A rough time for 49ers in the NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on March 17, 2015 – 1:42 pm

In a division where keeping up with the Joneses is important just to have a chance at the playoffs — and goodness knows the Seahawks have been the Joneses for a couple of seasons now — the Cardinals feel like they have made strides to compete with Seattle. Their free agent class filled holes in the front seven of the defense and on the interior of the offensive line. More importantly, their quarterback is doing well in rehab. The Seahawks, meanwhile, added arguably the most dangerous tight end in the NFL. The Rams bolstered their defensive line with Nick Fairley and think they have upgraded at quarterback with Nick Foles (at least, he should be healthy enough to play.)

Then there are the 49ers, who have gone through one rough offseason, which started when they moved on from successful coach Jim Harbaugh.

The Niners got the shocking news young linebacker Chris Borland decided to leave the game instead of risking his long-term health to play. Borland was supposed to be the guy who filled in for Pro Bowler Patrick Willis, who retired because his oft-injured feet ended his hopes for a comeback. Defensive lineman Justin Smith likely will retire. Then they allowed multiple free agents to leave, like running back Frank Gore, guard Mike Iupati (who came to Arizona), linebacker Dan Skuta and cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox. They probably won’t bring back Michael Crabtree either.

Now, the Niners have added some pieces. Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. Darnell Dockett. Lions running back Reggie Bush (although he may be beyond his productive years.) But the way things have gone, it’ll be tough for the 49ers to right the decline they went through in 2014. That comes with the QB caveat all teams have — if Colin Kaepernick emerges as a star, that covers most issues.

While it could be considered the “offseason from hell,” the Cardinals did have one of recent vintage that they could put up in any argument. It’s tough to forget the offseason after 2009. In case you have forgotten, a refresher: quarterback Kurt Warner retired, safety Antrel Rolle was released for cap reasons (and subsequently signed with the Giants), linebacker Karlos Dansby left as a free agent and Anquan Boldin was traded. All were still playing at high/Pro Bowl levels. Those were a gut punch of transactions that eventually took out a coaching staff and brought the Cardinals to the Bruce Arians/Steve Keim era.

John Brown, Leon McFadden


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Without Fitz, does Sherman/Crabtree dustup happen?

Posted by Darren Urban on January 20, 2014 – 10:31 am

If you pay attention to the NFL at all, you know how Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman went off on 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree both on national TV and again in the post-game press conference. This was after Sherman taunted Crabtree right after making the play that led to the NFC Championship-clinching interception on a pass to Crabtree. Seems that the Cardinals — or at least Larry Fitzgerald — have a role in all of this. As you can see in the video below from NFL Network, the genesis of the bad blood between Sherman and Crabtree came when the two were part of the celebrities in town to play at Fitz’s annual charity softball game, which includes a dinner where they all get together. Sherman and Crabtree apparently had words then.

So, if I am understanding correctly, that means without Fitz, this whole thing — which, for now, has totally overshadowed the Seahawks making the Super Bowl — might not have happened? Fitz, bringing people together.

Actually, it’s interesting, because Fitzgerald is the absolute last guy that is going to engage in that stuff. Earlier this year, in fact, Sherman was kind of complaining that Fitz wouldn’t trade barbs and it made it hard to not like him. There is a reason Fitz can get these guys to attend his charity events and why Fitz keeps getting voted to the Pro Bowl. (Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of trash-talking myself. If you are good, it seems to me your play does the talking. If you are not good, why, exactly, would you be talking?)

Meanwhile, these are all components of the Cardinals’ universe. It’s not like Crabtree doesn’t have history with the Cardinals too, and going up against the Cards’ own star cornerback Patrick Peterson, who also (kind of) weighed in when all of this Sherman/Crabtree/best cornerback stuff started happening.

Ahh, the NFC West. It’s quite the universe within which to live these days.

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Peterson vs. Crabtree an interesting storyline

Posted by Darren Urban on December 27, 2013 – 9:46 am

Patrick Peterson didn’t see Michael Crabtree the first time the Cardinals and 49ers played. Crabtree was rehabbing a torn Achilles he hurt during the offseason. But Peterson is very aware of Crabtree, whom Peterson once called one of the the top wide receivers he had faced. Crabtree has returned to the field, playing in the last four games and slowly working his way back into the San Francisco offense — and he’ll be sitting there, waiting for Peterson Sunday.

Crabtree has 16 catches for 255 yards and a touchdown in those four games, and Peterson has been watching. “I still feel (he’s one of the best I’ve played),” Peterson said. “He has big-play ability receiver that adds a new dynamic to the San Francisco offense. He’s comfortable with (QB Colin) Kaepernick and Kaepernick is comfortable with him. Monday night he made a bunch of big catches and put up a lot of good yards.

“It seems like he is slowly getting back into game shape, slowly getting back into the groove of things. He looks to me about 85 percent now and coming back off that type of injury of course you are going to come back a little sluggish, a little slow trying to make sure you get the feel back. I’m quite sure the competitor he is, he’ll be back in the groove soon.”

The “85 percent” comment, which Peterson delivered a version of during a conference call this week with San Francisco reporters, is what has caught the attention of many. (Bruce Arians said something similar, by the way.) Crabtree had his way with Peterson last season — Peterson did cover him the vast majority of the time in two meetings — with 13 receptions for 244 yards and four touchdowns. If Peterson has had cornerback kryptonite as he has established himself as a top cover man, Crabtree has been it. How that matchup comes down Sunday will be intriguing, both on a micro-level between the two and a macro-level of how it will impact the outcome.

Peterson emphasized again he thinks Crabtree is an excellent player. Whether the 49ers try and get the ball more to Crabtree — who had five catches for 102 yards against Atlanta Monday – to “prove” to Peterson Crabtree is indeed 100 percent remains to be seen. There is no question both Peterson and Crabtree have enormous confidence in their own abilities. That’s what will make this so fun.


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Crabtree injury elevates Boldin in SF

Posted by Darren Urban on May 22, 2013 – 2:18 pm

I actually heard the news from Larry Fitzgerald at first, after the Cardinals had finished the day’s OTA, that 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree had torn his Achilles, jeopardizing his season. That I’d be standing over by the receivers lockers was fitting, in a sense, because it will now be a player who once inhabited one of those lockers who must come to the forefront for San Francisco: Anquan Boldin.

First it will be interesting to see how Crabtree’s absence impacts the 49ers and, bigger picture, the NFC West. Crabtree had a big year in 2012 — he couldn’t have been Patrick Peterson’s favorite matchup — and no matter how loaded a team like the Niners might be, losing a player of that caliber can’t be a good thing (nor is it good for Crabtree, who is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season, but that’s for the San Francisco writers to dissect.) The bargain basement acquisition of Boldin in a trade with Baltimore gives the Niners a name to plug in to the void. What does Boldin have left (he turns 33 in October) will be seen, but it’s not like Boldin’s strengths have been something that time robs. He was never a speedster. It was about smarts and power and the will to get the ball. That’s still Q.

Still, if you are the Cardinals, you have to believe Peterson would do fine one-on-one with Boldin (or Mario Manningham or A.J. Jenkins or whatever receiver the Niners have left). In the case of the Cards, you still have to find a way to puncture the Niners’ defense and stop the running game behind that huge offensive line. But losing a star skill player can’t help the Niners, which mean it can only help their division brethren.

(For a good analysis of the situation, check out Matt Maiocco’s post.)

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Saturday before the 49ers

Posted by Darren Urban on October 27, 2012 – 3:30 pm

Considering the Cardinals are on a three-game losing streak, the mood was, dare I say, pretty good in the locker room this week. Coach Ken Whisenhunt, Adrian Wilson, Darnell Dockett, Larry Fitzgerald – I mean, don’t get me wrong, no one is happy with the slide. I’m not sure if it’s the juice provided when the 49ers come to town, or “Monday Night Football,” or what. Clearly, though, the Cards seem in a good place mentally. Certainly there isn’t a vibe of being overwhelmed against the Niners. Not that there would be – this is a team they face twice a season. Familiarity usually takes worry off the table.

The Cardinals say their minds are in the right place. It feels that way.

“It’s going to be one of those backyard fights where your Mom can’t get in it, no referees,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “It’ll be blow for blow. Who will break first? If you can bend, you bend to the max. They’re a physical football team. We’re a physical football team. We’ll see where it goes.”

— The 49ers have the top-ranked pass defense in the league. That doesn’t seem to bode well for getting the ball to Larry Fitzgerald, but then again, the Niners had a great pass defense last year and Fitz blew up against them out at University of Phoenix Stadium (7 catches, 149 yards). Quarterback John Skelton also ended up with a pretty good day, with three TD passes after coming in in relief of a concussed Kevin Kolb. The key, of course, will be keeping Skelton upright under the San Francisco pass rush. That will be a key every week with this team, obviously.

— Speaking of Skelton, he said the ankle he hurt in the opener is “not hindering me in any way.”

— And speaking of Fitz, he knows the questions are coming every time he has a game without many stats – we went through it early last year too – about getting him the ball. Fitzgerald had a pretty good stretch of four straight games of producing before Minnesota, whose defense was all about shutting him down, it seemed. Right now, Fitz is on pace for 91 catches, 1,049 yards and 7 touchdowns.

But this is a different Fitz that 2006 too.

“My pursuit is the same,” Fitzgerald said. “I work hard. I try to improve on my skills daily and be the best I can. But I want to win. Some days it might be one (catch) for four (yards) like it was in New England. I wouldn’t trade 10-for-230 and a touchdown in a loss as opposed to one-for-five in a win. I have changed that way. But I still want to be productive and help my team.”

— Remember former Cardinals guard-turned-tackle-turned-Pro Bowl guard in Dallas, Leonard Davis? Good old “Bigg,” who left as a free agent just as Whisenhunt was coming in, plays for San Francisco these days. He gets work in certain packages and is used as a sixth offensive lineman.

“He’s been fantastic, really one of my personal favorite guys to be around,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “He’s been good on Sundays too.”

— Patrick Peterson will likely get a lot of Michael Crabtree Monday, since Crabtree is the 49ers best receiver. But the Cards’ cornerback is most looking forward to meeting Randy Moss, who plays – although not much – for the Niners.

“I can’t wait,” Peterson said. “I remember being so young, being in high school, watching him make those one-hand catches. I used to run around the neighborhood (saying) I want to ‘Moss’ somebody.”

— Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling will try to follow up his first 100-yard game with another productive outing, something the Cards need. Stephens-Howling, who is playing under a one-year tender offer after restricted free agency, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent after the season. General manager Rod Graves said in training camp the Cardinals would like to sign Stephens-Howling to an extension, but thus far talks have been slow.

Stephens-Howling said he’s doing the best he can to forget about it but “you’re human.”

“We just wish something could get done,” the Hyphen said. “I want to stay a Cardinal. But I have to play on Monday, so that’s my focus.”

— Stephens-Howling has enjoyed getting to do a little more at running back with the injuries to Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams, and acknowledged his role was “something else we’d have to talk about.”

But “I love playing my role, and whatever they ask me to do I’m going to do,” he said. “But I’m taking it one game at a time, one week at a time. I look at the game plan, see what (packages) I am in for, and go from there. And that’s what I’m going to put my heart into.”

— So far, Peterson’s follow-up to his electrifying rookie season returning punts has been anything but. His long return is 26 yards and he has averaged only 8.8 yards a return as teams have clearly made preventing him from breaking one a priority. Against the Vikings, Chris Kluwe kept kicking high punts short and Peterson had to scramble just to catch them.

“Now teams are scheming, they kind of want to hand pick when they’ll give me the opportunity to return the ball,” Peterson said. “I have to continue being patient.”

— This is a big one. Obviously. If the Cardinals have shown anything over the past couple years, it’s that they are very tough at home. They need to make that matter Monday.

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Saturday before the 49ers

Posted by Darren Urban on December 12, 2009 – 3:16 pm

OK, we’re a day late here, but not really, since the game isn’t until Monday night and today’s Saturday’s practice was really Friday, because Friday was really Thursday and Thursday was really … well, you get the idea. I am actually heading to San Francisco early to see a friend and to check out the apparently rainy weather, although the last time I checked it the rain should pass by the time we get to the game.

The Cards don’t want any rain to mess with an offense that is going so well. Heck, even that pass to Anquan Boldin that turned into a 39-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Vikings wasn’t necessarily supposed to be so effective. Kurt Warner said originally, he though the defender was riding Boldin out of bounds and Warner thought he’d draw a pass interference flag. Instead, magic (pictured below).

“I thought, ‘I’ll throw it at his back shoulder, they are so good at that, maybe we can get a catch and if not maybe we get a PI,’ ” Warner said. “Of course Q muscles the guy and makes a great catch and throws him around puts it in the end zone. What do you say? Those are the plays you love to watch on replay and what makes Anquan so special.”

True. Coach Ken Whisenhunt called it “vintage Anquan” and it had been a while since we saw one of Q’s great catch-and-runs. He’s had a few of those against the 49ers over the years too. Maybe Boldin is the hero of a division-clincher?

— The Cards have been so good on the road this season. To be within six seconds of 6-0, and with games left at San Francisco and Detroit, there’s a real chance for 7-1. The Cards haven’t won six on the road in a season since 1963.

— One of the reasons for their success is that they are only giving up 15.2 points a game away from Glendale. I can’t expect the 49ers to wreck that average. San Francisco is still trying to figure out what kind of offense they have. TE Vernon Davis playing very well and rookie WR Michael Crabtree, I have to admit, is more effective than I thought he’d be.

— But that also means Cards killer Frank Gore is getting the ball less. He had nine carries against Seattle last week. Nine! The Niners said it was because the Seahawks were stacking against the run, but if that’s true, then expect more of the same because the Cards are worried about Gore first and everyone else second. “They are throwing the ball 75 percent of the time, which is kind of crazy because that first game, they were running the ball 75 percent of the time,” defensive end Calais Campbell said. “They did a 180.”

— On the subject of running the ball, the Cards not only are averaging 4.1 yards a carry as a team, but both Tim Hightower (4.5 yards per tote) and Beanie Wells (4.3) are above that line. Hightower in particular has a lot of doubters to where he could be an effective back, but that’s shifted.

“I know neither one of us are getting 20 carries a game, but we’re just sticking with the run as much as possible and having faith in it,” Hightower said. “At times last year, you get in that mindset as a running back, you may get it 10 or 15 times a game and you were trying to make too many big plays and you’re not working within the confines of the offense. (Now) it’s taking what’s there and trying not to get negative yards.”

— Can Warner break that record of five straight games of a passing rating of 120.0 or better? He’s been good on Monday nights and last year on MNF against San Francisco, he posted a rating of 121.9. My guess is Warner could not care less, as long as the Cards win and clinch the NFC West.

— Keeping Warner upright will be a key. The 49ers got pressure on Warner in that first game using a four-man rush much of the time. If they have to bring someone extra, Warner can usually exploit such moves.

— I don’t think you can measure the impact of having a healthy Boldin and Steve Breaston back in this game, compared to the first meeting. And that doesn’t include how much more effective Hightower and Beanie have been. I know the Cards and Niners have recently always had close games. But frankly, I don’t see the teams being that close right now. Not if the Cards play the way they can.

That’s good for now. It seems so far away to actual kickoff. But, considering how this season started – with that loss to the Niners that seems so, so, so long ago – it would be poetic to wrap up the division at Candlestick Park.

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Crabtree’s impact on the NFC West

Posted by Darren Urban on October 7, 2009 – 9:50 am

I would guess it’s a good time to be a 49er, given that they are 3-1 and finally signed WR Michael Crabtree late last night. There’s no arguing that the Niners are a better team than before and, right now, have to be considered the favorites for the division. They have earned that right (although there is a long way to go and I’m in no way saying they will win the West — just that they have to be considered the favorite).

That said, I am very interested in seeing how Crabtree meshes. The guy hasn’t been a part of anything 49er since training camp opened in late July. He hasn’t been practicing, he hasn’t been learning, and as far as I can tell based on reports, it was hard to see if he even wanted to be in San Francisco. Heck, even today there was a report he reluctantly will take part in a press conference; I know this is the reporter in me, but, sorry, if you remain unsigned for months and it becomes a huge story, you don’t get to slide in the back door when you finally do sign and expect everyone to leave you alone.

That’ll be the part the Niners — and more importantly Crabtree — will have to deal with going forward. If Crabtree gets hurt, the holdout will be a big part of the story. If he does nothing, the holdout will be a big part of the story. About the only way this theme goes away quickly is if Crabtree walks in and stars immediately, and that’s not going to happen. Larry Fitzgerald — the man some have already compared Crabtree to — couldn’t do it (Anquan Boldin, on the other hand …) and Crabtree won’t either, especially after missing so much time.

I would doubt Crabtree will make a big difference, even by the time the Cards visit San Francisco Dec. 14. I am also guessing that, should Crabtree be playing by then, Fitzgerald and Boldin — and Steve Breaston, for that matter — will be looking to show exactly where he fits in the NFC West receiver pecking order, at least in 2009.

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