Mike Nolan has predicted that the Cardinals will provide the 49ers' biggest competition in the coming years. Why? It's not just because he's winless against the birds. It's also because Arizona is just like the 49ers - a power-based team built to exploit a mostly finesse-based division.
To wit: One of the first things new coach Ken Whisenhunt did when he arrived in Arizona was rip out the team's old weight room - which dated back to the late 1980s - and built a new one that cost $200,000. (Bill Bidwill's hand make have been shaking, but he still wrote the check).
Whisenhunt said some of the items in the former weight room were, ahem, a tad antiquated and that the team had emphasized machine-style training in the past. Think: Bally Total Fitness circa 1989. The machines got thrown in the trash heap and were replaced with free weights. Whisenhunt emphasizes power lifting, just like his former team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and like his Monday opponent, the 49ers.
"That made a big difference because it was a change," Whisenhunt said of the weight room. "It was something of a shock, a wake-up call."
Another similarity is that the Cardinals, like the 49ers, have put a lot of emphasis on the offensive line. Nolan on Thursday spoke glowingly about the right side of the Arizona line, which features guard Deuce Lutui, a 6-5, 338-pound second-year player out of USC, and the rookie right tackle, Levi Brown, a player the 49ers really liked in this year's draft.
"Those two players on the right are pretty stout players," Nolan said. "I think they have two above average guys."
Newcomer Atiyyah Ellison certainly passes the size test. The 49ers want big, athletic guys on their 3-4 defensive line and at 6-4, 320-pounds, Ellison fits the bill. Nolan said that Ellison would be the "swing guy" at both defensive end positions. During Thursday's walk-through Ellison said he was told to observe the left defensive end.
As it turns out, the 49ers originally asked Ellison to move from the Ravens' practice squad to their practice squad. Ellison didn't like that idea.
"Why pick up and move my family across the country for the same spot, basically?" he said. But when the 49ers sweetened the deal by dangling an active roster spot in front of him, Ellison jumped. He said he's familiar with the assignments in the 49ers' defense, he just has to master the verbiage. He has a former teammate with the Ravens, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, to help him out.
Ellison said he thought he had a chance of making Baltimore's final roster because he figured they'd wind up with six defensive linemen. It turns out they only kept five. The 49ers, if you're counting at home, currently have seven defensive lineman.
To make room for Ellison, the 49ers had to cut left tackle Patrick Estes, a tough decision according to Nolan.
"I'm hopeful that he gets a job but I'd like to think he'll be back with us at some point," he said. "But we'll wait and see how that goes. It was a tough release because I think he's going to be a player."
One of the reasons Estes might have been expendable was because the team has high hopes for converted defensive tackle Damane Duckett, who made big strides this offseason. Duckett is a member of the practice squad.
"I don't believe Duck's ready for prime time, but he shows a lot of promise at the position," Nolan said.
MM also asked Nolan why he decided to keep six cornerbacks on the final roster. The coach essentially said that the last two guys at that position, Donald Strickland and Marcus Hudson, were better players than the back-ups at other positions. He also said that Hudson had enough size to possibly move to safety.
Strickland (chest) will practice today but his status for Monday is still up in the air. Bryant Young and Larry Allen did not practice but it was the coach's perogative, not injury, that kept them out. The only player who will definitely be out for Monday's game is safety Dashon Goldson.
-- Matt Barrows