Without all the turnovers from Week 2, the 49ers’ second straight collapse was eerily similar.
After holding a 14-6 fist-half lead, San Francisco (1-2) was outscored 17-0 in the second half to fall to the Arizona Cardinals (3-0). Personal fouls were the 49ers’ undoing. The offense couldn’t make the plays needed to come back after falling behind in the third quarter. The surging Cardinals are in first place after the 23-14 win.
With the loss, the 49ers fall to 1-2 for the second-straight season under Jim Harbaugh, who is in Year 4 of a five-year deal. The 49ers have been outscored 52-3 in second halves.
A despondent Harbaugh had no answers for his team's second-half struggles. "Just got to play better. We’re not playing good enough right now," he said.
Two straight personal foul penalties stemming from hits on backup quarterback Drew Stanton (18 of 33, 244 yards, two touchdown passes), led to rookie receiver John Brown’s 24-yard TD grab to give Arizona the one-point lead in the third quarter. The 49ers offense that started out hot, punted up 14-13, and the Cardinals scored again on a brief five-play drive that ended in Brown’s 21-yard score, his second of the game.
Penalties were an issue for the second week in a row after the 49ers had 16 for 118 yards in Week's 2 loss to the Bears. Linebacker Dan Skuta drilled Stanton as he was sliding, drawing a controversial 15-yard penalty. The next play, Willis got one after officials ruled he led with his helmet to hit Stanton on blitz.
"I felt as if I stepped, as I would any tackle, and put my shoulder in there and hit him," Willis said. "I felt like it was to the side. I’m not sure. I guess I’ll see it when I watch the film. But they called it and that’s what it was."
Down 20-14, the 49ers mounted a 12-play, 52-yard drive, but came up without points when Phil Dawson’s 45-yard field goal was blocked by Tommy Kelly. They had a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line following a catch from Anquan Boldin, but Boldin was flagged for head butting safety Tony Jefferson that pushed the ball back to the 21. Following a Jonathan Martin clipping penalty, San Francisco could only get as close as the 29 before the blocked kick.
Boldin was frustrated with referee Gene Steratore's crew, alleging the officials weren't calling the game fairly.
"My penalty is my penalty. I shouldn’t have done it," Boldin told reporters. "Guys were taking shots at me all game. I told coach that. I told the refs that three times."
"If you look at it, it’s unbelievable. We’ll send the tape into the league and they’ll say we made a mistake. But (the Cardinals) got 30 yards down field and some of these were coming at crucial times."
San Francisco finished with nine penalties for 107 yards, while Arizona had five for 36.
The 49ers were without star tight end Vernon Davis Sunday, so they switched things up.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman dialed up the hurry-up offense, seldom seen since he took over in 2011, and looked to spread the Cardinals’ blitz-heavy defense out. The 49ers scored on their first two possessions pushing the tempo and using multiple receivers.
"I don’t think there’s any defense in this league has five defensive backs that can cover us outside like that," Boldin said. "If we put five wide receivers on the field, teams are going to have a tough time stopping us."
Colin Kaepernick was efficient early, completing 14 of his first 18 throws for 116 yards and a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on his first possession. The team’s second score came on rookie running back Carlos Hyde’s six-yard sweep to the left, when he barreled over a Cardinals defender to cross the goal line.
Kaepernick finished with 218 yards passing and led the team with 54 on the ground. Frank Gore and Hyde combined for nine carries and 23 yards against Arizona’s notoriously stout run defense.
Going to the locker room with the eight-point lead meant San Francisco has outscored opponents 59-16 in the opening half this year. Wideout Stevie Johnson led the team in receiving in the first half with five catches for 49 yards, including four for first downs. Johnson’s 6-yard reception on fourth-and-1 in the second quarter led to Hyde’s touchdown. Johnson finished with nine catches for 103 yards. Crabtree had 10 for 80, Boldin 6 for 36.
The Cardinals kicked field goals on their first two possessions. On their second, they were aided by two Eric Reid penalties, an illegal contact and face mask, the first two of his career. Arizona went on to march 66 yards over 6:45 culminating in Chandler Catanzaro’s 32-yard field goal.
The 49ers opened 5 of 7 on third down. But they converted 1 of 6 in the second half.
San Francisco has a chance to pick up the pieces with a conference game against the Philadelphia Eagles next week at Levi's Stadium. After Sunday's loss, the 49ers are a combined 2-6 under Harbaugh in Week's 2 and 3 of the regular season.
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