The NFC West takes over “Monday Night Football,” and this season at least that means defense.
Entering this week, the four NFC West teams ranked among the top nine in the league in defense.
The 49ers lead the way at No. 1 with a powerful, smash-mouth group that overwhelms opponents, particularly with its excellent front seven. Arizona counters with a fast, aggressive unit that rates No. 7 in the league.
It may be a league that runs on offense, but defense could well decide the outcome when the 49ers, looking to break open their lead in the division, face the Cardinals, looking to stop a three-game losing streak with one of the worst offenses in football.
Despite all of Arizona’s problems, though, an upset over San Francisco would leave the Cardinals tied with the 49ers atop the NFC West.
The 49ers don’t throw anything fancy at opponents, but what they do on defense, they do exceedingly well.
“Up front they’re really good,” Arizona quarterback John Skelton said. “Their linebackers are some of the best in the league.”
The secondary must not be too bad, either, since San Francisco is first in the NFL against the pass.
Up front, San Francisco’s trio of Ray McDonald, Isaac Sopoaga and Justin Smith might be able to put tremendous pressure on Skelton without any help, considering Arizona’s woeful offensive line. Add outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, inside linebacker NaVarro Bowman, then the best of them all, inside linebacker Patrick Willis, and this could be the game’s best front seven.
Considering the Cardinals are one of only three teams averaging less than 300 yards per game — and have been sacked 35 times, nine more than anyone else in the league — Arizona’s only chance Monday would seem to be to keep the score low.
Which brings up the Cardinals’ defense.
The upfront trio of Dan Williams and self-proclaimed 49ers haters Darnell Dockett and Calais Campbell are formidable. The outside linebackers Sam Acho and O’Brien Schofield are fast, inside linebacker Paris Lenin is an old-school veteran playing the best football of his career — and inside backer Daryl Washington is an emerging NFL star. In the back end, cornerback Patrick Peterson is off to a strong sophomore season, perennial Pro Bowlers Adrian Wilson still is dependable at strong safety and Kerry Rhodes, bothered by a back injury, should be back at free safety.
“They play fast and in the second year of that scheme, running around and they can create pressure when they want to,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “They confuse a lot of quarterbacks.”