Top seven 49ers to watch in game vs Cardinals
Still looking for win No. 1
The 49ers head to Arizona on Sunday still in search of the first victory of the Kyle Shanahan era. The 49ers (0-3) play their third NFC West opponent in three weeks, having already lost to Seattle and the Los Angeles Rams by a combined five points.
Arizona (1-2) is coming off a 28-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Monday night. Meanwhile, the 49ers have three extra days of rest and preparation after last playing on Thursday night, when they came up short with a 41-39 loss to the Rams.
Here are some key players who have to come through with strong performances in order for the seven-point underdog 49ers to break into the win column on Sunday:
CB K’Waun Williams
Williams has been one of the 49ers’ most-consistent performers from the opening of training camp. The new regime awarded Williams on Friday with its first multi-year extension. Three seasons were added onto his contract. Williams is now signed through the 2020 season.
Williams will face a test on Sunday that’s as big as it gets. Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who has caught 16 career TD passes against the 49ers, will spent plenty of time lined up in the slot. Fitzgerald is 6 foot 3, 218 pounds. Williams is 5-9, 183.
“You better be tight on him,” Shanahan said. “Even when he’s covered, he still comes up with the ball the majority of the time. With his hands and his toughness, he’s a problem to deal with.”
LT Joe Staley
Staley’s 11th NFL season is off to a strong start. Next up: Staley will face Chandler Jones, one of the hottest pass-rushers in the league. Jones has recorded a sack in five consecutive games, dating back to last season. Since 2015, only Khalil Mack (28) has more sacks than Jones (26.5).
Staley is a five-time Pro Bowl selection. He has not allowed a sack in 111 plays in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.
“You got two guys who are at the top of their game -- one of the best left tackles in the league and one of the best rushers in the league,” Shanahan said. “Neither one is going to be perfect. When Chandler has his plays, you got to get rid of it fast and guys have to get open on time. And you hope Joe gets after it. I fully expect him to. I know he’ll be looking forward to this challenge.”
DL Solomon Thomas
Tank Carradine went on injured reserve with a high-ankles sprain. He is not eligible to return to action for eight weeks. Thomas’ role will increase while Carradine is sidelined.
The 49ers continue to have high hopes for Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick in the draft. The team realizes Thomas’ development is going to take some time. The Cardinals can be expected to challenge Thomas repeatedly on run downs.
“He’s going through growing pains,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said of Thomas. “My thoughts have not wavered and my opinion of him has not wavered in the sense that he’s going to be special if he continues to work the way he has been working.”
RB Carlos Hyde
There is little doubt that Hyde is the central figure of the 49ers’ offense. He ranks third in the NFL with 253 yards through three games with a 5.2-yard rushing average, as he has proven to be a great fit for Shanahan’s scheme.
Hyde went through limited practice this week as he is nursing a hip contusion that sent him to the sideline throughout the first half of the game against the Rams. Hyde is expected to be fine for the game on Sunday. It is more important than ever that he’s able to generate some production. It will not be easy, though, as the Cardinals run defense allows just 3.1 yards per rushing attempt.
“The key to this game is keeping people off-balance and convert on third downs so you can run your offense,” Shanahan said.
DT DeForest Buckner
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer is not going anywhere. He does not possess the same mobility and youth as the first three QBs the 49ers faced: Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Jared Goff.
Buckner has gotten off a strong start, both as a pass-rusher and in stuffing the run. But Buckner does not have anything to show for it when it comes to sacks. Saleh expects that to change in a hurry.
“DeForest is dominating,” Saleh said. “And those sacks are going to come in bunches for him. I know he hasn’t gotten the sacks yet, but if he keeps doing what he’s doing and he keeps operating the way he is, there’s no doubt in my mind that flood gates are going to open.”
QB Brian Hoyer
Shanahan called a play last week against the Rams that he felt would ensure a good start for Hoyer. It was supposed to be an easy pitch-and-catch along the right sideline to start to build some momentum for Hoyer.
Instead, it resulted in an interception. And the Rams took a 7-0 lead just 12 seconds into the game. As the 49ers hit the road against a solid defense, it will be extra-important for Hoyer to get off to a good start against an Arizona secondary that has feasted on the 49ers in the past.
“The more success you have early in the game, the more confidence you’re going to have as the game goes on,” Shanahan said of Hoyer, who bounced back to throw for 332 yards in the loss to the Rams.
LB NaVorro Bowman
This is a big game for Bowman, who said he feels “100-times better” than a week ago when he was coming off a heavy workload and playing against the Los Angeles Rams on a short week. Bowman struggled against the Rams with four missed tackles.
Bowman does not look like the same player as he returns after missing most of last season with a torn Achilles. His agility will be tested, even though Cardinals running back David Johnson is out with a wrist injury. Andre Ellington is efficient as a pass receiver out of the backfield.
“They still have fast backs. They can still do things where they get you in matchups,” Shanahan said. “They can get them out of the backfield. I don’t think anyone is David Johnson, but they still have the skill and personnel that they don’t have to change. They can get your ‘backers one on one.”