The 49ers will have to do a lot of things right this Sunday to beat the Arizona Cardinals.
Arizona, which has won three in a row and seven of its last eight, is one of the hottest teams in the NFL. Since the 49ers beat the Cards 32-20 at Candlestick Park in early October, head coach Bruce Arians’ team is much more dynamic both on offense and defense.
So the 49ers – still fighting for a chance to improve their playoff position – will need to contain Carson Palmer’s passing attack and get yards against the NFL’s No. 1 rushing defense that gives up just 84.5 yards per game.
One key to the game for the 49ers might be tight end Vernon Davis.
Davis, who didn’t catch a single pass in Monday night’s win over the Falcons, has been one of the Niners’ difference makers in the team’s recent five-game winning streak and in some of the team’s best offensive performances of 2013.
In fact, it was in the 49ers’ earlier victory over the Cardinals that Davis had his best game of the season, catching eight passes for 180 yards and two TDs. He averaged 22.5 yards per catch that day and had a 61-yard scoring pass from Colin Kaepernick.
The 180 receiving yards was the best total of his career.
“It’s just one of those days when you’re in the zone,” Davis told reporters after that game. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
And, though Davis was shut out by the Falcons, the Cardinals may be hard pressed to cover Davis Sunday. With wideouts Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin giving Kaepernick two excellent perimeter options, the Arizona secondary will be challenged to stop Davis. And Arizona in general has had trouble stopping tight ends this season.
Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic detailed the Cardinals’ troubles against opposing tight ends this season, noting that the Rams’ Jared Cook (seven catches for 141 yards and two TDs), the Saints’ Jimmy Graham (nine catches, 134 yards, two TDs) and the Eagles’ Zach Ertz and Brent Celek (a combined nine catches for 97 yards and three TDs) are among the tight ends that have torched them.
One of the problems has been Arizona’s undersized safeties. Tyrann Mathieu (5-9), Tony Jefferson (5-11) and Rashad Johnson and Yeremiah Bell (both 6 feet) have been outmatched physically.
“They can have them covered like a blanket but there’s so much room to throw the football that these big guys can catch it and they’re so athletic, unlike the big tight ends in the past who were more blockers and have the catching circle that these guys have,” Bruce Arians told ESPN.com’s Josh Weinfuss recently. “It’s an extremely big match-up problem throughout the entire league. You’re looking for taller, bigger safeties now who have that type of range to cover a guy.”
And the Cardinals don’t have that type of safety.
Bill Williamson of ESPN.com, who covers the 49ers, wrote this week that the Davis vs. Cardinals secondary matchup is one the Niners “have to exploit.”
Kaepernick would be happy to oblige. This season, he’s completed 49 passes to his tight end for 805 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“I’m going to give Vernon his chances when I can,” Kaepernick said after Davis’ big day against Arizona in October. “He makes a lot of great plays.”
And if the Cardinals run defense proves stout Sunday, the 49ers will likely need some great plays out of Davis and Co. in the passing game to pull out the win.