This weekend the 49ers visit the Arizona Cardinals in a week 8 matchup of two teams at the top of the NFC West. Both the Cardinals and the Seattle Seahawks trail the Niners by one game and if the Cardinals can pull off the home upset, they'll be in a tie for first place. That sounds like a good matchup until you note that the Cards are on a three-game losing streak. They've lost at the St Louis Rams, home against the Buffalo Bills, and at the Minnesota Vikings, in that order, derailing a 4-0 start to the season. None of those games are freebies, but any team with aspirations of winning its division should win two out of those three. Aside from the Rams game, they had their chances to win the other two, taking Buffalo to overtime and falling to the Vikings by a touchdown.
Looking deeper at the Cardinals offensive stats and it doesn't take long to see they have one of the worst units in the league. Statistically they are ranked 27th in points per game and 31st in yards per game, 24th in third down conversion rate, and most importantly, last in sacks allowed. The last stat is the one that will define their season. Kevin Kolb had been nothing short of a bust since being acquired from Philadelphia and finally lost the starting quarterback position to John Skelton during the preseason. Skelton didn't make it out of the first game intact, injuring his right ankle and giving way to Kolb who calmly drove the team to the winning touchdown. Kolb led them on a four-game winning streak to start the year and the team was one of the early darlings of the league. But Kolb, under constant harassment, injured his ribs and Skelton was forced to resume starting duties. The team hasn't recovered. It should be noted that Kolb, when on the field, has played well and been one of the few positives for the team on offense. He ranks 14th in the league in quarterback rating, with eight touchdowns to go with only three interceptions. The Cardinals have protected the ball fairly well this year and Kolb was the most responsible. Skelton, on the other hand, has played poorly, exactly as one would expect from a third-year QB with a career 66.0 rating and the worst offensive line in the league. A 55.4% completion percentage and one touchdown marred by three interceptions. There's not much for the 49ers to fear, despite Skelton having one of the greatest receivers of this generation Larry Fitzgerald as his number one target.
Worse than the passing game has been the running attack of the Cardinals. Beanie Wells, a 1,000-yard rusher last season, and the presumed featured back for 2012 went out in game three with a toe injury and has yet to return. He was ineffective when he did play, gaining 76 yards while averaging 2.6 yards per carry. His replacements haven't fared any better. Ryan Williams, the second-year back, is the teams leading rusher with 164 yards but has averaged 2.8 yards per carry, and like Wells, failed to reach the endzone before landing on injured reserve. The only running back to score is LaRod Stephens-Howling who leads the team with 2 rushing touchdowns, but, like the rest, has failed to top 3.0 yards per carry. The one surprise in the running game is William Powell who didn't touch the ball until Wells went down. He gained 70 yards rushing against the porous Buffalo Bills and has averaged 4.6 yards per carry in limited opportunities this year.
The obvious culprit in this whole mess is the offensive line. They're too easy a target at this point, and much has already been made of their ineptitude this season. Football Outsiders, using their advanced statistics, show the Arizona offensive line as the worst in both adjusted sack rate and run blocking with adjusted line yards being used as the measuring stick. They're also worst at getting runs stuffed for either no gain or a loss. 29% of all Cardinals runs end up 'stuffed'. This becomes a chicken and egg scenario, trying to determine if the Cardinals 3rd and 4th-string running backs are dragging down the worst line in the league or vice versa. Staring across the line of scrimmage at them before each snap will be the 49ers defense. We all know how dominant they've been over the last year and a half and come into the game ranked 2nd in scoring defense, 1st in yards allowed, and 1st in yards per carry against.
It should be a long day for the Cardinal's offense. How long of a day will depend on their defense and special teams. The easiest way for them to avoid disaster is by winning the field position battle, either through long punt returns or turnovers. Arizona has been more than capable on defense at creating turnovers, ranking 7th with 15 takeaways on the season. The 49ers, and Alex Smith in particular, have not protected the ball well in the last two games. Based on his recent play I can't see Smith being allowed to air the ball out much in this one, especially if the 49ers are ahead. As long as the Cardinals stay on zero points the 49ers will have the luxury of being a run-first team and won't need much production from Smith, won't need to force anything, and hopefully will refrain from giving the ball away. Patrick Peterson is the other x-factor, having electrified the NFL last season with four punt returns for touchdowns. He's yet to break one this season and teams are kicking away from him, but he's more than due to have an impact in the return game. If Andy Lee and the 49ers special teams unit can neutralize him the Cardinals will have one fewer method of moving the ball down the field.
It would take a fool to predict a shutout in the NFL. But if there were ever a game that called out for such a prognostication it's this one. With Kolb on the sidelines, Skelton playing poorly, and the Cardinals down to their third-string running back it's hard to imagine who on their roster is going make a difference on offense. Larry Fitzgerald, the obvious choice, is going to be keyed on by the 49ers defense from the start. Only turnovers, punt returns and short fields will save the Cardinals from laying a 'goose egg', and the 49ers should follow the blueprint from the Seahawks victory, limiting the opportunities for Arizona from the start while keeping them in Arizona half of the field for much of the geme. I said it would take a fool, and ladies and gentlemen, I present to you a fool. I'm doing it. I'm going out on the farthest, flimsiest limb and calling for the shutout. 16-0 49ers...and the Cardinals never make the red zone.