The Breakdown: Cardinals vs. 49ers

The Cardinals and 49ers will battle in what's essentially an elimination game in the NFC West.

KICKOFF: Monday, 8:30 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 11/29/10
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: ESPN, Mike Tirico, Ron Jaworski, Jon Gruden, Michele Tafoya, Suzy Kolber

PREDICTION: Cardinals 22-17

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Bucs stuffed 49ers RB Frank Gore early last Sunday and then took away the vertical pass from QB Troy Smith. Smith will get his fourth consecutive start, and must get rid of the ball quicker to help an offensive line that has surrendered 11 sacks the past two weeks. Gore was used often against the Bucs to chip on the right side, which has really struggled.

Defensively, the 49ers are sacrificing physicality with converted cornerback Reggie Smith at safety. The Cardinals want to establish RBs Tim Hightower and Beanie Wells and limit long passing downs for erratic QB Derek Anderson (53.7 completion percentage).

FAST FACTS: Smith, who has started only three games, is the 49ers' second-leading rusher with 59 yards. ... Wells has a rushing touchdown in five consecutive divisional games.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

49ers

Troy Smith will make his fourth consecutive start Monday against the Cardinals. But Mike Singletary hinted that it will be a sink-or-swim game for the former Heisman Trophy winner.

"Last week Troy was coming off two wins and you want to ride that," Singletary said. "This is the game where we have to take a step back and look at how he responds during this game and how he does. We'll see how it goes."

The Buccaneers on Sunday seemed to have come up with the perfect game plan against Smith. They kept him hemmed in the pocket by sending extra rushers to the quarterback's right, which is where Smith likes to bootleg.

And they utilized their famous Tampa Two defense, keeping their safeties deep and further taking away the deep passes that earned Smith a win against St. Louis. The onus is on Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Johnson to come up with a game plan that counters the defensive adjustments.

"You know, obviously the defensive staffs elsewhere around the league, you know, they take pride in game planning," Smith said. "They take pride in putting their defensive players into places where the opponent is kind of caught off guard or whatever the case may be. They do a good job of putting the defensive players in different places and it's on us to react to it."

Meanwhile, Singletary said he wouldn't hesitate to go back to Alex Smith, who is fully recovered from a shoulder injury, if he feels Alex Smith gives the 49ers the best chance to win.

"At no point in time have I ever said, 'Alex is out of the picture, that's it.'" Singletary said. "But I have to make sure that if we have Troy, and he's done some good things, to make sure that I fully exhaust that. And at some point in time, it's 'we see what you need to see and you like it,' or 'it's we have to go in a different direction.'"

Cardinals

The Cardinals need some of their young defensive players to start producing, not only for what it will mean this year but for the future.

The team plugged defensive holes last off-season with veterans, signing outside linebacker Jerry Porter and inside linebacker Paris Lenon. Both, however, are 33, and the development of young players is vital.

Outside linebacker O'Brien Schofield, a fourth-round pick last spring, was drafted because of his pass rushing ability. He should start getting more snaps this season, partly because of injuries and partly because the team needs to start preparing for the future.

Porter has five sacks this season and hasn't provided consistent pressure. Clark Haggans, who starts at the other outside linebacker spot, has missed three of the past four games with a groin injury.

Haggans' backup, Will Davis, suffered a fractured fibula last week and is out for the season. That should be mean more playing time for Schofield, who started the season on the non football injury list.

Daryl Washington struggled as starting inside linebacker earlier this season and lost the job to Gerald Hayes, who returned from injury after seven games.

Washington has the speed the Cardinals lack at inside linebacker, but at 230 pounds, he's undersized to play inside. He had problems getting off blocks and tended to over-run plays.

If the team continues to struggle, however, Washington should get more playing time.

PERSONNEL NEWS

49ers

--K Joe Nedney is still dealing with a swollen right (plant leg) knee. He will test the joint this week in practice, but whether he plays or not could be a game-time decision.

--OT Barry Sims struggled in his first action this season at left tackle and Mike Singletary said he and his staff would have to evaluate the position. Still, it seems as if Sims, who had been inactive the first nine games, will get another chance to prove that he was merely rusty in Week 10.

--OG Chilo Rachal struggled in both the run game and pass protection against Tampa Bay but he will not lose his starting job, Singletary said.

--CB Will James (concussion) returned to practice this week. He will take over the No. 3 cornerback job from Tarell Brown.

--WR Kyle Williams is likely to return punts against Arizona. The 49ers want Ted Ginn to concentrate on kick returns, where he is yet to break off a big run.

Cardinals

--QB Derek Anderson has been intercepted just once in the past three games, but he's still missing receivers for big plays. Twice last week he overthrew Steve Breaston on potential touchdown passes.

--QB Max Hall likely won't start again this season unless there is an injury to Derek Anderson.

--RB Tim Hightower continues to start ahead of Beanie Wells, but the club has had struggled to stick with the run because it's fallen behind in games.

--RB Beanie Wells said his knee is fine after struggling with an injury. Wells is frustrated at his lack of carries, but his knee problem has contributed significantly to that.

--RB LaRod Stephens-Howling is expected to return after missing last week with a hamstring strain.

--RB Jason Wright is expected to return after missing last week's game with a concussion.

--WR Steve Breaston continues to be the team's biggest downfield threat. Breaston has the speed to stretch the field and runs well after the catch.

--WR Early Doucet will be questionable after suffering a concussion in last week's game.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald is frustrated that his numbers are down this season, but he isn't complaining publicly. Fitzgerald is healthy but quarterback Derek Anderson has trouble getting the ball to him.

--TE Stephen Spach is mainly a blocker and will rarely be a target in the passing game. --TE Jim Dray has moved ahead of Ben Patrick as the backup tight end. Dray isn't much of a receiving threat.

--K Jay Feely has a strong leg and his only miss this season in 12 attempts was from 54 yards.

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