nfl.com What to watch for in 49ers-Cardinals on Thursday
By Grant Gordon NFL.com
Unblemished upon the season with a ferocious defensive front leading the way, the 49ers' latest task will be tackling No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray and the Cardinals.
Following a lost season last year, Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and his winning ways are bringing about comparisons to Bay Area greats of yesteryear.
The top and last-place teams in what has suddenly become perhaps the best division in football, the NFC West foes collide on the latest edition of Thursday Night Football with the Arizona Cardinals (3-4-1) hosting the San Francisco 49ers (7-0) on Halloween at 8:20 p.m. ET live on NFL Network, FOX and Amazon Prime Video.
A glaring similarity between the teams is vast improvement from a season ago.
Under rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury, the Cardinals have already matched their win total for all of 2018 and Kyle Shanahan's Niners have left theirs in the dust with a four-win 2018 forgotten in the jubilance of a sterling start through seven games.
Under Shanahan, however, the 49ers have yet to defeat the Cardinals in four tries. Though all eyes are on the here and now, the Niners haven't defeated the Cardinals since the last week of the 2014 regular season with Arizona having won eight consecutive in the division showdown.
So, the 49ers, one of just two perfect teams left in the NFL, will look to stay undefeated against an upstart Cardinals squad that's had San Francisco's number for the last four seasons.
It's No. 1 pick Kyler Murray and the Arizona offense squaring off with No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa and the vaunted Niners defense, while Garoppolo and the 49ers' offense looks to avoid a dangerous Cardinals pass rush.
Here's four things to watch for on Thursday night:
How will Kyler Murray fare against the most formidable of defenses? Kyler Murray's fleet feet are likely to be on display Thursday with such a potent pass rush to run from.
Rookie or not, evading the rush has been an aspect Murray has excelled. He's been pressured on just 11.9 percent of his dropbacks, which is the lowest in the NFL. Aiding in that is that his quick-pass percentage of 55.1 is second in the league.
Murray and Arizona are coming off a 31-9 loss to the Saints, but had a three-game winning streak beforehand. The Cardinals began the season 0-3-1, but the 3-1 about-face came with a huge contrast in Murray's play.
Over the winless first four games, Murray had four turnovers, a 78.8 passer rating and was sacked five times. Since then, he's been sacked just 1.5 times, has a 95.5 rating and most impressive, especially for a rookie, has no turnovers.
Murray's seven touchdowns are hardly a high point, but his 186 completions are the second-most by a rookie QB in their first eight games since 1970. He's showing the maturity and mind of a signal-caller far senior than he is. He'll look to continue that in the face of one very formidable defense.
Is Jimmy G the winner San Francisco's been searching for? As the 49ers remain undefeated, Jimmy Garoppolo's record as a starter continues to impress as he's now 15-2 for an eye-popping .882 winning percentage, which is No. 1 since 1980 with a minimum of 16 starts. Next highest at .782 is Jimmy G's former teammate and Bay Area product Tom Brady.
He's navigated the first 7-0 start for the 49ers since all-time legend Joe Montana in 1990.
It's very much the talented crop of Niners running backs that has been the motor in Kyle Shanahan's offense, but Garoppolo has been excellent. He's posted a phenomenal 69.8 completion percentage, produced a 93.6 passer rating and seems to have the all-important knack to lead his team to wins.
Coming off an impressive 18-for-22 passing performance against the Panthers, Garoppolo has settled in as the San Francisco starter, having already eclipsed the amount of starts he had in either of his previous two seasons with the Niners.
Jimmy G is healthy and the 49ers are winning.
Will No. 2 pick Nick Bosa and the No. 1 Niners D stymie No. 1 pick? On the heels of a three-sack outing against the Panthers, rookie sensation Nick Bosa leads the rush of a simply stellar San Francisco defense.
Ranked No. 1 in total defense and against the pass, the Niners boast five players with three or more sacks.
Bosa is getting plenty of attention and rightfully so, as he leads all rookies with seven sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss. But a defense that's allowing a minuscule 11.0 points per game and just 224.4 yards is hardly a one-man show.
Cornerback Richard Sherman (three interceptions) has been in prime form. Arik Armstead already has a career-high 5.5 sacks. Fred Warner is quietly leading the team with 39 tackles and on and on it goes.
The Niners defense has been downright scary. Perhaps it's fitting for a Halloween showdown.
Chandler Jones is quietly making a lot of noise on Cards D As Thursday arrives, the Cardinals offer up the 29th-ranked defense, just 25th against the run and 29th against the pass.
They are tied for 11th in sacks, though, and much of that is due to Chandler Jones.
Jones, the younger brother of current UFC light heavyweight titlist Jon Jones, has been packing quite a punch through an elite eight games thus far. Through his first three years with the Cardinals, Jones has posted double-digit stats every season -- including an NFL-leading 17.0 in 2017 -- and is well on his way to continuing that standard with 8.5 (third in NFL) so far. Since moving from the Patriots to the Cardinals, Jones leads the NFL in sacks with 38.5 since 2017. He also leads the league with four forced fumbles this year and has 21 tackles, three fumble recoveries, nine quarterback hits and a host of signal-callers glad they won't see him again this season.
Unfortunately for Jimmy Garoppolo, he has to see Mr. Jones twice in the next three weeks. Nonetheless, nearly half of those Jones sacks came in Week 7 when he had four against the Giants.
Last week against an outstanding offensive line in New Orleans, Jones was held without a sack and tied for a season-low with one tackle. Was it the product of a stupendous Saints performance or is Jones slumping? Thursday night will deliver the answer, though it's likely safer for Garoppolo to have on his running shoes.