1. Field position, turnover battle spurs ugly Cardinals' win
The Cardinals and 49ers played one of the ugliest football games of the NFL season thus far, but that's what Thursday night games typically look like anyway. Arizona entered Thursday's game without quarterback Carson Palmer and in danger of dropping to 1-4 and last place in the NFC West with a loss, but the Cardinals were able to take care of business at important junctures of the game that enabled the team to walk away with its second victory of the year.
Backup quarterback Drew Stanton was underwhelming Thursday, even for a backup, but Stanton capitalized when the Cardinals gave him short field situations and that made all the difference.
After the Cardinals fell behind 7-0 in the first half, defensive lineman Calais Campbell came up with an important interception on a tipped pass by Chandler Jones that set up a Larry Fitzgerald touchdown catch to tie the game. To that point, Arizona's offense had completely sputtered -- even by its first half standards this season -- but the Cardinals knew they needed seven points and Stanton delivered with a strike to Fitzgerald on the first play after the turnover.
On the second half kickoff, tight end Ifeanyi Momah forced and recovered a fumble that set the Cardinals up inside the 15-yard line. After resigning to running the ball and taking three points, the Cardinals were bailed out by a running into the kicker penalty that gave the team a fresh set of downs and set up David Johnson's first touchdown of the night.
Armed with a 21-14 lead in the fourth quarter, cornerback Marcus Cooper helped put an end to the 49ers' hopes with a timely interception in 49ers' territory that set up a Chandler Catanzaro field goal to put Arizona ahead by two scores.
That's 17 points -- the difference in the game -- all set up by turnovers in 49ers' territory. Thursday nights are the ultimate wildcard in the NFL, and turnover margin is the best indicator of the way a game can swing. This Thursday, the Cardinals' delivered the turnovers, and that's why they were able to claim an ugly win.
2. Arizona's defensive line had its best game yet
Two weeks ago, the Cardinals' defensive line put together an awful effort in Buffalo, succumbing against a mediocre Bills' rushing attack that had yet to establish the run to that point in the season.
Two weeks later, and the Arizona defensive line was the team's best unit against a lackluster San Francisco offensive line. For the purposes of this piece, we'll consider outside linebackers Markus Golden, Alex Okafor and Jones defensive linemen because they played the entire game with their hands in the dirt and rarely dropped into any sort of coverage.
Golden is quietly developing into one of the Cardinals' best defensive players --something we suggested might happen when we saw his physical improvement at the beginning of training camp. On Thursday, the 2015 second round draft choice racked up 10 tackles and 2.0 sacks, and now leads the NFL in total sacks with 6.0.
Perhaps more impressively, Golden is the critical anchor on Arizona's defensive front against the run, and took away a lot of San Francisco's zone read capabilities. Every time Golden forced a Blaine Gabbert handoff, he methodically trailed the 49ers' running backs down the line with proper backside trail technique that allowed him to pick up a handful of tackles.
Jones was much improved against the run Thursday, but his presence is still felt largely on passing downs. Though Jones' lone sack was wiped away due to a holding call against Tyrann Mathieu, he consistently forced early throws from Gabbert and disrupted the 49ers' timing in the backfield.
Even without defensive linemen Ed Stinson and Josh Mauro who missed Thursday's game with injuries, the Cardinals' line shut down much of San Francisco's rushing attack as Hyde averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on 22 attempts.
Campbell had his best game of the season, notching the key interception and a late safety while Rodney Gunter also made an impact against the run. If Campbell can play at this rate for the rest of the season, the Cardinals' defensive capabilities greatly improve because it frees up Jones and Golden to own the perimeter against offenses.
Arizona finished with seven sacks against San Francisco, and quite frankly, the Cardinals had no excuse not to dominate one of the NFL's worst offenses. After allowing the Rams to sneak away with a win last week, Arizona's defensive front improved on Thursday and was the more physically imposing unit throughout the game.
3. Drew Stanton remains a liability
Stanton's career record as a backup doesn't show it, and he's the only remaining quarterback from a putrid 2007 draft class, but he is a significant liability for the Cardinals. Of course, very few NFL backup quarterbacks are capable of leading a team to a record even close to what the team's starter could accomplish, but the Cardinals are fortunate Stanton's start came against the 49ers.
Stanton finished the night 11-for-28 with 124 yards with a pair of touchdown passes to Fitzgerald, and though his receivers dropped a few catchable passes, Stanton missed far too many open men.
The 10th year NFL veteran has been lauded by head coach Bruce Arians for his preparation and professionalism, but if Arizona was in a must-win situation late in the season against a quality opponent, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals could depend on him.
Far too often, Stanton overthrows his targets or makes ill-advised throws when he's forced to leave the pocket, and much like Palmer, he's too risk-tolerant. Stanton's accuracy is his greatest issue, but his decision-making follows closely behind.
With Palmer's career nearing the end of the road, the Cardinals cannot afford to pass on a quarterback they like in next year's draft. The Cardinals may be able to steal one or two more seasons out of an aging Palmer, but after that point, Arizona needs to have a quarterback in waiting because the team has invested too much in other young talent like Johnson, Mathieu, Golden and others.
4. Tyrann Mathieu still isn't himself
When safety Tyvon Branch was placed on injured reserve earlier this week, the Cardinals had a decision to make. Keep Mathieu at the back end of the defense as a single high safety and allow him to play while still recovering from his torn ACL, or force Mathieu to play in the slot as Arizona's nickel corner and speed his recovery process.
The Cardinals elected to throw Mathieu into the fire this week, and it's clear that the torn ACL Mathieu suffered in December is still bothering him. On a second quarter pass from Gabbert to receiver Jeremy Kerley, Kerley's post route had Mathieu spinning around and he couldn't recover from his break in time to make a play on the ball.
Mathieu allowing a reception on that play isn't all that concerning, but what is concerning for Arizona is the way Mathieu defended that pass. He looked particularly slow coming out of his break, and his cuts weren't sharp. Mathieu is a step or two behind where he usually is, and that could become a liability for the Cardinals if he doesn't recover to the point where his speed comes all the way back.
Elite receivers take advantage of leverage in the slot, and to this point in his career, Mathieu has eliminated that advantage with his world-class anticipation skills. On a second quarter touchdown pass from Gabbert to Kerley, Mathieu saw a route developing, but wasn't quick enough to cut toward the play and cover Kerley in the flat. He ended up switching his coverage, assuming linebacker Deone Bucannon would fly to the flat and complete the switch, but that didn't happen and Kerley was wide open.
The true test for Mathieu comes in the next two games, as New York and Seattle will have more capable offenses that figure to test Mathieu in the slot more now that they have film of his reactions and coverages.
5. There's Larry Fitzgerald, and there's everyone else
Last week, the Cardinals finally discovered their No. 2 receiver as John Brown emerged with a dominant performance against the Los Angeles Rams.
For three weeks, Arizona had been waiting for a secondary option outside of Fitzgerald to become a consistent, dependable threat to stretch defenses. To date, neither Brown nor Michael Floyd demonstrated the necessary consistency, but against Los Angeles, that changed as Brown reeled in 10 catches and became Palmer's go-to target.
On Thursday night, though, we were reminded of why Fitzgerald, at the age of 33, is still the Cardinals' No. 1 receiving option and just how far behind everyone else on the roster is.
Even in a contract year, Floyd has underwhelmed, dropping another easily catchable pass along the sideline in the first half that forced the Cardinals to punt when they could have extended an important drive. Additionally, Brown got his hands on a few passes that ended up falling to the surface, further proving he still doesn't possess the type of elite concentration skills needed to earn a lion's share of repetitions in the NFL.
As for Fitzgerald, he was simply masterful. We've said it before, and we'll say it again, but the Cardinals are fortunate to have a player who has become the franchise's ultimate icon age so gracefully. Whenever Arizona needs a big play, Fitzgerald seems to deliver, and his two touchdown receptions on Thursday propelled Arizona's offense to scores it desperately needed.
Fitzgerald torched the 49ers' defense for six receptions and 81 yards, but it was the moments in time that he delivered that proved so important for the Cardinals. Fitzgerald showed up, displayed the necessary passion to ignite the Cardinals' offense, and ultimately, Arizona came away with a win.
With Chris Johnson on injured reserve and Arizona starting a backup quarterback, everyone in the building on Thursday including every member of the 49ers was well aware of what type of role David Johnson would play in the game. And despite everyone knowing the Cardinals would depend on him, it didn't matter.
Johnson came through with a 27-carry, 158-yard, two-touchdown outing against an awful run defense, but a run defense that knew it needed to stop Johnson to have a chance to win. Johnson is a top-flight back, he piled up the most yards of any back in a single game this year, and as he goes, so too does the Cardinals offense.