The 49ers have long been out of the playoff picture, but there is still plenty for which to play in the final six weeks of the regular season. CEO Jed York, who made a point of saying in January that he wanted to hire a teacher, will determine whether there’s been enough teaching and progress this season. This matchup could serve a comparison to help determine whether the 49ers are merely spinning their wheels or whether there’s any hope of improvement. The 49ers were overwhelmed in Week 3, when the Arizona Cardinals rolled to a 47-7 victory. The Cardinals need this victory to take another step closer the NFC West title and get into better position for playoff seeding. Here are 10 players worth watching in Sunday’s game at Levi’s Stadium:
10) QB Blaine Gabbert, 49ers
Whether he is No. 1 on this list, No. 10 or somewhere in between, Gabbert is the one player who figures to be here every game for the remainder of the season. His first two games have been just fine. Like many of his teammates and the 49ers’ coaching staff, Gabbert is performing for his role with the organization in 2016. So far, so good. But, now, he faces a big test against the third-ranked defense in the NFL. Gabbert has done a good job of showing his toughness, and his willingness to give his receivers chances to go get the ball. But Gabbert also must to cut down on the number of opportunities he gives the defense to pick him off.
9) RB Chris Johnson, Cardinals
The 49ers’ run defense was abysmal last week against the Seahawks. Rookie Thomas Rawls rushed for 209 yards – the most against the 49ers in the 70-year history of the franchise. Johnson comes into the game with 797 rushing yards. The 49ers’ run defense comes into the game with something to prove. Said coach Jim Tomsula, “I use the term, ‘Don’t play not to make a mistake and don’t tackle being afraid to miss the tackle.’ Be more attacking. And I felt like that’s what our problems were.”
8) TE Vance McDonald, 49ers
McDonald, the second-round pick of the 2013 draft, has been a forgotten man in the passing game through his three-year career. But, perhaps, the switch at quarterback and the trade of Vernon Davis to the Denver Broncos were what he needed to become a factor. Last week, McDonald recorded career-highs with four catches for 65 yards and his first NFL touchdown. McDonald played 83 percent of the snaps last week against the Seahawks, while Garrett Celek was on the field for 58 percent of the time.
7) LG Mike Iupati, Cardinals
Iupati, who spent his first five seasons with the 49ers, is scheduled to make his first appearance against his former team. He sat out the first meeting this season due to a knee injury. Iupati signed a five-year, $40 million contract with the Cardinals to help provide some power for the run game. And that’s exactly what coach Bruce Arians said he has gotten from Iupati. “He brings the right type of attitude,” Arians said. “We wanted to get tougher and be able to grind it out a little bit more.” Iupati is back after being taken off the field in an ambulance. Iupati sustained a double-stinger that was feared to be a neck injury.
6) DT Arik Armstead, 49ers
The 49ers’ first-round draft pick is expected to see extended action for the remainder of the season with Glenn Dorsey out after undergoing surgery on Tuesday to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. Armstead was used exclusively as a nickel pass rusher in the first nine games of the season. He said he looks forward to rounding out his all-around game on base downs, as well as pass-rush situations.
5) DB Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
Mathieu, a third-year pro, has knowledge of the game that far exceeds his NFL experience. He lines up at the safety position on base downs and then drops down to cover the slot receiver in nickel situations. Mathieu ranks third on the team in tackles and has added three interceptions and 12 passes broken up. With Cardinals safety Deone Bucannon questionable with a concussion, Mathieu might be asked to do even more on Sunday.
4) LG Alex Boone, 49ers
Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell is arguably the best player at his position in the entire NFL. Physically, it’s a great matchup. Campbell and Boone are listed identically at 6 foot 8, 300 pounds. The 49ers have averaged more than 4 yards per carry when running behind Boone. They will take that kind of production against Campbell, as the 49ers look to get some success with the running game. Shaun Draughn makes his third start since being signed due to the rash of 49ers injuries.
3) OLB Aaron Lynch, 49ers
Lynch, a second-year pro, has been one of the few bright spots for the 49ers this season. He ranks tied for third in the NFC with 6.5 sacks. Ahmad Brooks is going through the NFL’s concussion protocol and appears questionable to be cleared in time for Sunday’s game. The Cardinals are likely to slide their protection to Lynch’s side, so he’ll face the most attention on passing downs that he has received all season.
2) QB Carson Palmer, Cardinals
Palmer is worth watching this week in particular because, well, he’s been worth watching this entire season. Palmer, 35, has returned from a torn ACL that cut his 2014 season to just six games. He is playing the best football of his career. Palmer and Tom Brady are the top MVP candidates, for sure. Palmer leads the NFL with a passer rating of 108.6. He has thrown 27 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. His average pass attempt has resulted in a league-best 9.04-yard gain.
1) DB Jimmie Ward, 49ers
The Cardinals’ leading receiver and long-time 49ers nemesis Larry Fitzgerald lines up approximately 60 percent of the time in the slot. That means it’ll be a busy and challenging day for Ward, who is the 49ers’ primary nickel back. Ward has been solid for parts of the season, but the first-round pick of 2014 surrendered a 24-yard touchdown pass to the Seahawks’ Tyler Lockett last week. The big-bodied Fitzgerald could provide a problem due to his size and physical style.