SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco 49ers usually have a nice familiarity with their NFC West foes. Not with these Cardinals, because so much has changed in Arizona.
Coach Jim Harbaugh and his San Francisco coaching staff are doing more studying leading up to Sunday’s game at Candlestick Park. There’s new coach Bruce Arians, new quarterback Carson Palmer, and an upgraded, swarming defense that is winning games much like the Niners’ vaunted unit.
There’s also familiar faces who have put up plenty of big numbers and stats against San Francisco: Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd, Patrick Peterson, Daryl Washington.
“Quite a bit’s new,” Harbaugh said. “New coaching staff, new players. Quite a few guys that are staples on their team. But they’ve added a mix of quite a few good players and it’s really a new team in that regard and they’re playing very well.”
Arians typically talks to close friend and Colts coach Chuck Pagano every Friday, and now he can pick Pagano’s brain on what worked for Indianapolis in a 27-7 win at San Francisco.
“We have to play them in a few weeks, I don’t think he’s going to tell me too much,” Arians said with a chuckle.
Here are five things to watch when Arizona plays San Francisco, both at 3-2:
BOLDIN’S OLD TEAM: Anquan Boldin launched his career with the Cardinals, who selected him in the second round of the 2003 draft out of Florida State.
He became the fastest player to 500 catches in his 80th game in December 2008, and still holds an Arizona franchise record with five straight games with 100 yards receiving.
Not that Boldin is becoming sentimental about this weekend’s matchup. He won a Super Bowl last season with the Baltimore Ravens, beating his new team.
Boldin no longer has a home in Arizona, with Florida his home base.
“It’s just another game for me. It’s a divisional game,” Boldin said. “I’m four years removed from Arizona, so it’s pretty much a turnover. I barely know any of the guys there, so it’s not a big deal for me.”
PALMER RETURNS: Palmer spent parts of the past two seasons in the Bay Area with the Raiders before being traded to his new home in the desert. He returns determined to get going after a slow start by Arizona’s offense. Palmer has thrown nine interceptions with five touchdowns for a passer rating of 67.0.
And Palmer knows the challenge ahead against an opportunistic, ball-hawking San Francisco defense. Tramaine Brock had a pick-6 and a second interception in last week’s 34-3 rout of the Texans, and the Niners also forced a fumble and frustrated Matt Schaub all night.
“NFC West games are NFC West games. There is a rivalry to it,” Palmer said. “There is nastiness to this division, especially defensively.”
TAKEAWAYS: The “identity” is back. Ask anybody involved with San Francisco’s defense and that word comes up somehow.
The 49ers forced four turnovers against Houston and converted each one into points — three touchdowns and a field goal. San Francisco’s defense had four takeaways for the first time since producing two interceptions and two fumble recoveries against New England on Dec. 16 last year. The 49ers’ three interceptions were their most since three on Dec. 19, 2011, against Pittsburgh.
Arizona must take care of the ball.
“I think all the great ones do, they live on disruptive plays and taking the football away, and they’re very, very good at it,” Arians said. “That’s been our problem, we’ve turned it over down in the red zone three times and lost points. Those have to be eliminated.”
DEFENSIVE CARDINALS: The Cardinals are winning with defense of late, much like the 49ers.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has faced enough defenses doing all they can to slow him down that he will prepare for any tweaks and twists Arizona throws at him.
“I think they were underrated last year as a defense, but this year they’re very good,” Kaepernick said. “They play hard, they play fast, show a lot of different looks. Defenses are going to change every time we see them. They’re going to have new wrinkles.”
GORE KEEPS GOING: Frank Gore has put together impressive stretches before, like those five straight 100-yard rushing performances in 2011 after a slow start.
He’s on a roll of late, and it has meant so much given San Francisco’s struggles in the passing game without a strong No. 2 wide receiver to complement Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis.
Gore’s season-best 153-yard outing at St. Louis on Sept. 26 is sandwiched by a pair of 80-yard running performances, and he scored a touchdown in the past two games.
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum contributed to this story.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org