Matchups, Player Updates, Quotes To Note

How will Karlos Dansby stop Frank Gore

Coach Ken Whisenhunt won't detail his reasons for starting Kurt Warner at quarterback over Matt Leinart, but wanting his team to get off to a fast start likely has something to do with it.The Cardinals play three of their first four games on the road, and starting a veteran such as Warner will have its advantages.

Kurt Warner has played in tough environments before, while Leinart has often struggled in those situations.

Leinart played poorly in Oakland during the third preseason game, throwing three interceptions in the first half. It was reminiscent of a game he played there two years ago as a rookie when he completed just 13 of 32 passes, with two interceptions and three sacks.

Granted, that came with an awful Cardinals team in its last year under Dennis Green. But Leinart had some struggles on the road last year, too. He was 9 of 20 in Baltimore, and was 14 of 28 with two interceptions in the opener against San Francisco.

The Cardinal open against the 49ers again this season, then follow with a game at home against the Dolphins and consecutive road games at Washington and the Jets. With the schedule getting much tougher in the second half of the season, a slow start would be devastating to the team's playoffs hopes.

A decision to start Leinart would have meant dealing with the struggles of a young quarterback. That might have meant the difference in a game or two.

Starting Warner is no guarantee of victory. He has had his problems with turnovers, especially fumbles, and he struggled on the road in Washington, Tampa Bay and Seattle.

But he gives the Cardinals their best chance to win, especially early in the season. Given the team's history, that's important, because the Cardinals have never been better than 2-2 after four games since moving to Arizona in 1988.

SERIES HISTORY: 34th meeting, 49ers lead series, 19-14. The 49ers finished 5-11 last year, but two of those victories came against the Cardinals. The Cardinals committed six turnovers in those games, including four in an overtime loss in Arizona. Those losses were damaging blows to the Cardinals' hopes of winning the NFC West and making the playoffs. The players view the 49ers as one of their key rivals.

NOTES, QUOTES

--Last year's games between these two teams featured some bizarre plays. The Cardinals would have won in San Francisco had Eric Green been able to recover a fumble in the end zone and the Arizona defense been able to stop one of NFL's worst offenses from scoring late.

The 49ers won in Arizona when Neil Rackers missed a field goal in overtime and Kurt Warner was later sacked in his end zone, causing him to fumble. The 49ers recovered for the victory. In that game, receiver Larry Fitzgerald caught a 48-yard Hail Mary for a touchdown as the first half ended.

--There are some similarities between these two teams. Both are among the few NFC teams that run a 3-4. Both have backup quarterbacks who were high draft picks. This is the third consecutive year they've met in the season opener. Both have young weak inside linebackers who are among the best in the NFC. The 49ers have Patrick Willis and the Cardinals have Karlos Dansby.

Several 49ers assistant used to be with the Cardinals including receivers coach Jerry Sullivan, offensive line coach George Warhop and tight ends coach Pete Hoener. Cardinals linebackers coach Bill Davis was the defensive coordinator for 49ers coach Mike Nolan for two years.

--When asked for one of his favorite opening day memories, Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt thought back to 1987, when he played for the Falcons, who opened at Tampa Bay.

--"I happened to be standing right beside Laura Branigan, who was singing the national anthem and she actually lip-synched it," Whisenhunt said. "And I was stunned. I know that's not a football memory but it's one of my memories."

--Dennis Green failed as a Cardinals head coach, but he knew how to beat the 49ers. Green was 4-2 against San Francisco, winning the last four meetings. His only two losses came by the identical score of 31-28 in 2004. Oh, yeah, both games went to overtime.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

Coaches are holding their breath that the health of their starting center and nose tackle will hold this Sunday. That's because there might not be much behind them.

Lyle Sendlein is the only healthy center on the roster. Al Johnson, the regular starter, will miss the first game or two while recovering from knee surgery. The Cardinals didn't keep another center on the roster, so tackle Reggie Wells and guard Elton Brown are getting some work there this week in the event of emergency.

Bryan Robinson will start at nose tackle, even though he's a better defensive end. Backup Alan Branch is struggling with a sprained ankle, and Gabe Watson is just easing into practice after missing camp while recovering from a fractured kneecap.

Defensive end Kenny Iwebema, a rookie, is working at nose tackle.

Coaches are gambling a bit by not going short in other areas in order to keep a backup center and nose tackle for only a week or two. If the Cardinals can make it through a week or two unscathed, they should be in good shape.

PLAYER NOTES

--WR Larry Fitzgerald enjoyed one of his best training camps and appears primed for a big season. Fitzgerald has worked harder than ever, even though he received a four-year, $40 million deal in the off-season.

--RB Edgerrin James likely will have some of his workload reduced this year due to the emergence of rookie Tim Hightower. James carried 324 times last year, while his backups had just 42 carries. Look for Hightower to get more than 100 if he doesn't fumble too much.

--TE Ben Patrick returned to practice this week after missing some time with a sprained ankle. Patrick is the team's No. 2 tight end behind Leonard Pope, but he was pressing Pope at the time of the injury.

--OT Brandon Keith, a seventh-round pick, impressed coaches in camp. He's at right tackle now and has worked some at guard. Coaches think he can eventually play the left side.

--QB Brian St. Pierre is No. 3 on the depth chart, but coaches won't panic if he has to play. St. Pierre, who came from the Steelers, knows the offense well and looked great in the preseason.

MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Cardinals ILB Karlos Dansby vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore - The 49ers likely will try to throw the ball some to Gore, one of the game's great scoring threats. Dansby has great range and is a playmaker, so this will be a strength vs. strength matchup.

Cardinals SS Adrian Wilson vs. 49ers QB J.T. O'Sullivan: O'Sullivan must know where Wilson is at all times. That's harder than it sounds because Wilson will line up at safety, inside linebacker and will blitz up the middle and off the edge.

Cardinals WR Larry Fitzgerald vs. 49ers CB Nate Clements: Clements usually guards the most dangerous receiver, and that likely is Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald will try to use his size and strength and can be dangerous if he's covered by one man, even if that man is pretty good.

INJURY IMPACT: The Cardinals start the season in reasonably good health. NT Alan Branch (ankle) is hobbling. He needs to play to give starter Bryan Robinson a rest. If Branch can't play, the Cardinals will have to get creative to give Robinson a breather. That shouldn't be a problem because the team often goes to a 4-3 look in passing situations.

--DE Kenny Iwebema is practicing at nose tackle in case Branch can't play.

--NT Gabe Watson (knee) is expected to begin practicing soon. He suffered a fractured kneecap in the off-season and hasn't been cleared to practice.

--C Al Johnson (knee) remains out but is expected to begin practicing in a week or two.

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