49ers’ NFC title defense begins against Cardinals
The San Francisco 49ers begin defense of their 2019 division and conference titles Sunday afternoon when they host the NFC West-rival Arizona Cardinals at fan-less Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., in the season opener.
The 49ers swept the Cardinals 28-25 on the road and 36-26 at home last season en route to a 13-3 record in the NFC West and an eventual trip to the Super Bowl, where they were beaten 31-20 by the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Cardinals finished last in the NFC West a year ago, going 5-10-1 in Kliff Kingsbury’s first season as head coach.
The 49ers return 18 of 22 starters from the NFC championship team and used first-round picks to help fill the holes created by two of the departures.
After trading defensive standout DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick, the 49ers selected a potential replacement in defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
Later in the first round, the 49ers moved up to take wideout Brandon Aiyuk, who they hope will help make up for the free-agent loss of Emmanuel Sanders.
The club also moved quickly to replace retired left tackle Joe Staley, acquiring Trent Williams from the Washington Football Team.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returns with almost all his offensive weapons, including standout tight end George Kittle, whose 1,053 receiving yards in 2019 ranked third in the NFL among tight ends.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan noted this week that opening against Arizona means more than had his team been scheduled for a non-division opponent.
“Usually the team who wins the most games in our division makes the playoffs,” he said. “If you don’t do well in your division, very rarely do you find a way to make playoffs every year. I guess I could say, maybe, this year might be bigger.”
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were much more active in reshaping their roster in the offseason, focusing on a defense that allowed 402.0 yards per game, the most in the NFL.
Arizona used the No. 8 overall pick of the draft on sideline-to-sideline linebacker Isaiah Simmons and plucked 9 1/2-sack defensive tackle Jordan Phillips from Buffalo as a free agent. A pass defense that served up 281.9 yards per game last year (second-most in the NFL) gets star cornerback Patrick Peterson for a whole season after he missed six games a year ago on suspension and proven import Dre Kirkpatrick.
The Cardinals’ biggest offseason splash came on the offensive side of the ball when they acquired star wideout DeAndre Hopkins from Houston.
Hopkins gives second-year quarterback Kyler Murray a primary target while also creating more space for fellow wideouts Christian Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald, as well as running back Kenyan Drake.
Kingsbury wasn’t talking 49ers or playoffs leading up to Sunday’s opener. Rather, he’s focused on improvement.
“We just want to take a step forward,” he said during the preseason. “We felt like we made some progress at the back end of last year as a team, even in our practice processes and how we did things. We’re hoping to build off that this year and put a better product out there.
The Cardinals enter the opener in good shape health-wise, with tight end Maxx Williams (ankle) the only question mark among the starters.
The 49ers, meanwhile, welcomed back middle linebacker Fred Warner this week from a coronavirus-related absence. Their big concern in Week 1 is at wideout, with the status of Aiyuk (hamstring) and Deebo Samuel (foot) very much up in the air. Neither practiced Wednesday.
Center Ben Garland (ankle) was limited in practice Wednesday.
–Field Level Media