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Thursday Night Football Preview: Who Can Stay Out of the Cellar in the NFC West?

Can Drew Stanton and the Cardinals avoid a 1-4 start? Or will the 49ers improve to 2-3?

Most NFL teams are a quarter of the way through their NFL season, and we have a pretty good idea who they are.

The Arizona Cardinals don't seem to be one of those teams.

Nearly everyone was expecting the Cardinals to pick where the left off last year; many did not expect them to be sitting after Week 4 tied with the San Francisco 49ers in last place of the NFC West.

Which team has the best shot to climb out of the cellar and recover their 2016 season tonight?

Quarterback Breakdown

In looking at the quarterback position, it's actually hard to discern who has the edge.

Carson Palmer has struggled so far in 2016, but he has been ruled out. On a short week, it was going to be tough for him to get back and ready to play after working through the concussion protocol.

So that means it's Drew Stanton time. Stanton barely saw any action in 2015 but did drop back 240 times in nine games in 2014 while filling in for an injured Palmer. That season, 37 quarterbacks recorded at least 200 drop backs, and Stanton owned a Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back of 0.03, which ranked him 27th.

In terms of Passing Success Rate, the percentage of drop backs that improved his team's chance to score, Stanton fared much worse, ranking 35th of 37 passers, as just 40.24% of his drop backs improved Arizona's scoring chances.

In 2016, Blaine Gabbert has struggled significantly, as he owns a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.07 through four weeks, ranking him 35th among 37 passers with at least 50 drop backs. Only Case Keenum and Jay Cutler have been worse. Gabbert owns a Passing Success Rate of 38.52%, which ranks him 36th in that same group. It's been tough sledding so far for Gabbert and the 49ers' passing offense.

This matchup really seems to be picking between the lesser of two evils.

Running Back Play

These two offenses are two of the few that don't seem to feature much of a time share, which is an anomaly in today's NFL.

David Johnson is an elite fantasy football play week in and week out and is a true workhorse each week. In fact, while recent attempts have been made to skinny his work load, Johnson played 73% of Arizona's offensive snaps in Week 4, and with Chris Johnson suffering an injury during that game, that percentage is sure to rise in Week 5.

The same goes for San Francisco, as Carlos Hyde played 44 out of 53 plays (83%) in Week 4. Shaun Draughn did see the field for 32% of San Francisco's offensive snaps, but Hyde is the guy they lean on more heavily.

Arizona ranks 26th in pass-to-run ratio, whereas San Francisco is one of three teams in the NFL to attempt more rushes than pass this season, ranking 2nd overall in pass-to-run ratio.

Not only is San Francisco running the ball a lot more, but they're also a lot better at it, too.

They rank 11th in efficiency with a 0.02 Adjusted Rushing NEP per play. Arizona, meanwhile, is 28th in the league at -0.12. San Francisco seems not only to be far more efficient in the run game, but they also showcase some defensive metrics that may give the San Francisco faithful some hope.

Defensive Matchup

To no one's surprise, the Cardinals have been the better defensive unit than the 49ers, as they rank seventh so far in 2016 per our metrics. What may be a bit surprising, though, is that the 1-3 49ers rank 11th.

Against the pass, Arizona really shines, as they rank seventh in the league. Against the run, though, is a far different story. They drop all the way down to the middle of the pack, ranking 16th overall. Against a team that's as rush-heavy and efficient as the 49ers, this could cause some problems.

Individually, San Francisco does not grade out as well as their team rank. They rank 13th against the pass and are slightly better than Arizona at 14th against the run.

From a volume perspective, the numbers that stick out are related to San Francisco's defense. They've faced the second-most rushing plays in the NFL (130) and the third-most total plays overall (298). Given that high volume total, those per-play metrics for the 11th best unit are even more impressive.

To Arizona's credit, they do get to the quarterback at a far higher clip, ranking 10th through four weeks in sack rate. San Francisco ranks quite a bit lower at 19th.

Historical Comparisons

According to our algorithm, there's a pretty close historical match to this same contest: an early September 2012 tilt between the Denver Broncos and the Pittsburgh Steelers, which you may remember as Peyton Manning's return to the field after a year away following neck surgery.

Peyton launched the 400th touchdown pass of his career en route to a 31-19 home win. While it was a tight 14-13 contest through three quarters, Manning connected with Jacob Tamme on a one-yard touchdown pass in the middle of the fourth quarter, and the defense salted the game away with a Tracy Porter pick-six that sealed it at the two-minute warning.

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