By Sam McPherson
The San Francisco 49ers didn’t fare so well in their first road test of 2015, dropping an ugly 43-18 decision to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 2. The road to redemption doesn’t get any easier for the 49ers, as this weekend they travel to Phoenix to take on an NFC West division foe, the first-place Arizona Cardinals. It will be a tough challenge for San Francisco to win this game.READ MORE: 'Positivity, Acceptance And Love': Lodi Announces Location Of City's First-Ever Pride Festival
The Cardinals are 2-0 and playing very well right now, winning their two games by a combined 37 points. With the 2014 NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians in charge, Arizona always plays to the best of their ability. The Cards are 23-12 since he took over in the beginning of the 2013 season, and Arians has done for Arizona what Jim Harbaugh once did for the 49ers: turned them into winners.
With convincing wins over the New Orleans Saints at home and the Chicago Bears on the road, the Cardinals are the only undefeated team left in the NFC West division. Arizona has scored 79 points in the two games, and the offense is rolling. It will be a challenge for the San Francisco defense to stop the Cardinals from scoring 30-plus points in this game. Defensively, Arizona plays tough, although despite average play from opposing quarterbacks in the first two weeks, the Cardinals defense has given up 21 points per game. The 49ers should be able to match that number with their offensive weapons.
Cardinals on Offense
Quarterback Carson Palmer is healthy again and throwing the ball very well. He’s completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 492 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. Palmer’s QB rating is a stellar 124.4 right now. Meanwhile, wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald has benefited from Palmer’s health, averaging 14.2 yards per reception while scoring three times against the Bears. Fitzgerald isn’t young like Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, but he still can dominate a game like Brown. Fitzgerald will cause matchup issues for either of San Francisco’s cornerbacks.
WR John Brown is capable of taking advantage of single coverage if Fitz is doubled, and rookie running back David Johnson has already proved himself very elusive—he’s scored on a kickoff return, a pass reception and a rushing attempt already this season. Joining Johnson in the backfield are two other weapons: former 2,000-yard rusher Chris Johnson and the tiny Andre Ellington. Combined, this RB trio has rushed for 220 yards on 47 attempts for a 4.7 yards-per-carry average. These Cardinals can run the ball, unlike the previous Arizona teams under Arians.READ MORE: Fans Back In Stands At All American Speedway In Roseville
strong>Cardinals on Defense
Strong safety Tony Jefferson leads the team in tackles right now with 14, and he also has an interception return for a touchdown this season. Meanwhile, linebacker Alex Okafor has two sacks for the Arizona defense in 2015. When you add in defensive end Calais Campbell (43.5 career sacks), cornerback Patrick Peterson and free safety Tyrann Mathieu, the Cardinals have plenty of talent on defense to disrupt any offense.
Arizona is only ranked 22nd in defense after two weeks, but a lot of that yardage has come from the opponent playing catch-up in the second half: The Cardinals are 10th against the run and 28th against the pass. They’ve given up just 81.5 yards per game on the ground thus far.
Cardinals Players to Watch
David Johnson is making a name for himself already in the NFL. With just nine touches so far in his career, he’s already scored three times in three different ways. He is a true threat to score every time he gets the ball. Even so, Palmer is what makes the Arizona offense click: Without him last season, the team struggled to score points and fizzled out in the first round of the playoffs. Defensively, the secondary is trouble, with Mathieu and Peterson roaming the field. The two are among the most talented secondary defenders in the league.
Just like the Pittsburgh game in Week 2, this matchup isn’t a good one for the 49ers, especially on the road. If San Francisco cannot match its Week 1 emotional intensity for this game in desert, the 49ers will find themselves in deep trouble again. Palmer is a veteran QB with a lot of weapons at this disposal—just like Ben Roethlisberger. That spells trouble for the S.F. defense, and even if 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick can run wild with a healthy Carlos Hyde at his side and his own veteran WR duo, it would be a tall order for San Francisco to beat Arizona in a Southwest shootout. Look for the 49ers to drop the game by two TDs as they fall to 1-2 with another road loss.MORE NEWS: 1 Injured In Highway 50 Crash That Caused Major Backups In Sacramento
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering baseball, football, basketball, golf, hockey and fantasy sports for CBS, AXS and Examiner. He also is an Ironman triathlete and certified triathlon coach.