By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
For the second time in four weeks, the San Francisco 49ers will gear up to take on their NFC West counterparts, the Arizona Cardinals. As both franchises enter Week 8 with a 1-6 record, the pair of rebuilding teams will be fighting an unspoken battle for the No. 1 overall pick for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Here’s what to watch when 49ers take on the Cardinals in Arizona this Sunday.
The Battle for the No. 1 overall pick is on
At this time last season, San Francisco sat at 0-7, tied with the Cleveland Browns for the worst record in the NFL. They were also tied for the No. 1 overall pick, which Cleveland would eventually “earn” after finishing the year 0-16.
This season, the 49ers enter Week 8 with a 1-6 overall record, tied with the Cardinals for the worst in the NFL. The race for the No. 1 overall pick is once again on, as the two teams match up for their second, and final time of the season.
“We’re always looking for things to improve our team,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “But, it’s not just about a quick fix. We’re dedicated to try to win this Sunday … We’re trying to be smart in everything we do.
“We’re not trying to just do this a quick, easy fix way. We’re trying to build this thing to last.”
While Shanahan and the rest of the 49ers brass would never publicly admit to it, the benefits of losing these types of games against other bottom-feeding teams are growing increasingly high.
Last season, the emergence of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo led to a five-game winning streak that dropped the 49ers from the No. 1 overall pick all the way down to No. 9.
While San Francisco was able to come away with a legitimate left tackle in Mike McGlinchey, the chance to secure a franchise running back like Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall pick), a productive cornerback like Denzel Ward (No. 4 overall pick) or an edge rushing threat like Bradley Chubb (No. 5 overall pick) was lost.
This year, the 49ers situation is entirely different, with Garoppolo under contract and out with a torn ACL. Preparing for the future by setting up draft position is a more important goal this time around.
Taking care of the football has been a point of emphasis this week
The 49ers have committed an NFL-worst 18 turnovers in seven games.
“We’re taking every step possible in those type of areas,” Shanahan said. “You could have every single person carry around a football or something like some movies and things like that. That’s about all that’s left.”
While some of the turnovers have been committed by running backs and wide receivers, 11 of them are on the head of quarterback C.J. Beathard.
“I think a lot of stuff goes into that,” Beathard said. “We do what we do in practice, focus on trying to take care of the ball and watching film and seeing their tendencies and which players are good at getting their hands up and reaching for balls and kind of having that in the back of your mind.”
According to Shanahan and Beathard, one of the way’s the team has worked on ball security has been having the defense concentrate on stripping and punching the ball out during practice.
“Our defense rips it out on our guys as hard as you can in practice to the point where they hurt our guys’ fingers,” Shanahan said. “We feel that’s as good of training as you can get.”
The 49ers defense, on the other hand, has only been able to force three turnovers — last in the NFL — which has contributed to a -15 turnover differential — also the worst in the NFL.
“Obviously, it hasn’t worked so far,” Shanahan admitted. “We can’t run away from it. We keep talking about it, keep harping on it. We just go back to work and keep trying to get better.”
Breida May sit out Week 8
Last week, Shanahan stated that he would deeply consider holding starting running back Matt Breida out for Week 8, since the 23-year-old has been nursing ankle and knee injuries during the last four games. Breida made his return to practice on Friday afternoon.
“I’m still feeling the same [as last Sunday],” Shanahan said. “We’re looking into him and how he feels. He’s questionable right now, had a good practice today. That’s all going into account.”
This season has been a breakthrough year for Breida. He was the NFL’s leading rusher through the first four weeks of play before Rams back Todd Gurley reclaimed the position, and has been one of the lone bright spots on the 49ers offense.
With 445 yards on the ground, Breida currently sits at the ninth-most productive back in the NFL. He also holds the highest yards-per-carry average in the league with 6.5.
“I want to play every down hurt or not,” Breida said after the 49ers 39-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday. “I’ve got to learn how to take the time needed to get healthy.”
The 49ers see Breida in their long-term future as a ball-carrier and pass catcher on offense. With this in mind, keeping him healthy for that future should be high on their list of priorities.
Pettis to make his return on Sunday
Rookie wide receiver Dante Pettis has missed the 49ers’ last three games due to a knee injury suffered in the first half of San Francisco’s Week 4 matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers. After nearly four weeks, the third-round pick is ready to make his return.
“It was hard because it was my first time missing a game,” Pettis said. “Absolutely [I’m excited]. I can’t wait to come back.”
In his first three games, Pettis averaged 32 yards per catch — the highest of any San Francisco wide receiver this season.
“He tried to go last week, but it was just a walk through. You could tell through walk through, just watching him and talking to him that it was too soon,” Shanahan said. “We gave him a whole ‘nother week. He feels good, he’s excited to go today.”
Along with Pettis, wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierré Garcon have been limited due to nagging injuries. With the trio looking healthy for Week 8, airing the ball out should be an easier task.