Originally Published: September 28, 2017 10:15 p.m.
GLENDALE — The San Francisco 49ers are looking for their first victory. Could the struggling Arizona Cardinals be the opponent that gives it to them?
It would be the first time in three years that the Cardinals (1-2) have not beaten San Francisco. They swept the 49ers each of the past two years. But the only Arizona victory this season was in overtime at Indianapolis. The Cardinals led going into the fourth quarter against Detroit and were tied after three against Dallas, but couldn’t hold off the opponent late. If San Francisco (0-3) wins Sunday, the Cardinals would slip into a last-place tie in the division.
“Their record does not matter,” Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer said. “Every time we play San Francisco, they give us their best shot. They’ve always played really, really well against us — really, really hard against us. They’re playing hard on film, and this is a very good defense. ... We’re in a difficult spot, coming off a loss on a short week with a team that’s got 10 or so days’ rest. This is a huge game for us.”
The 49ers last played on Thursday, Sept. 21, in a 41-39 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Arizona played on Monday night, losing to Dallas 28-17. San Francisco has played the other two NFC West teams tough, with the two-point loss to the Rams and a 12-9 defeat at Seattle.
Here are some things to consider when the Cardinals face the Rams:
The Cardinals rank 29th in red-zone touchdown percentage, reaching the end zone 27.27 percent of the time compared with 64.81 percent a year ago.
“We spent so much time on it, it’s kind of disappointing,” coach Bruce Arians said. “We’ve run, probably, too many RPOs (run-pass options) down there and didn’t execute them properly or didn’t make the catch or the throw, like the fourth-and-1 in Indy. We’ve got to run the ball better, for sure.”
It doesn’t help, of course, that the Cardinals are without David Johnson (broken wrist). Johnson led the NFL in touchdowns last season with 20.
The 49ers have used first-round picks on defensive linemen the past three drafts but haven’t seen the payoff when it comes to their pass rush. San Francisco’s only three sacks came in Week 2 against Seattle’s suspect line, and the 49ers have generated just 17 quarterback pressures the other two games.
DeForest Buckner, the 2016 first-rounder, leads the team with 14 pressures but has yet to get a sack. This year’s No. 3 overall pick, Solomon Thomas, has no sacks and just three pressures, while 2015 first-rounder Arik Armstead has one sack.
“We’ve got to find a way to get pressure on the quarterback because if you don’t get pressure on the quarterback with four, that’s going to trickle to your coverages,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.
Arizona’s offensive line struggled mightily last week, when the Cowboys sacked Palmer six times.
Carlos Hyde has been limited all week due to a concussion, but the Cardinals are expecting to see him Sunday and he is the defense’s No. 1 priority. Hyde is averaging 5.2 yards a carry.
“He has always been a challenge because he’s a big back, but he’s got really light feet and can jump cut,” Arians said. “He’s powerful, runs behind his pads. He, again like Zeke (Ezekiel Elliott), will be a heck of a challenge.”
After failing to score a single touchdown the first two weeks, the 49ers finally broke through with five in last week’s 41-39 loss to the Rams. Brian Hoyer threw for 332 yards and two TDs in his most effective game since joining San Francisco this offseason, teaming with Pierre Garcon for 142 of those yards. The night didn’t start so well, with Hoyer throwing an interception in the first play, but his ability to bounce back from that was a good sign for the Niners.
“You handle the adversity and move on to the next play. Really that’s all you can do,” he said. “The more you get angry, the more you get upset, it’s going to affect the way you play.”
The 49ers are one of two teams yet to play a game following President Donald Trump’s criticisms of players who demonstrate during the national anthem.
San Francisco was ground zero for such displays during the anthem last year when former quarterback Colin Kaepernick started it in response to police brutality and racial injustice. Safety Eric Reid joined him and had become a vocal leader in the movement. The Niners are figuring what kind of demonstration they will carry out Sunday.
“Whatever we decide to do we’re going to do as a group, as an entire team,” Hoyer said. “Not force someone to do something they don’t want to do, but also support people who want to do something that they may want to do.”