard run by Rawls and an 18-yard pass to Kearse were key plays in a 9-play scoring drive ending in a 33-yard Hauschka FG. Seattle 23 - Niners 10.

Ellington fumbled out of bounds at the Niner 29 on the ensuing kickoff. A 25 yard completion to Boldin a 36-yard pass to McDonald and an 11-yard pass to Boldin helped set up a 25-yard Dawson FG. Seattle 23 - Niners 13.

TB on the KO. Seattle ran off one play as the quarter ended,

Third Quarter Score: Seattle 23 - Niners 13.

Fourth Quarter
Seven plays later, Wilson hit Rawls short and the big Seattle RB took it in for a 31-yard score. XP was blocked. Seattle 29 - Niners 13.

TB on the KO. After a +28 yard pass to Boldin, Niners punted four plays later. Fair caught at Seattle's 14. The Seahawks managed to drain 3:00 off the clock before punting from their own 45. Fair catch: Niner 12. Gabbert hit T Smith for +16 but Avril's 10-yard sack two plays later forced a punt. Downed at the Seattle 33. Rawl's picked up +11 on the first play, but Seattle had to punt from its 47 four plays later. 3:27 left to play. Fair catch: Niner 9. Three & out. Punt returned to the Seattle 44. 3:00 left. Rawls immediately ran off LG for 22-yards. After Rawls picked up another 10 yards, Wilson took 3 knees to end the game.

Final Score: Seattle 29 - Niners 13.

Meaningful Game Stats

Passing - Gabbert was 22 for 34, 264 yards, 1 TD and a no picks. Wilson was unreal (24 for 29 for 260 yards, 3 TD's and no picks).

Receiving -Leading receivers were Boldin (5 for 93) and McDonald (4 for 65 and a TD). Daughn (a RB) caught 8 for 40 yards.

Rushing - Niners gained 59 ground yards (22 by Gabbert). Draughn was the only other ballcarrier.

Pass Defense - Niners couldn't stop Wilson's short-passing attack (Longest gains was for 31 yards by Rawls on a short pass/run.

Run Defense - Rawls gained 209 yards on 30 carries. (Wilson carried the ball 9 times)

Turnovers - +0. No fumbles or interceptions by either team.

Tackles - Reid led the Niners with 10 tackles followed by Bowman with 9 and Tartt with 8. Brock had 7.

Sacks - Two. Brooks had one, Dial and Lynch shared a sack.

Third Down Efficiency - 2 for 11 (18%). Seattle was 8 for 14 (57%.)

Fourth Down Efficiency - Neither team "went for it."

Net Rushing Yards - 59 Yards. (Compared to 255 for Seahawks))

Net Passing Yards - 247 Yards. (They allowed Seattle to pick up 253)

Run/Pass Ratio: 16/34 (Seahawks were 44/29)

Net Punting Average - 43.6 (vs. 37.0 for Seattle)

Penalties -5 for 42 yards. (Seattle: 8 for 51 yards).

Red Zone Efficiency: Niners - 1 for 3 = 33%. Seattle - 2 for 3 = 66%)

Time of Possession: Niners: 22:21. Seattle: 37:39.

Rosters/Match-ups

Niners Offense

WR    81 Boldin............11 Patton...........10 B Ellington         
LT      74 Staley                     
LG     75 Boone.............62 Silberman             
C       66 Martin.  
RG    65 Devey..............61 Tiller..............60 B Thomas        
RT     71 Pears..............77 T Brown              
TE     89 McDonald.......88 Celek.............84 Bell                                 
WR    82 T Smith..........18 D White.........14 Simpson
FB.....49 Miller
RB.... 28 Hyde..............24 Draughn........30 Gaskins                     
QB.....02 Gabbert.........13 D Thompson

Cardinal Defense

DE        93 Campbell..........73 Mauro
NT        95 Gunter...............69 X Williams                
DT        92 Rucker..............72 Stinson                    
SLB      52 Woodley.......... 47 Riddick....96 K Martin               
ILB       55 Weatherspoon..54 Demens              
ILB       51 Minter...............59 Fua                    
WLB    57 Okafor............. 44 Golden       
LCB     21 Peterson...........xx Nelson                    
RCB    25 Powers.............28 Bethel               
SS       22 Jefferson..........36 Bucannon.                 
FS       32 Mathieu............26 R. Johnson 
  

Matchup: Niner Passing Attack vs. Cardinal Pass Defense
Kaepernick's been placed on IR, and Gabbert has been handed the keys to the Niner car. PFF rates Gabbert 74.0 overall (25.4 points higher than Kaepernick). He's got a 69.9 passer tating (vs. 46.1 for the Kaepster). Most impressive was Gabbert's 93.1 rating running the ball (The mobile Kaepernick was rated 71.8).

Gabbert's first two appearances with the Niners netted a 62.7% completion average, 3 TD's and 2 interceptions He was sacked twice and had an overall QB rating of 88.9. He's rushed the ball 12 times (6 per game). Gabbert's main targets are Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. We know what the cagey Boldin can do to an opposing secondary. He's caught 36 passes, averaged 12.9 ypc, and has 2 TD's to his credit. Smith, Patton and Celek each have 19 catches. Celek (a TE) leads all receivers with 3 TD's. Smith is the home run hitter of the receiving unit, averaging 21.2 ypc (he also has 2 TD's).

SF's pass blocking unit has holes - Their LT (Staley) - rated 85.6 by PFF - is close elite, and their LG (Boone) has a 79.7 rating as a pass blocker. But the other three Niner starting linemen are all rated in the 30's overall (though their center, Martin is rated 53.3 as a pass blocker). Cards pass rush is pretty much "by committee, with "hurries" at least as important as sacks. The pass rush is showing signs of waking up, behind guys like Golden and Freeney.

When healthy, the Cardinal secondary is considered as good as any in pro football; however, P Peterson (ankle) was forced to leave the Cincy game , and Powers (good at run-stopping/a step slow vs. the pass) not only verified his "slow" rap but also whiffed on a couple of key open field tackles. #3 CB (Bethel) has the chops but is still a bit inexperienced. Unless they want to use Nelson (up from the PS) they'll have to draw upon the Honey Badger to step in at CB (which would mean close-to wholesale disruption of the secondary. My guess: Peterson will play. If the Cards can open up a big lead, BA will rest his starters later in the game.

Key Matchups: Peterson vs. T Smith. Mathieu/Jefferson vs. Celek/McDonald. Freeney vs. Staley. Golden, Campbell and Minter vs. Martin, Devey and Pears.

Matchup: Niner Rushing Attack vs. Cardinal Run Defense
Gone are the days when Frank Gore blacktopped opposing run-defenders throughout the League. Top SF run-blocker (Iupati) is now a Cardinal. We're not sure what happened to their bruising RB (Carlos Hyde) but it looks like their lead bell cow is now Droughn (28 carries for 95 yards). Aside from Staley (rated 81.9 as a run blocker) the rest of the Niner OL averages anywhere from 18.8 to 39.4. When healthy, Hyde was averaging 4.1 ypc. Droughn is averaging 3.4. Most dangerous runner now appears to be Gabbert (4.5 ypc).

Cards remain a Top 5 team vs. the run. Keys are a stout and disciplined front 3 (Rucker, Gunter Campbell with Mauro, Stinson and X Williams in rotation. Rucker's (ankle) injury situation is day to day. If he can't go, it's "nextman up."

Minter (who was a blitzing terror vs. Cincy - bull-rushing up the A-gap - has been strong against the run. Cards appear to be facing less of a challenge stopping the run than they have all season, but therein lies the trap (a slight letdown in focus or effort could turn youngsters Droughn or Gabbert into a Player of the Week).

Key Matchups: This is more of a disciplined "protect the lanes"/"keep Gabbert contained" kind of game than it is a game of one-on-one matchups.


Cardinal Offense

WR1     11 Fitzgerald, 12 John Brown, Golden   
LT         68 Veldheer, 79 Sowell                      
LG        76 Iupati, 62 Larsen                     
C          63 Sendlein, 53 Shipley                    
RG       61 Cooper, 74 Humphreys                   
RT        78 Watford, 70 Massie, 79 Sowell                      
TE        87 Niklas, 85 Fells            
WR2    15 M. Floyd, 14 JJ Nelson,13 Jaron Brown              
QB       03 Palmer, 05 Stanton xx Barkley        
RB       38 Ellington, 27 C Johnson, 31 D Johnson, 30 Taylor,
TE        85 Fells, 84 Gresham, 87 Nikklas

Niners Defense

LDT  90 Dorsey.......63 Jerod-Eddie.....91 Armstead 
NT    93 I Williams...64 Purcell          
RDT  92 Dial............95 Carradine         
OLB..55 Brooks......96 Lemonier    
ILB.. .53 Bowman...56 Skov          
ILB....57 Wilhoite....51 Hodges............50 Bellore                 
OLB  59 Lynch.......58 Harold       
LCB..26 Brock.......36 D Johnson........43 C Davis   
RCB .20 Acker.......27 K Reaser..........47 M Cromartie       
FS   ..35 Reid.........25 Ward         
SS.....29 Tartt

Matchup: Cardinal Passing Attack vs. Niner Pass Defense
Palmer's major opponent is Palmer. If he simply refrains from squinting his eyes and throwing it up for grabs early in games, the Cards could post a "fifty-burger" on any team they face. Once he gets into his groove, Palmer is as deadly as any QB in the NFL (& that includes Rodgers, Manning or Brady). His main targets figure to remain JJ Nelson, John Brown and Larry Fitzgerald with the outside possibility that Floyd will be good to go. Quietly, below the radar screen, Cardinal TE's (most notably, Gresham and Fells - are beginning to be given a greater role in Palmer's arsenal of receiving weapons.

On defense, the highest PFF coverage ratings among SF linebackers and defensive backs are for Brooks (57.3), Lynch (71.9) and Brock (64.9) - which means that Palmer should have weaknesses to exploit vs. Willhoite (31.1) and Tartt (45.5).

Cardinal pass blockers will face an active LB blitzing corps (Lynch, Willhoite and Bowman). Their prime responsibility remains: "Keeping Palmer Clean in the Pocket." We're not sure how Tomasulo and the Niner coaches will play it, but it seems to me that the only way the Niners have a prayer of containing Palmer and his receivers is to "send the house" early and often. For the Cardinal pass protectors, this means communications and discipline.

Key Matchups: Veldheer, Iupati nd Sendlein vs. Bowman, Lynch and Willhoite. C Johhnson vs. blitzing LB or safety. Fitz vs. Brock. John Brown or JJ Nelson vs Acker. Gresham or Fells vs Tartt..

Matchup: Cardinal Running Attack vs. Niner Run Defense
(Psst. Niners gave up 209 rushing yards to Rawls last week). Expect to see the Cardinal run/pass ratio to be on the north side of 50-50 (in favor of the run). Expect BA to run the football...until he can't. (Why not? Less stress on Palmer, Fitz etc.)

I'm pretty sure Dorsey is questionable at best; which leaves Jerrod-Eddie, Williams and Dial to man the Niner front three. Williams is rated 78.7 as a run stopper but Jerrod-Eddie has a run stopping rating of 58.2 and Dial 51.4. This leaves Brooks (81.7), Bowman (84.2) and Acker (81.6) as main Niner bullworks to stop the run.

But all these guys are one-dimensional (i.e. good at run stopping/not so hot in coverage or rushing the passer). Key, therefore, is to occupy these guys in areas they're not so good at, to prevent them from concentrating on the things they are good at (i.e. Throw a lot at Acker and Tartt to keep them from filling in vs. the run). Run a lot at Brock to keep him from focusing on defending vs. Fitz. Throw screens at Bowman or Brooks to keep them from plugging up inside vs. the run.

Key Matchups: Iupati vs. I Williams. Massey vs. Willhoite. Gresham vs. Reid.

Special Teams

Niners

        05 Pinion                            
K         09 Dawson                            
H         05 Pinion     
LS       86 Nelson                                
KR      10 Ellington                            
PR      10 Ellington

Cardinals

K          07 Catanzaro                             
P          02 Butler                                   
H          02 Butler                             
LS        82 Leach                                  
KR       10 Golden          
PR       10 Golden

Matchup: Niner Special Teams vs. Cardinal Special Teams
Dawson only has missed one FG attempt in 17 tries. (Unfortunately the one he missed was from 20 - 29 yards out. 18 of 56 Pinion punts were TB's or inside the twenty. Hayne and Ellington are averaging 9.5 and 8.7 yards per punt return respectively. Ellington is averaging 25.0 per kickoff return (longest was 34). We'd be surprised if Peterson returned any punts this Sunday.

Catanzaro appears to have gotten into a better groove than he was in earlier in the season. Butler seems to have shaken off some of his earlier jitters. Car return guys (Peterson, D Johnson, Golden etc.) haven't broken off anything especially dramatic of late, but they've, by and large, been sound back there and haven't done anything particularly nutty to cost us field position (or, even worse, possession of the pigskin). Card defenders (especially Bethel and Campbell) remain constant threats to block a kick or XP.

Key matchups: Bethel and Campbell vs. Niner blockers.

Coaching
SF: The Niners are in transition from the Harbaugh era to that of Jim Tamsula. The way we saw it, Harbaugh won SF championships but his intensity threatened to "blow up Camelot." (It now appears that Camelot was blown up anyway). Tomsula brought with him former Card Geep Chryst as OC, Eric "Man Genius" Mangini as DC and Tom McGaughey Jr. as STC. We also note the presence of Tony Sparano as TE coach. It's a new group still figuring out what to keep from the Harbaugh era and what changes they want to bring to the party. These things tend to take a little time, and at least as of right now, the "ew Niners" appear to be a work in progress.

AZ: Bruce Arians comes across as having an "old school" coaching style but unafraid of new approaches or to stretch the play-calling envelope. HIs motto: "No risk-it/no biscuit." A fun guy to follow - and he backs it up with solid coaching fundamentals (he has a huge staff of teaching-coaches from diverse backgrounds) and proven success. So far he's getting it done. One of his challenges will be to keep his players grounded and not victims of their own success.

Last Word
Cards are on top of the world. Niners are bouncing around the bottom. Gabbert seems to be gradually getting his sea-legs under him and this situation could change in a Miami minute. (Let's not forget that Anquan Boldin waits in the SF weeds and could be as motivated to beat his former team as was Carson Palmer was against the Bengals. Then, too, we recollect that Iupati didn't get to play his former team when the Cards met the Niners earlier this year,


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