A week after giving away a 17-0 lead against the Bears, the 49ers lost a 14-6 halftime lead this week in Arizona to fall to 1-2. The offense was able to move the ball and didn’t turn it over. But a series of penalties and mistakes allowed the undefeated Cardinals to take the lead in the third quarter, allowing their blitzing defense to stop the 49ers from making a comeback. The home team held on 23-14 as the 49ers fell to 1-2.
It’s become a habit to look at the box score from this game and see Frank Gore’s six-carry, 10-yard performance and say the 49ers simply didn’t run the ball enough. But the fact is, they moved the ball well enough to put themselves in position to win the game. Colin Kaepernick set career marks in completion percentage (78.38 percent) and completions (29). He was very good utilizing the new spread-out scheme, hitting on 25 of 26 throws to his top three receivers.
Well-times blitzes from Arizona’s defense and offensive penalties were the offense’s undoing in the second half, not a lack of running game. The 49ers were in position to take a late lead, after two disastrous Cardinals touchdown drives in the third quarter, but two personal foul penalties forced a long field goal try which was blocked. Arizona defensive coordinator Todd Bowles rolled sevens with a few key blitzes, disrupting San Francisco’s chances at important first downs. Arizona’s coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for this one.
Here’s what we saw from the tape:
The 49ers blitzed more Sunday than either of the first two games. The first was costly. On the first third down on the opening field goal drive, coordinator Vic Fangio sent Jimmie Ward from the left side - where the Cardinals had three wideouts - leaving Michael Floyd on Antoine Bethea, beating him for 36 yards down the sideline in a clear mismatch.
The Cardinals took advantage of a Ward blitz again on their second drive, when he came from the left, where the Cardinals had trips, to find John Brown for a five-yard gain on third-and-4. Eric Reid was penalized for a face mask during the tackle. An unblocked Corey Lemonier nearly got to Stanton for the sack, but he got rid of the ball quickly recognizing Ward’s blitz.
Ward made a very good play to prevent Floyd from scoring a touchdown on that drive after nearly falling down in coverage when turning the wrong way on a well-run corner route. He made contact with Floyd at the perfect moment to get the pass break up and help force a field goal following a third-down incompletion to Ted Ginn, who was covered nicely by Chris Culliver.
On the Cardinals’ first drive in the third quarter, Floyd made a great adjustment to come back and get Staton’s throw for a 45-yard gain on Culliver, who didn’t turn and locate the ball soon enough. The same thing happened to him against Alshon Jeffery in the loss to the Bears. Culliver’s clear strength in coverage is positioning and physicality, but he struggles to find the ball, particularly when it’s purposefully under thrown.
The 49ers offense opened up with five wideouts on its second snap. Kaepernick went after match ups, going to Stevie Johnson on inside linebacker Larry Foote. A few plays later, he went to Michael Crabtree on Foote. The key to the five-wide sets was to get receivers matched up favorably with linebackers and safeties. Patrick Peterson was targeted just twice.
The opening touchdown to Crabtree was a similar play as his TD catch against the Bears last week, just to the opposite side of the field. The 49ers were three wide to the left, Anquan Boldin and Brandon Lloyd ran slants, picking Crabtree’s man, Jerraud Powers, leaving him wide open for the two-yard score.
On the Cardinals’ fourth-down play on their second drive, running back Robert Hughes got away with moving early, as Patrick Willis and the 49ers’ sideline argued. Stanton snuck up the middle for a first down.
Later in the drive, when Reid was penalized for illegal contact negating a Justin Smith sack on third down, he touched the speedy rookie Brown as he blew by him. Had the 49ers not brought extra pressure with blitzes from Michael Wilhoite, Willis and Ward, Drew Stanton would have had Brown wide open for a touchdown. Reid did make contact with Brown, but it was of little consequence. It was a killer penalty because the Cardinals went from having to punt, to having a first down at San Francisco’s 31 before settling for a field goal.
Perrish Cox had a nice game, allowing just two catches on five targets for 17 yards. He also broke up two passes.
Cox has been a pleasant surprise in the secondary and has been the team’s best corner to this point. Given Ward’s struggles at nickel, you have to wonder if Cox would be playing nickel if not for Tramaine Brock’s toe injury. Brock could miss his third straight game this week, forcing Cox to keep playing corner on the left side, for now.
Cox also broke up a potential touchdown pass in the third quarter when he recovered to bat the ball away from Floyd at the goal line. Later he added a nice tackle in the flat on a bubble screen deep in his own territory.
Kaepernick’s worst read of the day came on third-and-8 on the opening drive in the second half, when he telegraphed a pass to Crabtree on an out pattern. Antonio Cromartie was playing Lloyd on the outside, but read Kaepernick’s eyes, dropped Lloyd and picked up Crabtree coming into his area. He would have walked into the end zone had he made the interception.
After the Cardinals made it a 14-13 game, San Francisco’s ensuing drive stalled after a first-down scramble from Kaepernick was negated by a holding penalty by Mike Iupati (Cromartie was also flagged for a face mask on the play).
On third down, the Cardinals ran a triple A-gap blitz to perfection. Safety Tony Jefferson waited for the two blitzing linebackers to get picked up by the guards and Gore, before disrupting Kaepernick, unblocked, forcing him to scramble and come up short of the first down. Kaepernick’s only reasonable option was Boldin on an out-pattern to the right, but Peterson was in perfect position. By the time Kaepernick saw that, Jefferson was already on him and he had to scramble, coming up two yards short of the first down.
Coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme was very impressive in the second half.
Without going against much pass rush to speak of, Arizona was aggressive on their first third-quarter possession, getting a 45-yard completion to Floyd, trying to score from 38 yards on a pass Cox broke up, then finding Brown for his first score.
The Cardinals had three receivers bunched left, with Brown coming in motion from the outside to the slot. Bethea was five yards off the line of scrimmage to the opposite side, leaving Reid as the lone deep safety. Putting the speedy Brown in motion matched him up with Wilhoite, who was playing an underneath zone. Brown flew by him and then got deep inside leverage on Reid quickly, who hesitated. With Bethea up on the other side, Brown had the entire right side of the field to work with leaving Reid in the dust.
Reid told CSN Bay Area this week he was responsible for that touchdown. Brown was just too fast and Reid was late recognizing his post route. But with three receivers on the field, Fangio might consider having Bethea drop back into his usual deep part of the field when one moves in motion to the slot like Brown did on that play, giving his man, Ellington, to a linebacker or corner lined up on his side.
The next drive was killer for San Francisco. On Stanton’s second-down scramble, he was in the midst of his slide when Dan Skuta drilled him, should-to-shoulder, getting called for a personal foul. By rule, it was not the right call given Stanton’s knee had not hit the ground and Skuta did not hit Stanton in the head. But the referees don’t have the benefit of slow motion replay, and are instructed to err on the side of throwing the flag any time there’s forcible contact to the quarterbacks head/neck area. Skuta’s hit caused whiplash to Stanton, which draws a flag 100 percent of the time. What’s more, Skuta had no reason to hit Stanton - he already had the first down.
The next call was far more egregious, however. Patrick Willis his Stanton on a delayed blitz on what looked like a hard, legal play. But Willis was given a personal foul moving the ball to San Francisco’s 22.
The Cardinals would score three plays later on Brown’s second TD catch, this one from 21 yards out to give them a 20-14 lead. He line dup in the slot against Ward, beat him at the line of scrimmage and Ward hesitated when he thought Larry Fitzgerald was setting a pick. At that point, Reid, the deep man, also bit on Fitzgerald underneath while Brown streaked to the end zone wide open. Ward looked as if he thought he had help, but Reid stayed on Fitzgerald, who was covered by Cox, and Brown simply ran away from Ward. The rookie is really fast.
On San Francisco’s long drive at the end of the third quarter, that ultimately resulted in the blocked field goal, the Johnson 32-yard reception came on the same play as Crabtree’s touchdown, getting open on route to the flat while the receivers flanking him ran slants to pick his man. Johnson hit the edge and made it all the way down to the 17, putting the 49ers in business. But…
Following Boldin’s first-down catch to the 5, he was flagged for head butting Jefferson, pushing the ball all the way back to the 21. Two plays later Jonathan Martin negated a seven-yard run that would have set up a short field goal with an obvious clipping penalty. Instead of an easy 25-yard field goal attempt to pull within three with nearly a full quarter remaining, the 49ers had to settle for a 45-yarder that lineman Tommy Kelly blocked. Martin had no reason to clip Deone Bucannon. He was too far behind Kaepernick to make an impactful play.
Kelly blocked the field goal despite there being just nine men on the field for the Cardinals, which is inexplicable. Kelly was able to get great push on Joe Staley, who didn’t give great effort on the play. The block gave Arizona the ball back at their 47, after the 49ers squandered away a first-and-goal situation at the 5 with the chance to take the lead and change the game.
The Cardinals went on to drive 15 plays down as far as San Francisco’s 5, but lost the ball on Larry FItzgerald’s fumble. The 49ers managed just one first down after another perfectly executed delayed A-gap blitz by the Cardinals on on second-and-10. Jefferson got the sack after right guard Alex Boone whiffed trying to get over in time to make the block, but Carlos Hyde was in his way blocking Bucannon to his left. Again, another well drawn up play by Bowles. On third-and-19, Kaepernick had Lloyd on a deep stop route, but overthrew him.
Overall, penalties, on both sides of the ball, and coverage breakdowns on Brown's two touchdown receptions cost the 49ers the game. The silver lining? They started 1-2 last year before finishing the season 12-4.
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