For the 1-7 San Francisco 49ers, a meeting with the Arizona Cardinals isn’t a chance to stop the bleeding, it’s an opportunity for their opponents to open up the floodgates.
Just one week after nearly allowing two different hundred-yard rushers in the same game against a lowly New Orleans ground attack, the 49ers will now have to contend with the NFL’s fourth-leading rusher in David Johnson.
And they’ll have to do it without the services of first-round draft pick Arik Armstead as well.
There are other caveats to Sundays’s matchup as well. Such as the fact that San Francisco is just 1-4 across their last five meetings with their NFC West rivals. You’d have to go back to December 2013 to find the last time that the team squeaked out a win in Glendale, Arizona.
And for starter Colin Kaepernick, returning to confines of the University of Phoenix Stadium is like returning the scene of a crime he’s trying to forget.
Kaepernick’s last start in Arizona was the most disastrous of his career, throwing two pick-sixes on consecutive drives to open up the game for the 49ers. He finished that contest with nine completions for 67 yards and four interceptions before the game mercifully ended.
But Kaepernick’s historic struggles pale in comparison to what the team will have to contend with in trying to defend Johnson on Sunday. For the 49ers, a realistic goal isn’t to stop him, but to try to limit the damage as much as possible.
The first time around, San Francisco wasn’t successful in this endeavor, allowing Johnson to rush for 157 yards while adding 28 more through the air in Week 5. Johnson has only looked better since then, while the 49ers have been trending in all the wrong ways.
On top of ranking fourth in rushing yards in the NFL, Johnson leads the entire league in yards from scrimmage with 1,112, while accounting single-handedly for 35 percent of the team’s 3,154 yards of offense through eight games.
The loss of Armstead, and a weak middle linebackers group, makes it hard for the 49ers to sell out against the run anyways, but even if Jim O’Neil instructed his defense to do so, Johnson’s elite pass-catching ability would still give the Cardinal’s a way to utilize the second-year back in a damaging fashion.
Toss in the fact that the team still boasts future Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and a powerful receiving corps, and the 49ers likely won’t be able to pick their poison on Sunday, they’ll have to drink it all.
It’s not all bad news for the 49ers though.
Kaepernick is coming off his best game of the season, where he threw for 398 yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s loss to the Saints. Sure, New Orleans defense isn’t anywhere near on par with the Cardinals’, but a little bit of confidence can go a long way for players in the NFL, and Kaepernick has to be feeling at least a bit more hopeful in his abilities to run Chip Kelly’s offense after that showing.
The team may also get back Carlos Hyde and Rashard Robinson ahead of the contest. Hyde continues to be limited in practice with a lingering shoulder injury, but remains hopeful to suit up for Sunday’s game.
Robinson is a more unlikely candidate to play on Sunday, as the sprained MCL in his left knee likely isn’t ready to go yet. Robinson would provide the 49ers with a good pass coverage defender, but has failed to impress in his run defense yet. With Arizona looking to pound the ball as much as possible, Robinson’s return would likely have little impact anyways.
Like a broken record, I’ll say this again. If you choose to watch Sunday’s game, you’ll likely not want to watch it for the final score, and more of areas of personal growth among the individuals on the team.
Prime candidates to watch are Kaepernick, tackle Trent Brown, guard Joshua Garnett, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner and defensive backs Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward.
Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.