49ers’ 5 keys to beating Cardinals include Garoppolo’s encore effort, better running game

SANTA CLARA — Round 2 of the 49ers vs. the Arizona Cardinals should bear little resemblance to their first bout, at least offensively.

For the 49ers, Jimmy Garoppolo is in, and Trey Lance is out (unless he’s in, on occasion).

For the Cardinals, Kyler Murray has an ankle injury that kept him out of practice this week, though the 49ers don’t expect him to miss his first career game.

This rematch, however, could be just as defensive-oriented as it was Oct. 10, when the 49ers fell 17-10 to their then-undefeated hosts in Arizona.

Before diving into those details, let’s read the room: this game is at Levi’s Stadium, where the 49ers have not won in over a year, and where the Cardinals have emerged victorious in five of their last six visits.

It’s also where the 49ers (3-4) can thrust themselves back into the NFC West picture. To do so, they must knock off the 7-1 Cardinals, then repeat the feat next Monday night, Nov. 15, when they host the Los Angeles Rams, also 7-1.

“Back-to-back 7-1 teams, it sets the stage for us,” said tight end George Kittle, who returns after a month hiatus. “We’ll either come out with a winning record or in a hole. It definitely shapes our season from a playoff perspective. These are going to be tough, grinding, gritty games.”

Here are five ways to start off with a victory against Arizona:

MAUL SOME MORE

The 49ers revived their rushing attack last Sunday. More of that is a must, from whoever is running the ball.

What will help is not only having Trent Williams playing through an ankle injury, but welcoming George Kittle back to balance an offensive line that can deploy blocking specialist Charlie Woerner on the other side of the line, so the Cardinals don’t know which way the 49ers are running.

Things clicked so well last game because dominant blocks opened lanes for Elijah Mitchell, whose extra burst catapulted the rushing attack into kill-the-clock mode. Mitchell emerged with a rib injury that’s limited him in practice.

Trey Sermon had no carries the past two games, and only one carry in two other games. He totaled 120 yards in his two starts while Mitchell was out. Ahead of Sermon in the pecking order has been second-year rusher JaMycal Hasty, who’s had mixed results as a third-down back the past two games.

What the 49ers really could use is a healthy Jeff Wilson Jr. He was last season’s leading rusher, and he only started practicing Wednesday in the wake of meniscus surgery in May on a knee. Mitchell’s status could predicate if Wilson is rushed into duty — a la his 2019 heroics against Arizona.

GAROPPOLO’S ENCORE

One win won’t get everyone off Garoppolo’s back. Take this exchange Damon Bruce of 95.7 The Game had with him on the air Wednesday:

Bruce asked: “Better to lose and go through growing pains with the rookie, or win with the incumbent in Jimmy? I’ve been wrestling with this question and I feel I’d be a coward if I didn’t pose it to you, myself.”

Garoppolo paused, then responded: “You’re asking me that question?”

Bruce explained himself further, then Garoppolo said: “The noise is going on; all these people are saying whatever. At the end of the day, I’m a winner. I’m going out there to win the game. Whatever that takes, I’m willing to do it. That’s what being an athlete is all about.”

Garoppolo is 29-12 overall as a NFL starter, including the 2019 playoff.

However, he is only 10-7 in regular-season starts at Levi’s Stadium. His last home win was their last: Oct. 18, 2020 against the Rams. He’s lost six of his past eight regular-season home starts, dating to December 2019.

The 49ers have five home games remaining – in Jimmy’s last stand? One more Garoppolo-record stat: 3-1 all-time against the Cardinals. Pro-tip for Garoppolo: avoid former Patriots teammate Chandler Jones (five sacks) and Markus Golden (six sacks).

QUARTERBACK ADJUSTMENT

Murray’s ankle injury last game puts his availability in doubt, but the 49ers are “fully expecting him to play,” defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans said.

Murray was in MVP contention up until his final throw resulted in a loss-clinching end zone interception to the Green Bay Packers. He hasn’t missed a start since arriving as the 2019 No. 1 pick, and he’s a game-day decision.

Colt McCoy, his backup, doesn’t compare in terms of escapability. McCoy is 8-22 as a starter and 2-7 since his first two seasons in Cleveland (2010-11), with no starts coming in 2013 as Colin Kaepernick’s backup on the 49ers.

As for down-field targets, the Cardinals might not be at full strength, not with A.J. Green going on COVID reserve this week and DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring) missing practice. Hopkins played only 15 snaps last game, but he’s yet to miss a game in 1 ½ season with Arizona after missing only two in seven years with Houston.

The 49ers defense may not have added to its NFL-high 14 pass-interference penalties last game, but the Bears did not test them deep, aside from a last-minute interception. So it’s too soon to say that aspect of the 49ers is fixed.

RUSHING DEFENSE

The 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher in consecutive games, after yielding none dating back to Halloween 2019.

Now they must contend with the Cardinals’ rushing duo of Chase Edmunds and James Conner, the latter of whom has eight rushing touchdowns in eight games (and 5.1 yards per attempt over the past three games).

“Conner comes to life more in the red zone,” Ryans said. “He’s a physical runner who can punch it in downhill.”

Ryans added that his defense must have “heightened awareness” when rookie Rondale Moore is in the game, seeing how he ran for 38 yards last time against the 49ers.

RECEIVING OPTIONS

Deebo Samuel played through a calf issue last game to spark the 49ers with 171 yards, so there’s no limit what he’ll do in his encore, even if he’s still somewhat hindered. The fact that Brandon Aiyuk is emerging from a slow start can only bolster Garoppolo’s options, not to mention’s Kittle return (in search of his first touchdown in more than a calendar year).

The 49ers have only one receiving touchdown over their past three games, and just nine this season (ninth-fewest in the NFL).

So, all that said, look for former Cardinals receiver Trent Sherfield to score, or third-down maestro Mohamed Sanu, or anyone else who sneaks through the Cardinals’ defense that’s too busy watching Samuel and Kittle.

But, like last game, the 49ers want more from their receivers than to simply catch passes. They want them to contribute with blocks, with being in the right place at the right time, with never taking off a play. It worked last game, after all.

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