This is where, theoretically, the 49ers’ schedule lightens up.
After playing three of the team’s first four games on the road, the 49ers go against an NFC West opponent for the first time when the winless Arizona Cardinals come to Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on “49ers Game Plan,” which airs Saturday on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3) at 7 p.m.
“I’d love to be 4-0. I definitely thought we could come into this season and feel we had a chance to win every game we’re in. I think we have so far, but we’ve come up short.”
Here are four players to watch, as the 49ers enter Sunday’s game in search of their second win of the season.
LB Fred Warner: The rookie from BYU made 43 tackles in the team’s first four games, which ranks third in the NFL. He and fellow inside linebacker Reuben Foster have made some mistakes in their two games together, but they seem to be getting more comfortable every time they step on the field.
The Cardinals will look to take the pressure off rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, making just his second NFL start. And in order to do that, they will want to get the ball in the hands of running back David Johnson. Whenever the 49ers are in man coverage, Warner will get that assignment of covering Johnson out of the backfield.
“They’re still trying to find ways to get him the ball and get him in the groove and get him more involved in the slot,” Warner said. “He’s really good. Him being such a dynamic player and [Rosen] being a rookie, I can see them getting the ball to a lot more in this game.”
Johnson missed 15 games last season due to a wrist injury. He has not looked sharp since his return, and played last week against Seattle with a brace on his right ankle. Johnson has averaged just 3.3 yards per rushing attempt this season, and he's caught 13 passes for 104 yards. In 2016, he accounted for more than 2,000 yards of total offense, so it will be a priority for the Cardinals to get him going.
QB C.J. Beathard: There has been a lot of talk about Beathard’s toughness, but now it’s time for him to take the next step as a quarterback and build on what he did last week against the Chargers as a passer.
Beathard mostly looked sharp in his first start after taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo, who underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in his left knee.
But two costly interceptions prevented the 49ers from winning the game. One was a deflection off the hands of tight end Garrett Celek. On the other, Beathard did not recognize Los Angeles safety Derwin James coming on a blitz quickly enough to get rid of the ball.
Beathard will have to recognize the extra pass-rushers before the snap, and make quick decisions to get the ball out of his hands. This game will test him mentally – maybe more than physically. Then, it’s a matter of making accurate throws to take advantage of the Cardinals’ aggressive nature.
If the 49ers have a chance of keeping the season afloat without Garoppolo, it will have to start with a victory against the Cardinals.
DE Cassius Marsh: The 49ers’ defensive front must win a very winnable battle against the Cardinals’ offensive line. DeForest Buckner is a given. He will be a handful for Arizona, but he can’t do everything alone.
Marsh has been in the role of the 49ers’ top outside pass-rusher after signing a two-year, $7.7 million contract in the offseason to remain with the club. But the production has not been there over the first four games.
In 115 pass-rush snaps, Marsh has recorded one quarterback hit and seven pressures, according to Pro Football Focus. He had one sack nullified by his own facemask penalty. Marsh will mostly be up against Cardinals left tackle D.J. Humphries, who has been solid for Arizona. Humphries surrendered one sack, four hits and eight hurries in the first four games.
The 49ers will want to generate consistent pressure on Rosen with a four-man rush to make things more difficult for the rookie to work through his progressions.
WR Trent Taylor: Taylor underwent a back procedure in the offseason, missed a couple weeks of training camp and has not been much of a factor through the first four games of the season. Taylor has nine catches for 64 yards, but he had his best week of practice leading up to this game.
The 49ers could use Taylor’s ability to get open quickly in order to serve as an easy pitch-and-catch outlet for Beathard, who is likely to see a variety of blitzes from the Cardinals’ defense.
If Taylor is struggling, the 49ers on Sunday will also have the option of going with rookie slot receiver Richie James, who has been inactive for three of the first four games of the season. Due to the injuries at the receiver position, James will be in uniform and could make a contribution as a slot receiver, too.