Week 3: Top 10 49ers, Cardinals to watch
NFC West showdown
The 49ers opened with an impressive victory over the Minnesota Vikings before crashing back to earth in Week 2. The Pittsburgh Steelers dominated the 49ers in a 43-18 victory on Sunday. The 49ers’ first division game of the season arrives on Sunday against the NFC West-leading Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Following are 10 players to watch when the two teams meet.
10) DE Calais Campbell, Cardinals
Campbell is the player the 49ers would like to see rookie Arik Armstead become. He is 6-foot-8 and powerful. Left guard Alex Boone will have his hands full against Campbell, who was rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl after last season. Campbell can push the pocket in the passing game, and he’ll provide stiff opposition at the point of attack in the run game, too.
9) WR Torrey Smith, 49ers
Smith hauled in a 75-yard touchdown against the Steelers, giving the first glimpse of how he can be a difference-maker. “That’s part of the reason he’s here is to have that deep threat,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “He’s someone that gets respect when he steps on the field. We’ve seen that in two weeks already with how Pittsburgh played and how Minnesota played, which is why our run game was effective.”
8) CB Patrick Peterson, Cardinals
Not only is he becoming recognized as one of the top cornerbacks in the game, Peterson also has the ability to be a factor as a return man. The fourth-year pro had four touchdowns on punt returns as a rookie, but has not gotten into the end zone since. Not only will Peterson match up against the speed of Smith, he must also contend with the power on underneath routes against Anquan Boldin.
7) RT Erik Pears, 49ers
The veteran offensive lineman has rated poorly in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranks the 49ers as the worst pass-blocking team in the NFL after two weeks. The 49ers provided Kaepernick with better protection last week in the second half, and he responded with 274 yards through the air after halftime. Pears and right guard Jordan Devey have to get more in sync working together.
6) CB Kenneth Acker, 49ers
The Steelers went after Acker’s side of the field, and the Cardinals figure to do the same, whether it’s with Larry Fitzgerld, John Brown or Michael Floyd. Acker was only a part of the problem against Pittsburgh, as he did not get much help from safety Eric Reid as part of the 49ers’ cover-2 scheme. Acker makes his third career appearance after spending his rookie year on injured reserve, so he will certainly be challenged against a strong Cardinals passing attack.
5) RB Carlos Hyde, 49ers
There was little doubt that Hyde was a marked man after he rushed for 168 yards in the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. Hyde was beaten up a little, too. He took a shot to the knee in the first half and left the game in the third quarter after feeling dizzy from a hit to his head. Hyde remains the NFL’s top rusher through two games, and the 49ers will try to get him going to set up the passing attack.
4) WR Larry Fitzgerald, Cardinals
Fitzgerald, 32, has the ability to move around in the Cardinals’ formation to seek the right mismatches. He has enjoyed success in the slot this season. Fitzgerald has not put together a 1,000-yard season since 2011, but he appears to be ready to end that streak this season. Fitzgerald has 14 catches for 199 yards in two games. He has been a long-time 49ers nemesis who can make plays even when the coverage is good.
3) OLB Ahmad Brooks, 49ers
The 49ers need Brooks to do a better job of putting pressure on the quarterback, especially with Aldon Smith now playing for the Raiders. Brooks has not gotten a quarterback sack in two games, and he did not get any pressure last week on Ben Roethlisberger. The 49ers need to generate a pass rush against the Cardinals’ Carson Palmer to avoid a repeat of last week’s poor pass defense.
2) QB Carson Palmer, Cardinals
Palmer has been exceptional since going to Arizona, and he is currently playing the best football of his career. The Cardinals are 15-2 in Palmer’s last 17 starts. He is also covering up for some issues in pass protection with is ability to get rid of the ball quickly. Palmer has not been sacked in 56 attempts to open this season. He has seven touchdown passes and just one interception.
1) QB Colin Kaepernick, 49ers
The big question is whether Kaepernick can build on the exceptional second half he had against the Steelers. The game was out of hand at the time, but there is no denying Kaepernick made some exceptional throws. He returns to Arizona where he spent 10 weeks in the offseason working on his mechanics and understanding of the game with Kurt Warner. Kaepernick will have to keep the chains moving with his legs and arm for the 49ers to pull off the upset.