49ers fizzle in feeble opener

New offense. New players. Same old mistakes. Same old results. Same old 49ers? In a season opener that began with promise and progressively faded from there, the new product the Niners put on the field Sunday in a dismal 23-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals displayed several of the same weary characteristics that belonged to the team that stumbled to a 5-11 finish last year.

These 49ers were supposed to be better. These 49ers – in a pivotal opener at home against possibly the top team in the NFC West this year – were not. They committed five costly turnovers. They threw in a couple of costly penalties. They wasted an impressive defensive performance – impressive, that is, until the game was on the line in the fourth quarter.

That's when the Cardinals were able to consume 10 precious minutes on an excruciating 18-play drive that took the game down to the two-minute warning and ended with a 30-yard Neil Rackers field goal that put the game out of reach and sealed the outcome.

Of course, just to be sure, new starting quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan committed his third turnover on San Francisco's next offensive play, extinguishing any hopes for some last-minute excitement from an offense that barely stepped on the field in the second half, when Arizona hogged the football for almost 23 of the 30 minutes.

"We beat ourselves," said running back Frank Gore, who had an early fumble that the 49ers recovered – the only one of San Francisco's five fumbles the team was able to get back. "Every time we made a mistake, they capitalized on it. The mistakes really hurt us. You can't win a NFL game like that. We just beat ourselves."

In the much-anticipated starting debut of O'Sullivan, making his first NFL start with his eighth NFL organization, the San Francisco offense showed some nice signs of life compared to the floundering attack that finished dead last in the NFL rankings last year.

O'Sullivan completed 14 of 20 passes for 195 yards and was able to get the ball down the field for some big gains, finding tight end Vernon Davis for a 37-yard completion, wide receiver Bryant Johnson for a 31-yard gain and Gore for a 22-yard catch-and-run.

Despite three turnovers, the 49ers rolled to 219 yards of offense in the first half, including a 41-yard touchdown burst by Gore, and they appeared in decent shape despite their mistakes while going into the locker room at halftime locked in a 10-10 tie.

But then the mistakes continued. And the biggest came after Arizona took the second-half kickoff and drove 15 plays to a Rackers field goal that put the Cards ahead to stay at 13-10.

On the ensuing kickoff, Rackers lifted a pooch kick to the right side, where linebacker Takeo Spikes let the ball bounce off his chest. The Cardinals recovered the muff, and that led to an eight-play drive that ended in the end zone and put Arizona in command.

The 49ers only had three penalties during the afternoon, but a big one came on that drive as defensive end Ray McDonald was flagged for roughing the passer on a third-down incompletion that would have forced Arizona to settle for a field-goal attempt. Replays indicated it was a bad call by the officials, but that's the way it's going for San Francisco these days.

"There are a lot of reasons why you win and lose," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "The thing that was most detrimental to us were the turnovers. They led to poor field position and poor play. Our defense the first half hung in there and limited them, but the second half we didn't do as good a job. We had a couple of penalties at critical times that cost us. And obviously, we stopped ourselves several times with turnovers."

The first turnover was fullback Zak Keasey's fumble on the 49ers' second possession that Arizona recovered at the San Francisco 11-yard line. The defense limited Arizona to a field goal attempt that Rackers missed from 35 yards away.

Gore, who rushed for 96 yards on 14 carries and had four receptions for 55 more yards, then gave San Francisco its only lead with his 41-yard bolt to daylight, and the San Francisco defense immediately forced a three-and-out.

But the 49ers just couldn't seize a good thing like momentum when they had it in their hands. O'Sullivan threw late over the middle on the next series, and safety Adrian Wilson swooped in for an interception, returning it to the 33. Again, the San Francisco defense held and forced a punt.

Later in the second quarter, O'Sullivan was taking the offense right down the field when the ball was slapped out of his hands by defensive end Bertrand Berry with Arizona recovering at the its own 27-yard line. O'Sullivan also lost a fumble on a blind-side hit in the final minutes after the outcome had been decided.

"Not good enough," O'Sullivan said when assessing his performance. "We lost. It ends with that. It is tough to get past that right now. My individual performance is tied to the team."

O'Sullivan directed three drives of 60 yards or more and always seemed on the verge of getting the San Francisco offense rolling. But the offense wasn't on the field enough in the second half to make it matter. In the end, the 49ers lost the time of possession battle 37:05 to 22:55.

The defense, which rose to the occasion so many times during the first half to keep San Francisco upright, seemed to wear down from the pressure after halftime, when Arizona picked up 161 of its 285 total yards. The 49ers converted several key third-down opportunities after going just 1-for-7 in such situations in the first half.

"When we step out there on defense, we have to stop them every time," 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. "It doesn't matter how many times we have to do it. But we just didn't do it enough today."

Not enough also described San Francisco's day on offense in the debut of new coordinator Mike Martz's vaunted attack. The 49ers averaged a healthy 6.6 yards per offensive play – 2.6 yards per play more than the Cardinals – but Arizona ran 28 more offensive plays while controlling the clock and the rhythm of the game in the decisive second half.

"We moved the ball well, but as a team you want to score touchdowns," O'Sullivan said. "Moving the ball is not enough, changing field position is not enough. You have to score touchdowns. If I'm not doing that, it gives a bad taste in my mouth."

Sunday's shoddy effort left a bad taste in the mouths of many who were hoping to see better at Candlestick Park.

"It's very disappointing that we lost," Nolan said. "Had we played more of our type of game, we would have had every right to win."

The problem is, this has been San Francisco's type of game too many times over recent seasons. And that's why the Niners are 0-1 and looking up again one week into the season.


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