49ers-Cardinals: Matchups to watch


49ers-Cardinals: Matchups to watch

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Arizona Cardinals invested heavily in upgrading their play at quarterback after the lockout ended.But the team's improvement behind center of the past two weeks has been with second-year quarterback John Skelton at the controls -- and not high-priced offseason acquisition Kevin Kolb.Skelton has led the Cardinals to back-to-back victories over St. Louis and Philadelphia after Arizona stumbled to six consecutive losses with Kolb, who has missed the past two games with a toe injury. Again, Kolb is expected to be watching from the sideline Sunday when the Cardinals (3-6) enter Candlestick Park to face the 49ers (8-1).
Expect Skelton to try to rely on one of the best receivers in the NFL.Tale of the tape
49ers free safety Dashon Goldson (38): 6-2, 200, Washington, fifth season
Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald (11): 6-3, 218, Pitt, eighth seasonThe 49ers have done a good job this season against top wide receivers, as they have employed a lot of double coverage. And Goldson figures to see a lot of Fitzgerald on Sunday.Skelton targeted Fitzgerald 13 times in a 21-17 victory last week over the Eagles. It doesn't matter if Fitzgerald is covered or not, Skelton will throw the ball into traffic to give Fitzgerald a chance to make a play.Last week, Fitzgerald came down with seven receptions for 146 yards and two touchdowns."He's got good arm talent," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said of Skelton. "This guy can throw the ball. He's got an easy release. He's got a strong arm. (He) kind of reminds me of (Baltimore quarterback Joe) Flacco a little bit with his arm strength and how easy the ball comes out."(He) throws a good deep ball, and in the last couple of weeks he has fallen in love with Fitzgerald, which is smart on his part. So, I've been impressed with the guy."The 49ers are not expected to shadow Fitzgerald with just one cornerback. They will likely mix up their coverages. Carlos Rogers might match up with Fitzgerald more often, as Fitzgerald also sees action in the slot.Starting right cornerback Tarell Brown is questionable with a knee injury sustained late in the practice week. Rookie Chris Culliver is the 49ers' No 3 cornerback.Goldson will be relied upon to provide deep coverage on Fitzgerald. Goldson has done a good job of playing center field in recent games. He had interceptions in back-to-back games against Cleveland and Washington, and nearly had a pick against the New York Giants' Eli Manning last week. (He failed to get his second foot inbounds.) Other matchups worth watching
49ers left guard Mike Iupati (77) vs. Cardinals right defensive tackle Calais Campbell (93): The 49ers offensive line has taken tremendous strides from early in the season. Iupati and left tackle Joe Staley have to work together against the Cardinals 3-4 defensive front to keep that trend going. Iupati will be matched mostly against Campbell, who leads Arizona with five sacks and 12 quarterback hits. "I think they've been doing a great job of improving, their communication, their overall play in all phases," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the 49ers line. "Pad level, pass protection, finish. You can highlight really the young guys Mike Iupati and (right tackle) Anthony Davis, probably made even more improvement than the others on the offensive line. It all bodes well for us. We're pleased with how those guys are playing."49ers special-teamer Blake Costanzo (51) vs. Cardinals return man Patrick Peterson (21): Costanzo, the 49ers' top special-teams performer, and his teammates on the coverage team will have a difficult chore. Peterson, a rookie, has been phenomenal on punt returns with a 17.6-yard average and three touchdowns. Peterson's 99-yard punt return in overtime supplied the Cardinals with a 19-13 victory over the St. Louis Rams two weeks ago. The 49ers punt-coverage unit has been outstanding. Punter Andy Lee has a 50.5 average. His league-leading net average of 43.8 is more than a yard better than Denver's Britton Colquitt, who ranks No. 2.

What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense


What rookie CB Ahkello Witherspoon did to earn role in 49ers' defense

SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.

“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”

The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.

“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”

Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.

“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.

“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”

Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.

“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.

“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”

Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.

Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.

“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.

Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).

49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine


49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon handed hefty fine

The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.

Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.

In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.

Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.

After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.