This is not how it was supposed to go for the Cardinals. After coming within one win of going to the Super Bowl last season, Arizona entered 2016 among the odds-on favorites to take that extra step in 2016. But instead, they enter Thursday night’s borderline must-win game holding the same 1–3 record as their struggling, rebuilding divisional opponents, the 49ers.
To make matters worse, the Cardinals will be without starting QB Carson Palmer, who suffered a concussion during last Sunday’s loss to the Rams. In his place backup Drew Stanton will make his first start since 2014.
The forced Palmer-to-Stanton change may be a bigger deal on paper than it is in practice, though. Palmer has scuffled the past two weeks, with a horrendous four-interception performance in Buffalo followed by a 17–13 loss to Los Angeles that included two more Palmer turnovers (and five by the team overall). Stanton committed two of those miscues himself, turning late game-winning opportunities to mush.
The good news for Stanton is that Arizona’s defense is banged up, too, including at the cornerback spot. San Francisco’s Jimmie Ward (quad) will miss his second straight game, leaving rookie Rashard Robinson to handle his starting job again. Either Keith Reaser or Chris Davis will be in the slot, where Larry Fitzgerald should have a huge advantage. John Brown, who saw a huge uptick in his playing time last week, also could break off a big play or two.
But the Cardinals’s offense for the most part figures to run through David Johnson. San Francisco ranks dead last in rush defense, and that’s in spite of stuffing Todd Gurley during a Week 1 win.
Just last week, the 49ers saw DeForest Buckner (foot) and NaVorro Bowman (Achilles) fall with injuries, so their defense is up against it Thursday night. Linebacker Aaron Lynch does return from suspension, but he is known more for his pass rushing than his ability to set the edge vs. the run.
Like Johnson, San Francisco running back Carlos Hyde will be the go-to guy on the opposite sideline. He already has five TDs on the season, three of them coming over Weeks 3 and 4. Hyde and QB Blaine Gabbert combined for 101 yards rushing last Sunday, in a loss to the Cowboys. And establishing Hyde really is the 49ers’s only hope of gaining a little traction, even though the Cardinals have been vulnerable to big plays—Brian Quick had a 61-yard TD against them, Tyrod Taylor turned in a 49-yard run and Chris Hogan scored from 37 yards out in the opener.
Gabbert is averaging a league-worst 6.1 yards per pass attempt, and the only “starting” QB with fewer passing yards per game this season is New England fill-in Jacoby Brissett.
One last factor to monitor: How does Arizona use Tyrann Mathieu. Their star defender has been relegated to more of a pure safety role this season, as opposed to his do-everything approach in the past. With slot corner Tyvon Branch landing on I.R., though, the Cardinals likely will need Mathieu to help with those duties again.
Arizona also is reeling right now, but it still has a talent edge most spots on the field. This could be ugly, but the Cardinals get it done.
Key player: Jeremy Kerley, WR, 49ers. The Cardinals’s young secondary can be tested through the air, but it’s probably not going to happen via a Torrey Smith-Patrick Peterson matchup (if that’s how Arizona employs its top corner). It could happen inside, with Kerley finding space from the slot. The veteran receiver is listed as questionable with an ankle injury (remember, there’s no “probable” tag anymore), but he has been by far Gabbert’s favorite option—his 32 targets, 18 receptions and 202 yards are all team highs.
Bold prediction: Calais Campbell picks up his first sack of 2016. The Cardinals’s Pro Bowl defensive end has been shut out thus far. While Gabbert has proven tough to bring down behind the line (just three sacks this season), Campbell’s due.