Jimmie Ward left here last time with quite the consolation prize after a 49ers loss.
Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s incomparable wide receiver, gave Ward the shirt off his back, complete with autographed message.
“I admire your toughness and grit. You bring it every time we battle. I wish you the best in your career.”
Fitzgerald’s career, well, it has no end, apparently.
When the 49ers (0-3) and Cardinals (1-2) meet Sunday, Fitzgerald will be as threatening as ever to a defense despite being 34-years-old and in his 14th season.
“They’re pretty much the same as they’ve been over the years: still trying to get Larry the ball,” 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of a Cardinals offense that lost running back David Johnson to wrist surgery after the season opener.
Now 205 games into a likely Hall of Fame career, his 1,147 receptions are more than any other receiver at that stage, although only 12 more than Jerry Rice.
Fitzgerald has more yards against the 49ers than any other team, and his 105 career touchdown catches rank eighth all-time (Rice leads with 197). Sixteen of Fitzgerald’s TD catches have come against the 49ers, including four as the Cardinals have won the past four meetings.
“He’s a slower guy, and a lot of people think because he’s slowed down, it’s just going to be easy,” cornerback Rashard Robinson said. “But he still knows how to get open. He knows when the ’backers are going somewhere. He knows defenses and he knows alignments.
“He’s a hell of a player.”
Last year, Fitzgerald racked up 12 receptions for 133 yards in the 23-20 home win that led to his jersey exchange with Ward. In the second quarter, Ward delivered a hit that sent Fitzgerald into the locker room, and Fitzgerald returned after halftime with five catches and 77 yards.
Fitzgerald is in his final year under contract, having arrived as a 2004 first-round pick out of Pittsburgh.
Asked on a media call if he’ll retire before Fitzgerald, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said: “I don’t think either one of us is looking forward to that. We’re having too much fun now.”
Unlike past battles in which Ward lined up against Fitzgerald in the slot or outside, this is not a line-of-scrimmage battle. Ward is now at free safety, the last line of defense against a pass-happy Cardinals offense that absolutely relies on Fitzgerald (22 receptions, 244 yards, one touchdown).
The 49ers haven’t mustered much of a pass rush to help their secondary. All three of their sacks came in Week 2 at Seattle, when the Seahawks got by with a struggling offensive line.
The Cardinals line is battered and even more suspect: Carson Palmer got sacked six times in Monday’s 28-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
Beyond sacks, the 49ers defense needs more takeaways, especially of the interception variety. Strong safety Jaquiski Tartt has their lone interception through three games. That’s the franchise’s fewest total since getting shutout in their first four of 2006.
“Those going to come,” Robinson said of interceptions. “You can’t go out and think about it too much, then once the opportunity comes, you (mess) around and blow it.”
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