At this point, the Arizona Cardinals should be feeling a pretty sour taste in their mouth when they think of the San Francisco 49ers. Just a couple years ago, this team was at the top of the division with promising young stars, led by wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. Head coach Ken Whisenhunt was bestowed all the praise in the world, for taking advantage of a division that nobody else had to skill to.
Now, the tables have turned completely, and the Cardinals have been at or near the bottom of the NFC West for the entirety of the 2011 season. Jim Harbaugh is the mastermind guiding the 49ers to an 8-1 start and the second best record in the NFL. He's more than taken over the division, he's laid siege to the NFL with an efficient quarterback, strong rushing attack, a very shifty and unpredictable offense altogether, effectively guided by his team-first positive attitude. That's without even factoring in the defense, which ranks among the best in the league.
That isn't to say that the Cardinals are specifically infuriated over the 49ers, more of frustrated overall, with a particular emphasis on San Francisco. When they head to Candlestick Park for the first of two meetings against their rivals on Sunday, they could be feeling a number of ways - this writer is going to bet that Arizona will be somewhat obsessive when it comes to stopping Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman's offense.
If that's the case, there's an awful lot of deception and a number of ways for the 49ers to run things during the game. If Harbaugh came out and instructed quarterback Alex Smith to air it out, it would make sense. If he instead elected to go with a power running attack, it would also make sense. These kinds of things are always true when you're in the 49ers position (read as: atop your division and playing a game that one might even call "throwaway," if not for the playoff seeding and homefield advantage).
So how about we do a little scripting of the first 49ers possession?
That very first drive can go a number of ways, but if I were Harbaugh, I'd start from the shotgun formation. They'd go with their standard shotgun formation when they want to run the ball, which they do often. Gore will be in the backfield to Smith's left, and a number of receivers, along with Vernon Davis will be at the line of scrimmage. Many teams will watch this and know that the 49ers have run it from this position a lot, but they've also passed it, too.
Leave it up to Alex Smith, here - but call a run play. Let's bank on Whisenhunt drawing from the game against the New York Giants that Harbaugh expects the Cardinals to be a stepping stone in passing yardage for his quarterback. Run the ball immediately from the shotgun on the first play of the game and see what happens. Keep Whisenhunt guessing.
Immediately bring Kendall Hunter onto the field, and stack it up on the left side, with Davis and Delanie Walker next to Joe Staley. Have Walker step back slightly, and move to the left a bit more, like he's getting some outside leverage to spring Hunter for a toss or a stretch handoff. Here, the 49ers can most definitely expected to toss the ball to Hunter and spring him outside, hoping to replicate some of that touchdown magic from the Giants game.
Nah - fake it. Fake it to Hunter in some way outside to the left, and kick it out any way you can. Smith loves to roll out to the right so much, let him do it, get Mike Iupati on a fast shift to try and get some guys out of the way just in case.
The 49ers can do so many things at this point, and they'll be especially effective against a a desperate Cardinals unit. Desperation means they'll make a huge play here and there, but they'll ultimately leave themselves open and make more mistakes. Of course, this is an awful lot of assuming here, but the name of the game for San Francisco should be to score right away. I'm not going to go all John Madden on you and tell you the best way to win is to score more points, but the 49ers would be best served to get on the board first in this game against rivals.