NFC West preview (cont.)
What the Cardinals do best: Throw the ball.
That is to say, the Cardinals should throw the ball well this season. They did not in 2010. Arizona threw for just 185.6 yards per game last year, the second-worst number in the league. But instead of Derek Anderson, John Skelton, Max Hall and Richard Bartel at QB, the 2011 Cardinals feature Kevin Kolb. Arizona's committed its future to the ex-Eagle and he will get every opportunity to prove he's worth it.
At his disposal is Larry Fitzgerald, arguably the best wide receiver in football, as well as tight end Todd Heap, who was brought over from Baltimore, and a host of young complementary options. Arizona's up to 281 passing yards per game this preseason, third-best in the league. If that success translates even a little to the regular season, Arizona's offense should be better.
What the Cardinals need to improve: Run defense.
Well, defense in general, but any chance Arizona has of doing that must start up front. The Cardinals came in 30th against the run last season, allowing 145 yards per game. In 13 of their 16 games they let opponents run for more than 100 yards
and twice gave up more than 200.
Considering Arizona traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to land Kolb, then lost Greg Toler to a season-ending ACL injury in the preseason, the pass defense could struggle. That means it's on the front seven to at least limit the damage done to Arizona on the ground. Can that happen with essentially the same group (plus LB Stewart Bradley)? For Arizona to have a chance, it must.
Which Cardinal needs to step up: Cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Any hope Arizona had of easing the 2011 No. 5 overall pick into the rotation went out the window when Toler blew out his knee. Peterson will probably wind up starting and may have to take on a lot of the responsibilities that used to fall to Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the NFL's best lock-down corners.
Predicted record: 5-11
After last season, it was worth starting over for Arizona. The move for Kolb should settle the quarterback position, though losing rookie RB Ryan Williams for the year may limit what Kolb can do. This is the division to be in if you've got a lot of questions, and the Cardinals do -- on the offensive line, at running back and throughout the defense. They might be better, but the record won't show it.
What the 49ers do best: Defend the run.
San Francisco ranked sixth in the league against the run last season, thanks to a decent front and the standout play of linebacker Patrick Willis. Matching that success could be difficult after the losses of NT Aubrayo Franklin and inside linebacker Takeo Spikes. Filling the gaps will be Isaac Sopoaga, who shifts from defensive end to Franklin's old spot, and second-year linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
Willis may see a spike from the 101 total tackles he registered last season given the inexperience around him -- in addition to Bowman, rookie Aldon Smith could eventually see a huge chunk of playing time on the outside. San Francisco didn't defend the pass well and barely generated any pass rush last season, so stuffing the run is a must.
What the 49ers need to improve: Blocking.
Given Jim Harbaugh's background as a University of Michigan star, he can no doubt appreciate the importance of winning games in the trenches. The 49ers were overwhelmed there last season and haven't shown many signs of life this preseason. San Francisco's QBs were sacked 44 times in 2010, while the running game struggled to stay consistent -- some of the blame resting on Frank Gore's absence for five games due to injury.
Four of the five line starters are back from 2010, with Adam Snyder and Jonathan Goodwin vying to replace David Baas at center. Gore's a terrific talent, so if the line can pull it together and create some holes for him, it may help keep Alex Smith upright at QB.
Which 49er needs to step up: Quarterback Alex Smith.
This is too obvious, really, but Smith is now entering his seventh year with the 49ers and it has become increasingly difficult to figure why they're sticking with him. Last year, San Francisco tried to bounce Smith for Troy Smith to no avail. This season, the main backup is rookie Colin Kaepernick, who hasn't looked near ready to command an NFL offense yet.
The offensive line issues haven't made -- and probably won't make -- Smith's job very easy. But he has Gore in the backfield, Vernon Davis at tight end, and a decent collection of wide receivers that now features Braylon Edwards. It's now or never.
Predicted record: 4-12
How excited can you get? The defense could be brutal, the offensive line looks like a sieve so far and the quarterback has already failed numerous times as a starter in the past. It is hard to envision the 49ers competing with any of the elite teams on their schedule.