Game Scout: 49ers @ Cardinals

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An in-depth preview of Sunday's matchup between the Cardinals and NFC West leading 49ers.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:05 p.m. ET
GAMEDATE: 12/11/11
SURFACE: Natural grass

TV: FOX, Dick Stockton, John Lynch, Jennifer Hale

PREDICTION: 49ers 23-13

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Cardinals registered a season-high five sacks in upsetting Dallas last week, but they gambled with a heavy dose of blitzes. 49ers QB Alex Smith is third in the league with a 107.5 passer rating against the blitz, thanks in large part to the league's No. 7-ranked running game that creates manageable passing downs. More important, San Francisco owns the league's top-ranked defense, although ILB Patrick Willis (hamstring) isn't likely to play. Still, the onus is on QB Kevin Kolb to build on last week's strong second half and overtime. Arizona failed to capitalize on pass plays early in a loss at San Francisco three weeks ago and constantly played from behind.

FAST FACTS: The 49ers are allowing just 13.4 points per game. ... The Cardinals' defense has allowed just five touchdowns in its past five games.

INSIDE THE CAMPS

49ers

While most other teams experience a frustrating series of highs and lows, the 49ers stay remarkably consistent. Their two losses came in tight games, and their 10 wins have been characterized by smart, disciplined play on offense and defense and relatively mistake-free special teams. The 49ers first created this approach during a busy and exhausting training camp, when coaches requested that players devote 14- to 16-hour days to learning the new offensive, defensive and special teams systems.

When defensive coordinator Vic Fangio first approached the players about the long hours, he said there was no push back.

"They were ready to do it. Never had one negative vibe from anybody, whether it be verbally, or body language, or anything," Fangio said. "So, it was never an issue. These guys knew we were behind the eight ball a little bit with no offseason and three new systems to put in, and they came here prepared ready to do the work to catch up."

The result of the tireless learning was an exhausted group of players, who practically sleep-walked through the team's woefully bad preseason.

"Coach (Jim) Harbaugh told us, 'I don't care how tired you are for preseason,'" cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "I was like, 'Don't you want to win.' Now I can see what he was doing."

The work they put in initially helped form the foundation of the 49ers' surprising success.

"I think it helped a lot," linebacker Parys Haralson said of the long days in training camp. Haralson also said that work ethic has spilled over to the regular season where players often come in early and stay late.

"As long as we're winning, we are going to keep doing what we are doing," Haralson said.

Cardinals

The Cardinals could have their full complement of offensive threats healthy on Sunday for the first time since the opening month of the season.

Since that time, quarterback Kevin Kolb (foot) and tight ends Todd Heap (hamstring) and Rob Housler (groin) have missed significant time because of injuries.

Kolb returned last week to lead the team to a victory over Dallas, and Heap believes he's turned a corner on an injury that's frustrated him for the past two months.

Injuries aren't the only reason the Cardinals' offense has struggled this season, but they have been a factor. Kolb missed four games with a foot injury. Heap missed most of seven games. Housler was out for four.

The Cardinals thought they would be able to throw to the tight ends more than in past years, but injuries changed that thinking.

This is the deepest corps of tight ends the team has had in years, and they've needed every one of them. With Housler and Heap out, Jeff King and Jim Dray took the snaps.

King has been a steady blocker and receiver. Dray missed the first six games with a torn pectoral muscle. He is a good blocker who needs development as a receiver.

PERSONNEL NEWS

49ers

--OT Alex Boone was signed to a contract extension through the 2015 season. "We are very pleased with the progress that Alex has made since joining the team in 2009," said general manager Trent Baalke. "He really is a great example of what hard work, dedication and focus can do to further a young player's career. The 49ers are very happy for Alex and look forward to him capitalizing on this opportunity."

--LB Patrick Willis (hamstring) is walking without a limp but it would be a shock of he played against the Cardinals in Arizona.

--LB Larry Grant will continue to play Patrick Willis' "jack" linebacker spot instead of switching with fellow LB NaVorro Bowman.

--LB NaVorro Bowman will likely take over play-calling duties and have the radio in his helmet.

--CB Carlos Rogers said he was held out of Wednesday's practice with a knee injury as a precaution. He said he will practice the rest of the week and play.

--S Reggie Smith is seeing more action as the team goes more with a dime defense with six defensive backs.

Cardinals

--OLB Joey Porter could be ready to play for the first time in seven weeks. Porter underwent surgery on his left knee and lost his starting job to Sam Acho. Porter has 98 sacks in his career, but just six since joining the Cardinals in 2010.

--FS Kerry Rhodes is returning from a fracture in his left foot. He practiced fully this week for the first time since early October. It's questionable if he will play on Sunday since this is his first full week of practice.

--RB Beanie Wells is beat up and he's nursing thumb, hamstring and knee injuries. But he expects to play on Sunday against the 49ers.

--P Dave Zastudil has a right biceps injury but he's optimistic about playing on Sunday against the 49ers. The team worked out Chris Bryan and Robert Malone this week in the event Zastudil can't.

--WR Larry Fitzgerald needs 57 receiving yards to hit 1,000 for the sixth time in his career. That would be a franchise record. It would be the fifth consecutive year in which Fitzgerald has gained at least 1,000 receiving yards.

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