Davis' Career Day
The 49ers' passing game had been sputtering.
But instead of looking for others to start contributing, Sunday Kaepernick went with what he knows would work.
Vernon Davis broke the Arizona's back with two long touchdown receptions of 65 and 35 yards in the first half. He finished with a career-best 180 yards on eight receptions in the 32-20 win. San Francisco didn't need any ancillary pass catchers to win this game.
With the victory, the 49ers move to 4-2, tying them with the best record for any NFC team that's not leading their respective division. Next week they travel to Tennessee before taking on the Jaguars in London.
The story Sunday was Davis, the offense's most versatile weapon. No player on the roster does as much for the team in so many different ways. He became the first tight end in team history to record touchdown receptions of 60 yards or longer in consecutive weeks.
San Francisco's game plan coming into Sunday was to establish the run despite going up against one of the league's best run defenses. With eight or nine players in the box, they would take their shots with Davis, perhaps the only tight end in the league that could run away from safeties with a bad hamstring.
"When you're in the zone, it's high and you can't come down," Davis said. "It's a beautiful thing."
"We knew he would be a mismatch, he always is," Kaepernick said.
Davis' first score came at a critical point in the first half, after the offense was unable to take advantage of turnovers deep in Arizona's side of the field. Two of the Cardinals' first four drives ended with interceptions to Eric Reid and Carlos Rogers, respectively. But instead of putting the game out of reach early, the 49ers could only muster two field goals.
With the score at 8-7 after Corey Lemonier's safety, San Francisco took just two plays to drive 71 yards, capping a nine-point swing and giving the offense a much-needed burst.
The 49ers didn't get their initial first down until their fifth drive of the day. But it was that drive that ended in Kaepernick's interception at the goal line, just a few plays before Lemonier's safety gave them the ball back.
"They have a very good defense, very good run defense and they committed an extra player to the box and went with man-coverage and at times zero-coverage and that gave Vernon a chance to win and make the big play," Jim Harbaugh said.
The 61-yard score came with the jumbo package including Daniel Kilgore and Adam Snyder in the game on 1st-and-10. The Cardinals dressed the box with nine players and crowded Davis with a player inside and out before giving him a free release. Safety Yeremiah Bell let Davis get behind him and Kaepernick hit him in stride.
"Vernon's someone who has all those tools. Every routes going to vary for him, but he uses those tools to his advantage," Kaepernick said.
The play was aided by an offsides penalty, that gave Kaepernick the freedom to air it out with no consequence. But it didn't change the play or route Davis was going to run, Kaepernick said.
Davis' other touchdown, a 35-yard streak down the right side in the second quarter, came after Arizona countered his first score with a quick touchdown drive of its own.
The score was 15-14 when Kaepernick threw one of his best balls of the season toward the goal line, landing in Davis' hands to give his team an eight-point lead.
The Cardinals would score the first points in the third quarter when Michael Floyd caught his first touchdown pass of the year. But they tried a gadget play on the two-point conversion and failed. Going for two was a questionable call at that point as the Cardinals found out later. A touchdown and extra point made it a two-score game in the fourth quarter.
Kaepernick finished with 252 yards, completing 16 of 29 attempts with two scores, good for a QB rating of 92.9. He had 127, 150, 167 and 113-yard performances in his previous four games.
Coming in, Kaepernick had a 26.79 rating when throwing to wide receivers not named Anquan Boldin or Davis. Sunday, he completed 5 of 10 with an interception for a 22.5 rating when targeting those players.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said "It's possible" Mario Manningham could return to practice this week and play next Sunday in Tennessee.
-Although the sack numbers haven't been enormous, San Francisco's defense hasn't seemed to miss Aldon Smith much.
That's because the duo of Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta have filled in admirably in his stead, providing the offense with different looks. Smith was an every-down player, while Skuta has been used more in base situations. Lemonier has been able to pin his ears back and get to the quarterback.
The rookie out of Auburn made two of the biggest plays of the game for the defense Sunday, getting his first career sack and safety on the same play in the second quarter. His second came midway through the fourth quarter when he forced a fumble from Alfonso Smith, giving the 49ers the ball at the Cardinals' 31-yard line.
Phil Dawson would hit a 44-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 12 and kill Arizona's chances at a miraculous comeback.
"Pass rushers in this league are hard to find," Harbaugh said. "It's exciting, seeing him do the job he's doing."
After the game, Lemonier credited his safety with knowing some of the Cardinals' tendencies through film work.
"He happened to give me the set I was working for. Like what coach (Jim) Tomsula always told me, just run really fast and use your hands," Lemonier said.
"The DBs did their job and it was the right time and I just made the move. It felt great."
There's no timetable on the Smith's return to the team, but there's a chance that he played his last game of the season in Week 3. That means Lemonier, a third round pick last spring, might have an increased workload going forward.
Putting the Cardinals Through the Meat Grinder
-San Francisco's offense orchestrated an 18-play, 83-yard, touchdown drive covering 9:32 in the fourth quarter that that wound up being the difference in the game.
"Grinded some meat," Harbaugh said. "Playing tough, hard-nosed football. Grinding out the running game...pounding the meat."
A member of the media channeled Bo Schembechler, the legendary coach at Michigan who fancied himself some power football.
"Somewhere he's up there smiling down. That was an (offensive) line that was coming off the ball and Frank was determined and the whole unit, they were determined to move the football and keep our defense off the field that had played so well in that ballgame," Harbaugh said.
Gore finished with his second 100-yard output of the season, rushing 25 times for 101 yards.
Gore, along with the entire offense, struggled in the first half. He had just 20 yards on 10 carries. But things opened up later in the game.
"That's the thing with those early runs, those two-yard runs, those body blows that he throws. As we keep feeding him, those are going to turn into bigger runs for us and that was a great example of it today," Joe Staley said.
"He was able to turn out those eight-yard, 10-yard runs as the game went on. He's a great running back and it's unbelievable what he can do back there, how tough he is and all the intangibles he leads for this football team."
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