***** ***** *****Walt Harris was a playmaker in his first game as a 49er. Not only did he hold his own in coverage as the starting right cornerback, but he forced Warner into a fumble on a blitz, then fell on the ball at the Arizona 7 to set up San Francisco's third touchdown. Harris also knocked down a pass on a blitz deep in Arizona territory when Warner was attempting to pass from his own 16. That forced a punt which Arnaz Battle returned 60 yards to the Arizona 5, but the Niners couldn't punch it into the end zone and had to settle for a short field goal from Nedney. ***** ***** ***** That got the 49ers within 31-24, but the Niners would get no closer, and it exhibited how missed opportunities cost San Francisco a shot at an upset. In the end, however, it was the inability to make plays on defense and stop Arizona's passing game that ultimately cost San Francisco an opportunity at victory. Warner completed 23 of 37 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns, with Larry Fitzgerald having another field day against the Niners with game-high totals of nine receptions for 133 yards. The 49ers did contain Anquan Boldin somewhat on four receptions for 62 yards, but the NFL's worst passing defense of 2005 - and worst overall defense last season, for that matter - still needs some work to avoid outcomes such as the one that started a new season. ***** ***** *****
Game blog: Cardinals 34, 49ers 27
***** ***** ***** The San Francisco pass rush completely hung out the secondary to dry during Arizona's 21-point first quarter, which ultimately proved to be the difference in the game as the 49ers never could get closer than three points the rest of the way. There was the notoriously slow-footed Kurt Warner, looking almost nimble as he tap-danced around in the pocket, buying time to give his receivers a chance to run foot loose and fancy free to find open areas down field. As the Cardinals pushed downfield on their opening drive for a touchdown, then turned two turnovers deep in 49ers territory into touchdowns on their next two drives, Warner looked as though he could have done a few jumping jacks before releasing the ball as there was virtually no pressure on him. He had plenty of space to tip-toe around before finally finding open receivers, who actually were well covered several times by secondary defenders, who were just a fraction of a second late on plays. That was one fraction of second too much, as it turns out. The pressure was better the first time the Cards had the ball in the second quarter, when the 49ers finally got their first good hit on Warner. That's when Brandon Moore - who led all San Francisco linebackers with five sacks last season - came around the right corner to bang Warner, resulting in a fumble that Arizona recovered. That caused some immediate disruption for the Cardinals, who were whistled for a false start on the next play. Facing third-and-20, Warner fired early for Larry Fitzgerald, who dropped a pass that would have been well short of a first down anyway. There's no doubt Moore has to be on the field more. He got to Warner again when the Cardinals were driving into San Francisco territory late in the second quarter, grabbing him by the jersey as he attempted to unload the ball, forcing an intentional grounding call on Warner. That pushed Arizona back into a third-and-24 situation and stalled the drive. Moore was in Warner's face again on the first third-down play of the second half, forcing a quick incompletion that forced the Cards into their first three-and-out of the game. With Moore leading the way, the pressure from San Francisco's defense improved as the game progressed. The 49ers finished with three sacks but, alas, they couldn't prevent the Cardinals from turning two third-down completions into first downs on a 13-play, 68-yard final drive that burned seven minutes off the clock late in the fourth quarter and culminated in a 30-yard Neil Rackers field goal that gave Arizona an insurmountable 10-point lead with fewer than two minutes remaining. ***** ***** ***** Those who were hoping the 49ers might come out a little more organized and collected to start the season were sadly disappointed. Quarterback Alex Smith burned two timeouts at the line of scrimmage before the first quarter was even half over. On each occasion, the 49ers were running out of time on the play clock as they strolled to the line of scrimmage. Those sort of things are supposed to be ironed out in the preseason. The Niners then called a defensive timeout as the Cardinals came to the line on their first possession of the second quarter, leaving San Francisco with no timeouts remaining over the final 13 minutes, 27 seconds of the first half. They could have used those timeouts when they got the ball back at their own 37-yard line with 1:05 to play in the half, forcing Smith to burn plays by spiking the ball to stall the clock after the 49ers crossed midfield. Facing a third-and-2 deep in Arizona territory, Smith burned another timeout with 12:08 still left in the game. Sure enough, that timeout could have come in handy at the finish as the 49ers had to burn their other two timeouts to stop the clock on Arizona's final drive, leaving San Francisco just 1:50 on the clock to try and rally from a 10-point deficit at the end of the game. After racing down the field to get a field goal that brought them within 34-27, and then recovering an onside kickoff with 31 seconds remaining, the 49ers had no timeouts remaining to travel the 61 yards they needed to go for a tying touchdown in those final seconds. ***** ***** ***** The 49ers also had trouble holding onto the ball with two killer turnovers in the first quarter that resulted in short touchdown drives for the Cardinals that got Arizona rolling to an early two-touchdown cushion. Youngsters were the culprits both times, with second-year running back Frank Gore coughing the ball up at his own 23 - it was returned to the 5 to set up the touchdown that gave Arizona its first lead - and Vernon Davis putting the football on the ground at the 39 two San Francisco offensive plays later after taking a short pass from Smith. Neither player was hit particularly hard on either play, letting the ball squirt out as they failed to cover it while they were getting wrapped up. And what was Davis doing waving to the Arizona crowd like a celebrity as he trotted off the field to get a hip contusion - suffered on the play he fumbled - checked in the locker room? At least the rookie ignored fans as he sprinted back to the San Francisco sideline a few minutes later, and was back in the game to stay a few minutes after that. ***** ***** ***** Davis, however, was quite impressive the first time he had the ball in his hands during a regular-season NFL game. Davis disguised his intentions nicely by blocking down at the line of scrimmage, then slipping across the field toward the left sideline on a misdirection play. Smith threw back across the field to Davis, who shrugged off a tackle attempt near the 30-yard line and then turned into a runaway locomotive. Davis burst down the sideline, didn't break stride as he broke through a feeble arm-tackle attempt by an Arizona defender, then cruised into the end zone for a 31-yard play that gave the Niners their first touchdown of 2006 just 3:15 into the season. ***** ***** ***** But then Davis dropped a pass on third down that would have given the 49ers, trailing 31-21 at the time, a first down inside the Arizona 15-yard line with 12 minutes left in the game. It was the rookie's second drop of the game and showed not only a lack of concentration, but also Davis' tendency to try and catch the ball with his body instead of bringing it in with his hands. That drop became even more costly when Joe Nedney inexplicably hooked a 34-yard field goal attempt wide right on the next play on a kick that could have brought the Niners within a touchdown. ***** ***** ***** You think the 49ers will be going to Gore a lot in 2006? The Niners went to him in three different ways during their first offensive drive of the season. On the game's first play from scrimmage, Gore burst over the left side and then cut up field for a 32-yard gain. The second time he touched the ball, he took a direct snap in the shotgun formation and dashed around the right side for what would have been a first down. That play was called back because of a holding call on receiver Antonio Bryant, nullifying the first down and sending the 49ers back into a third-and-7 situation, but Gore then did his thing in a different way, collecting a pass in the flat from Smith and turning it into a first down to extend a 79-yard touchdown drive. ***** ***** ***** Stopped at the 3 after running into the back of his own lineman. Hit again at the 2 by an Arizona defender, but able to surge forward. Stopped again at the 1, before surging into a collision of bodies at the goal line. That describes Gore's second trip to the end zone, and before he finally hit the ground, he had carried a pile of bodies three yards deep past the goal line, exhibiting both his strength and ability to move the pile, and also bringing the 49ers back within 24-21. Gore finished with 22 touches on the afternoon, more than a third of San Francisco's 59 offensive plays. He rushed 16 times for a game-high 87 yards and two touchdowns, and also proved adept coming out of the backfield on passing downs, leading the Niners with six receptions for 83 yards. If nothing else, those who have Gore on their fantasy teams should be happy. ***** ***** ***** That first play from scrimmage exhibited why the 49ers went out and got Larry Allen as soon as the Dallas Cowboys released him this spring. Allen and left tackle Jonas Jennings caved in the left side of the Arizona line, allowing Gore to get to the corner and do his stuff. The visions of great stampeding to come on the left side this season was short-lived, however, as Gore ran up the back of Allen's left leg on the next play after Gore's catch, sending Allen to the sideline for the rest of the game - and perhaps several weeks into the season - with a left knee sprain. It got worse for the 49ers late in the first half when Smith rolled up Jennings' leg with just 30 seconds remaining before halftime. Jennings had to be helped off the field with a right ankle sprain, and he did not return to begin the second half. But Jennings toughed it out and was back in the game by the end of the third quarter. He finished the game, too. Both Jennings and Allen, however, are listed as doubtful for next week's home opener against the St. Louis Rams. ***** ***** ***** It was rather surprising to see the 49ers replace Allen with Tony Wragge instead of David Baas, or even Adam Snyder, for that matter, since Snyder generally is considered the team's best lineman who doesn't start and the top backup at both guard and tackle positions. Snyder, of course, was called upon soon enough. He replaced Jennings in the second half at the left tackle position where he started the final seven games last year as a rookie. Wragge was called for a false start that helped thwart a San Francisco drive late in the second quarter, but the worst penalty for the suddenly rattled offensive line came in the third period when right tackle Kwame Harris was called for a holding penalty for pulling down Arizona defensive end Chike Okeafor with him as he was falling to the ground. That play, coming on third-and-12, nullified a 52-yard touchdown strike from Smith to Antonio Bryant, and the 49ers were forced to punt two plays later. After a rough start, Wragge and Snyder both held up reasonably well. The reason Wragge went in instead of Bass or Snyder after Allen went down is because, entering the game, Wragge was designated as the team's swing guard to be the first backup in at both at both positions. Baas was designated as the top backup at center, with Snyder designated as the swing tackle to backup both sides at that position. ***** ***** ***** Bryant burned cornerback Antrel Rolle on the touchdown that was called back, but he found it much tougher to get open as the Cardinals doubled him and continually had a safety cheating to his side. He had to work hard for it, but Bryant still came up with some big catches, showing his fearlessness and toughness while going high in the air for an 18-yard catch, then pulling in a 25-yard catch-and-run to get the 49ers rolling into Arizona territory on their first drive of the fourth quarter. Sure enough, after catching a 46-yard pass in the final minute, the undisciplined side of Bryant reared its ugly head. After making a nice over-the-shoulder grab behind Arizona cornerback Eric Green, Bryant - who had been jawing with Arizona defensive backs all day - jumped up and pointed into Green's facemask, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Just as significantly, it pushed the 49ers back from the 11 to the 26 and, needing two scores with 34 seconds left in the game and no timeouts, the Niners opted to kick a field goal and try an on-side kick, which they recovered. A 25-yard pass from Smith to Bryant got the 49ers down to the Arizona 36 with 20 seconds remaining but, trailing 34-27, they had to go for a touchdown, and there just wasn't enough time left as Smith lofted two jump-ball throws into the end zone on the final two plays of the game. Bryant finished with four receptions for a team-high 114 yards, a good chunk of Smith's career-high 288 yards passing.
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