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MNF Preview - 49ers vs Cardinals

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Niners Seek to Honor Walsh With Win Over Cardinals


(My Sportsbook) - On a night in which they will pay tribute to a legendary franchise figure, the San Francisco 49ers kick off a season they hope will bring a return to past glory with Monday's matchup against the division-rival Arizona Cardinals from Monster Park.

With six losing seasons over the last eight years, including four in a row, San Francisco has hardly resembled the perennial power that was built by the late Bill Walsh some two decades ago. However, the progress shown during last year's 7-9 campaign and an offseason influx of a number of prominent veterans has many observers believing the 49ers are ready for a rise back to prominence in head coach Mike Nolan's third season.

San Francisco hit the free agent market hard over the winter, with the biggest catch being coveted cornerback Nate Clements. The former Buffalo Bill is one of five new starters on a revamped defense that's expected to be significantly better than the unit that allowed the most points in the NFL in 2006.

The 49ers also paid attention to the other side of the ball, acquiring top- flight wide receiver Darrell Jackson in a draft-day trade with fellow NFC West member Seattle. The eighth-year pro gives improving quarterback Alex Smith a needed target in the passing game and should also lessen the team's reliance on powerful running back Frank Gore.

Arizona appears to have a reason for optimism as well as its begins its latest rebuilding project under new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator who now faces the daunting task of reversing the fortunes of a franchise that has made one playoff appearance in the last 24 years. The Cardinals believe they've finally found the quarterback capable of taking them to the next level in second-year triggerman Matt Leinart, who will team with the awesome receiving duo of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin and running back Edgerrin James to form potentially one of the most dangerous offenses in the league.

But in order to snap a frustrating string of eight consecutive losing seasons, Arizona will need to prove it's significantly upgraded a defense that ranked 29th overall in both yards and points allowed a year ago.

Walsh, who passed away after a lengthy bout with leukemia on July 30, will be enshrined in the 49ers' Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony. The organization will further recognize the Hall of Fame coach by wearing throwback jerseys from Walsh's period and naming him an honorary team captain for the game.


San Francisco has a 17-14 lead in its all-time series with the Cardinals, but has dropped four in a row to Arizona. The Cardinals swept the Niners last season, dealing them a 34-27 setback at University of Phoenix Stadium in Week 1 and taking a 26-20 decision by the Bay in Week 16. Prior to 2005, the 49ers had prevailed in eight of the previous nine head-to-head meetings. The Niners won by identical 31-28 marks, both in overtime, in a 2004 home-and-home.

Nolan is 0-4 against the Cardinals as a head coach. Whisenhunt will be meeting both Nolan and San Francisco for the first time as a head man.


Whisenhunt wants to employ a power-running game that was the trademark of the offenses he directed in Pittsburgh, which should be music to the ears of James (1159 rushing yards, 38 receptions, 6 TD). The ex-Colt's production dipped during his first season in Arizona last year, but that dropoff could be partially attributed to a subpar offensive line that's been modified with three new starters. One of those will be right tackle Levi Brown, the club's first-round choice in last April's draft. The Cardinals ranked 30th of 32 NFL teams in rushing yards in 2006, but expect that number to improve dramatically under Whisenhunt's care.

An upgraded ground attack would also ease the burden on Leinart (2547 passing yards, 11 TD, 12 INT), who was understandably inconsistent after taking over the offense in Week 5 but certainly has a bright future. The confident young quarterback has probably the NFC's best wide receiver tandem at his disposal in the powerfully-built Boldin (83 receptions, 4 TD), who has topped 1,000 yards in three of his four seasons, and the graceful Fitzgerald (69 receptions, 6 TD). The Cardinals also possess a very good third option in former first-round pick Bryant Johnson (40 receptions, 4 TD).

Defending the pass was a major problem for San Francisco last year, as the Niners allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 64 percent of their throws and surrendered 25 touchdowns through the air. The secondary may have gone from a weakness to a strength, however, with the additions of Clements (70 tackles, 3 INT) and strong safety Michael Lewis (57 tackles, 2 INT), a former Pro Bowl honoree in Philadelphia who fell out of favor because of some coverage lapses last season. Cornerback Walt Harris (60 tackles, 8 INT) earned a trip to Honolulu with a strong 2006 campaign.

San Francisco added another potential playmaker on defense with the selection of promising rookie Patrick Willis, who will man one of the inside linebacker spots, in the first round of the draft. Other newcomers expected to provide immediate help are massive nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (17 tackles with Baltimore), whose presence the 49ers hope will better last year's No. 19 overall ranking versus the run, and ex-Patriot outside linebacker Tully Banta- Cain (43 tackles, 5 1/2 sacks), an accomplished pass rusher.


No player played a bigger role in the 49ers' three-game improvement of 2006 than Gore, who led the NFC with 1,695 rushing yards and also displayed good receiving skills with a team-best 61 catches. The 24-year-old did miss the entire preseason after he broke his right hand in late July, an injury that should be of some concern because Gore has a history of fumbling. A stout offensive line led by 11-time Pro Bowler Larry Allen will again pave the way for a ground game that ranked sixth in the league last year.

Smith (2890 passing yards, 16 TD, 16 INT) also stepped up his play last season after looking lost for most of his rookie year, but the 2005 No. 1 overall pick will have to show further progress for the Niners to be a serious postseason threat. The receiving corps should get a big boost from Jackson (63 receptions), a proven performer in the red zone who's coming off a 10- touchdown season in Seattle, and if gifted tight end Vernon Davis (20 receptions, 3 TD) can improve on an injury-plagued first year. The unit also got a needed dose of speed with the offseason signing of veteran Ashley Lelie (28 receptions, 1 TD) from Atlanta.

Arizona will go with more of a 3-4 look on defense this year in hopes of creating a more effective unit against the pass, with Bertrand Berry (23 tackles, 6 sacks) - the Cardinals' best pass rusher - rotating between defensive end and outside linebacker, depending on the formation. The team had hoped to do the same with Chike Okeafor (52 tackles, 8.5 sacks), but the one- time 49er tore his biceps during preseason and had to be placed on injured reserve. Arizona ended last year a respectable 16th overall in rushing yards allowed (118.6 ypg) but yielded over 230 yards per game through the air, the third-worst mark in the league.

Changes were made to the Cardinals' suspect secondary in the offseason, as the club signed Rod Hood (21 tackles, 1 sack) with the plan that the ex-Eagle will solidify one of the corner spots and brought in Terrence Holt (76 tackles, 3 INT for Detroit) to take over at free safety. Arizona has no worries at strong safety, where hard-hitting Adrian Wilson (82 tackles, 5 sacks, 4 INT) is a terrific playmaker and a real force defending the run.


Gore's broken hand is not going to keep him from starting Monday's contest, and it shouldn't prevent his owners from starting him in Week 1 either. Although the young bruiser failed to top 100 yards in either of last season's meetings with Arizona, he scored a combined four touchdowns. Jackson is also a solid play against a vulnerable Cardinals' secondary, while Monday's matchup should be a good indication as to whether Davis is indeed primed for a breakout year.

As for the Cardinals, James figures to be a decent option as a second running back or flex player in Week 1, although there's a possibility of him losing goal-line carries to backup Marcel Shipp. Fitzgerald has scored 24 touchdowns over his first three NFL seasons, and that track record of red-zone success makes him a more attractive choice than his counterpart Boldin. Kicker Neil Rackers had four field goals in Arizona's Week 16 win over the Niners last December.

Owners of Leinart and Smith may want to take a wait-and-see approach, since neither quarterback has done enough yet to warrant more than backup fantasy status.


San Francisco has been a trendy choice as this year's surprise team, and the 49ers will do nothing to dissuade their backers in the opener. An Arizona defense going through a transition phase could have its hands full with a San Francisco attack that contains an up-and-coming quarterback in Smith and some pretty good weapons in Gore, Jackson and Davis. Add in the Niners' improvements on defense and the motivation of avenging last year's two losses to the Cardinals, and there's a good chance the home crowd will be going home happy on what should be an emotional evening.

My Sportsbook Predicted Outcome: 49ers 31, Cardinals 20

September 7, 2007, at 02:11 PM ET

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