It was a true roller coaster ride for the Arizona Cardinals against the San Francisco 49ers. The team lost, 32-20, but played well at times and nearly took one away from its NFC West rivals on the road.
Questions remain about the run game following rookie Andre Ellington’s performance and Rashard Mendenhall’s shaky afternoon. Then, there was a gaffe on coach Bruce Arians’ part by giving Alfonso Smith a carry with the game on the line in the fourth quarter—Smith fumbled away his only carry of the game, all but sealing the defeat.
The defense played as well as they have played all season, but the offense turned the ball over twice late in the game, leaving the defense completely gassed because of it.
Here are some takeaways from the loss to the 49ers.
Quarterback Carson Palmer probably was in real danger of being benched in the first quarter on Sunday after throwing two interceptions and leading two three-and-outs. Perhaps someone said something to him, or perhaps it took seeing backup Drew Stanton with his helmet on following interception No. 2 for him to get it going.
Whatever it was, Palmer responded.
The first four drives of the game, Palmer was 2-of-6 (33.3 percent) for five yards, no touchdowns and the two interceptions and a 2.8 passer rating. From then on, he went 23-of-35 (65.7 percent) for 293 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 110.8 rating.
He led two first-half touchdown drives that totaled six plays and 160 yards, taking just 2:53 combined off the clock.
The safety he took to give San Francisco the lead back after the first touchdown drive hurt, but that was as much on left tackle Bradley Sowell as it was on Palmer—Twitter blew up with people blaming Palmer for the sack.
You can count on everyone talking only about Palmer’s two poor decisions in the first quarter as this week wears on, but he played a solid game overall.
If the hamstring was bothering Larry Fitzgerald in San Francisco, no one could tell. He played his best game of the season on Sunday, hauling in six receptions for a season-high 117 yards and an impressive 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown pass from Palmer in the first quarter.
It was a short route on third down, and Palmer split two defenders to find Fitz, who turned upfield and outran everyone down the right sideline to put the Cardinals ahead, 7-6.
Unfortunately, Fitzgerald was responsible for the turning point in the game late in the third quarter.
Palmer led a nine-play, 61-yard touchdown drive that pulled the Cardinals to within 22-20 and, after a quick stop from the defense, led them on another drive that had them on the doorstep of taking the lead heading into the final quarter.
Palmer hit Fitzgerald on a short crossing route, and as Fitz was tackled, linebacker Patrick Willis stripped him, causing a turnover.
What followed was a completely demoralizing 18-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that took 9:32 off the clock.
It was a dagger in the hearts of everyone on Arizona’s sideline.
For the third consecutive game, Ellington led the team in rushing yards without getting the majority of the carries. Just like every other game this season, that honor went to Mendenhall, who carried 10 times for 40 yards (4.0 yards per carry).
Meanwhile, Ellington carried seven times for 56 yards (8.0 YPC) and his first career rushing touchdown—a 15-yard run in the third quarter that pulled Arizona to within one point, 15-14.
The rookie out of Clemson also caught five passes for 36 yards (7.2 YPC) on five targets.
At some point, Arians will be forced to give the bulk of the carries to Ellington over Mendenhall. Why it has not happened yet is a mystery.
Part of it is better overall play from a patchwork offensive line, and part of it is Palmer doing a great job escaping pressure, but the pass protection is improving with each passing week.
Trading left tackle Levi Brown is also part of that, as Bradley Sowell continues to grow into his new role as the starter. Sowell allowed the second-quarter sack/safety of Palmer by rookie Corey Lemonier, and he allowed a hit of Palmer by Justin Smith late in the game.
But Sowell was decent in protection other than that.
Palmer still is under a lot of pressure—he had to scramble to avoid trouble many times on Sunday. But he took just that one sack on the day.
The statistics will reflect the beating Arizona took against the 49ers, but coordinator Todd Bowles’ defense played very well against the run on Sunday.
Until the Fitzgerald fumble, running back Frank Gore had 55 yards on 14 carries (3.9 YPC)—he ran the ball 11 times for 46 yards (4.2 YPC) after that, including eight carries for 41 yards (5.1 YPC) on the 18-play touchdown drive. Kendall Hunter played the role of touchdown vulture, scoring from six yards out after Gore got the 49ers close.
Coming up big on multiple drives was outside linebacker John Abraham. He has struggled this season defending the run, but he made multiple stops against San Francisco that kept the defense in it.
Arizona’s defense played well against the run once again, but it also once again proved tight ends are too much for it to handle. Big-name or no-name, it really does not matter; the Cardinals fail to contain tight ends in the worst way.
49ers tight end Vernon Davis was no exception. He set a career high for receiving yards on Sunday—in the first half. He ended up with eight receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns, which was the difference in the game. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a 154.4 passer rating when targeting his athletic tight end.
When targeting anyone other than Davis, Kaepernick was 8-of-18 (44.4 percent) for 72 yards, no touchdowns and an interception for a 32.6 passer rating.
Davis was the difference in the game for San Francisco.
For the first time this season, Arizona lost the field position battle. Coming into Week 6, the Cardinals had started just nine drives inside their own 20-yard line.
In San Francisco, however, the offense started five drives inside its own 20, including four inside its own 10—it had started just two drives inside its own 10 through Week 5.
One instance was pure bad luck. After allowing the 49ers to drive down the field in the first half, safety Yeremiah Bell made a diving interception of Kaepernick at the goal line. He got to his feet and returned the ball out near the 20, but after further review, it was determined he was down by contact where he caught the ball—at the Arizona half-yard line.
What followed was the Palmer sack/safety.
Kickoff and punt returns were not of any help, either. On one occasion, Javier Arenas took a kick out of the end zone and was pummeled at his own 3-yard line. On the two other occasions a drive began inside the 10, Patrick Peterson called a fair catch on a punt at the 7 and muffed another, falling on it at the 5.
It was an uncharacteristic performance for the special teams, but it certainly contributed to the woeful day.