49ers vs. Cardinals: What we learned

Even in the aftermath of the 49ers' disappointing season-opening home loss to Arizona, coach Mike Nolan said Monday that, "We're going to be a better football team than we were last year. I believe we already are." Is that so? There is evidence both to affirm that statement and to refute it. Here are five things we learned about the 49ers during their 23-13 defeat to the Cardinals.

1. The 49ers are going to get their money's worth from Justin Smith
Several observers thought the 49ers overpaid for a good but not great player when they gave Smith a six-year, $45 million deal that included $20 million guaranteed in March free agency. Well, it already is time to reassess that observation. As long as the Niners don't wear out Smith with overuse, he is going to make a considerable impact on their defense. He sure did Sunday against the Cards, getting in on a lot of action - make that, all the action. Smith was on the field for each of San Francisco's 73 defensive plays, and he wasn't taking any of them off. Smith was a force throughout the afternoon and finished with a game-high seven tackles to go along with half a sack and two quarterback hits as he consistently provided pressure on quarterback Kurt Warner, particularly in the first three quarters. He also gave opponents a glimpse of things to come by lining up at seven different positions. That's right, seven. Smith spent most of his time at his regular position of right defensive end in a 4-3 set, but also saw time at right tackle, left end and all four linebacker spots as the 49ers occasionally switched into a 3-4 alignment. The 49ers have said all along that they're going to move around Smith to put him in positions to make a difference, and that's just what they did - and he did - in his first game as a 49er.

2. The run blocking is ahead of pass protection along the offensive line
It looked like the 49ers could have run over the Cardinals all day. Unfortunately, they never got that chance the way the game progressed in the second half. But there were plenty of nice signs from the way the Niners were able to pound the rock against an aggressive Arizona defense. Frank Gore already had 80 yards rushing at halftime, but only carried the ball three times in the second half. Every member of the line - including the tight ends - contributed to the strong run blocking. But the 49ers must do a better job of protecting new quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. There were just too many times when protection broke down early, and those breakdowns contributed to each of O'Sullivan's three turnovers. O'Sullivan dropped back to pass just 24 times, but he was sacked four times and hit four other times on those plays. That means the QB is getting hit once every three times he drops back. That's a poor ratio, particularly for a guy who gets rid of the ball quickly such as O'Sullivan. The 49ers are going to see a lot of blitz schemes as opponents look for the best ways to rattle O'Sullivan, so the 49ers must be better prepared.

3. The 49ers can't win when they turn the ball over
This is hardly a shocking statement. When you simply look at the turnover ratio from Sunday - five for the 49ers, zero for the Cardinals - it's easy to figure out who came out on the winning side. That said, the 49ers outplayed the Cardinals without those five turnovers and were much closer than they should have been in the final result after making so many critical errors. Despite starting drives at the San Francisco 11- and 33-yard lines because of turnovers, the Cardinals got no points out of those two possessions - and no points as a result of any of San Francisco's first-half turnovers. The 49ers were able to overcome those turnovers with opportunistic defense, but it was just too much to ask for the defense to hold up when more turnovers allowed the Cardinals to take control of the game and the clock. Despite running 28 fewer plays that Arizona, the 49ers held an overall edge in several statistical categories - including 291-285 in total yards - so this easily could have been a San Francisco victory had the 49ers taken care of the ball. But victories won't come unless San Francisco does a better job of that. Last season, the 49ers ranked last in the NFC and third-to-last in the NFL with a minus-12 turnover differential, which played a big part in their 5-11 finish and is the primary reason they are 0-1 today.

4. J.T. O'Sullivan is going to be OK at QB
Despite the disappointing final outcome, there was a lot of good to be seen from O'Sullivan in his starting debut. He can keep plays alive with his feet, does not get rattled in the pocket and knows where to go with the football. The biggest thing he needs to improve on is awareness in the pocket, and that element contributed to both of his lost fumbles. O'Sullivan knew right away that he broke a cardinal rule by throwing deep down the middle late in a play that resulted in his interception, but those things are going to happen. Otherwise, O'Sullivan was sharp running the offense for the first time against a defense that was hell-bent on pressuring him and taking away certain passing plays. He completed 70 percent of his passes and averaged a tremendous 9.8 yards per pass attempt and 13.9 yards per completion. Those all are winning numbers. And the best thing is, O'Sullivan is eager and determined to build on those areas of success and correct the mistakes that led to the team's Week 1 demise.

5. The 49ers have to get their defense off the field
The Niners lost the time of possession battle to the Cardinals, who had a whopping 37:05 to 22:55 edge in that department. In the second half, when the game was decided after a 10-10 halftime tie, Arizona controlled the ball for almost 23 of the final 30 minutes. This is nothing new to the San Francisco defense, which was on the field more than any NFL defense in 2007. There were several reasons why it happened on Sunday - all the turnovers, and the turnover on special teams that put the defense on the field for the first eight minutes of the third quarter. A fresh defense responded after the first-half turnovers and stopped the Cardinals cold. But an overworked defense was bound to sag in the second half, and that contributed to Arizona assembling clock-killing drives 15 and 18 plays in the third and fourth quarters to put the game away. The Cardinals converted on third down six times and on fourth down once to keep those drives moving after the SF defense had stoned Arizona on six of its seven third-down plays in the first half. The San Francisco defense is good this year - perhaps very good - but the longer it spends on the field, the more average it becomes.

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