49ers vs. Cardinals: 8 Things We Learned from Arizona's 21-19 Victory

Cedric Hopkins@FieldandCourtContributor IDecember 12, 2011

49ers vs. Cardinals: 8 Things We Learned from Arizona's 21-19 Victory

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    The Arizona Cardinals rolled into Week 14 against the San Francisco 49ers with their playoff hopes hanging on by a thread, barely alive. With the close win over the 49ers, the Cardinals sent another playoff pulse of the defibrillator through their organization.

    John Skelton stepped in for an injured Kevin Kolb and displayed uncanny focus and a strong will to win that overcame the dominance displayed by the 49ers this season.

    The Cardinals' recent resurgence is not a serendipitous discovery of itself as a team. Instead, Arizona has played hard each Sunday this season, displaying a sense of urgency and never-say-die attitude on every play. It just so happened that the Cardinals have endured more than their share of unfortunate last-minute losses. A maturation process was also needed for several key players.

    The Cardinals showed today why they should be inserted into the playoff conversation. I'll show you how they got there this week. Bang it below to follow along.

Cardinals Defense Controls 49ers

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    Over the past few weeks, the Cardinals have opened up the defensive playbook and established a defensive identity: a relentless blitzing attack.

    In Week 13, five different players recorded a sack. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has lived up to his preseason hype and has turned the Cardinals into not only a legitimate defensive group, but a powerful one at that.

    At halftime, the Cardinals notched four sacks on Alex Smith, each one more impressive than the last. The sacks from the front seven were expected, but when Patrick Peterson came around the corner and took Smith to the ground, it cemented the fact that the Cardinals have arrived defensively.

    As was done in Week 13, five different players on the Cardinals each recorded a sack. This group also kept Smith out of the end zone and helped quarterback John Skelton with decent field position.

    This is an attacking bunch that will carry this dominance over into 2012 and be a serious playoff contender.

John Skelton Steps in and Delivers

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    Kevin Kolb took a knee to the head from 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks and was unable to return. John Skelton took over towards the end of the first quarter and looked shell-shocked in his first drive, which ended in a three-and-out.

    For the remaining three quarters, Skelton was hot and cold. He first hit wide receiver Early Doucet for a 60-yard score, only to then be responsible for three turnovers. He settled down and then connected with Larry Fitzgerald and Andre Roberts for two touchdown strikes.

    Skelton also unforgivably underthrew wide open receivers far too often. Ultimately, Skelton showed good poise in the pocket, not forcing throws into coverage. He was able to show patience, tuck the ball and pick up a couple of key first downs with his legs.

    While Skelton may not be an every-week starting quarterback (yet), he did his job as a backup quarterback today and performed admirably.

Key Play of the Game: Cardinals Hold Strong on 4th-and-1

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    The 49ers had a chance to keep the game alive with two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. On a 4th-and-1, Alex Smith hiked the ball and scampered in the backfield for several seconds, dropping back over 20 yards. Ultimately he was able to get a pass off to Kendall Hunter, but it was incomplete.

    The Cardinals were able to stop the 49ers on the 4th-and-1 and with that effort took a knee to close out a hard-fought game. The Cardinals ended their five-game losing streak to the 49ers with the win.

NFL Needs to Upgrade Its Replay Machines

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    The Arizona Cardinals caught more than passes against the 49ers—they caught a break due to technical difficulty.

    Head coach Ken Whisenhunt threw a challenge flag to have a 49ers catch reviewed. Just prior to throwing the challenge flag, the 49ers faked a field goal successfully, and it looked like it would've been a touchdown.

    The referees went to the booth to check the video on the challenge, but the replay equipment wasn't working. With that, the 49ers were forced to kick the field goal over again. Similar to Cowboys kicker Dan Bailey being iced last week, David Akers was iced by the faulty replay machine and missed the field-goal attempt.

    The 49ers lost by two.

The Cardinals Wide Receivers Have Arrived

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    The Cardinals' first play off a David Akers missed field goal was a strike from John Skelton to Early Doucet for a 60-yard touchdown. Doucet scampered for 40 of those yards with help from a jaw-rattling block from fellow wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

    Fellow wide receiver Andre Roberts also was instrumental in the Cardinals' win against the 49ers in catching several passes, including one screen for a go-ahead touchdown.

    Fitzgerald's supporting cast has stepped up recently and shown that they can be relied on to make plays.

    More importantly, Doucet and Roberts demonstrated that the Cardinals can win a close game from the sweat of their brows instead of that of Beanie Wells. The Cardinals add another much-needed dimension to their game by being able to rely on the passing game to put points on the board instead of the running game.

Cardinals Aren't Rushing into Anything

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    Arizona Cardinals running back Beanie Wells had only four rushing attempts in the first half. It's understood that the 49ers have the most dominant defense in the league, but it was a mistake for the Cardinals to abandon the run from the beginning of the game.

    In order to keep the 49ers defense honest, the Cardinals needed to get Wells going. Establishing a strong rushing attack should've become more of a priority after Kevin Kolb left the game in the first quarter with a head injury.

    Backup quarterback John Skelton struggled in Week 11 when these teams met up at Candlestick Park, and in order to give him a chance at success, the offensive reins needed to be in Wells' hands, not Skelton's. 

    Ultimately it worked out for the Cardinals because of a miraculous defensive effort, but a concentration on the ground game needs to occur in the upcoming weeks. Skelton has shown what result to expect if he is given too much responsibility.

It's Time to Get Serious About Time of Possession

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    At halftime, time of possession between the Cardinals and 49ers was drastically out of whack. The 49ers had the ball for over 22 minutes (22:39) as compared to 7:21 for the Cardinals. Arizona barely had enough time to get a first down. In fact, the Cardinals only converted two first downs in the first half. 

    The main reason for the lack of ball control was the Cardinals' inability to get the running game established. Beanie Wells had only four rushing attempts in the first half. Second-string quarterback John Skelton also was a bit frazzled in the first half and was not connecting well with his receivers.

    Head coach Ken Whisenhunt corrected the problem in the second half. 

    The Cardinals converted 10 first downs in the second half and evened out the time of possession between the two teams (30:59 49ers, 29:04 Cardinals). The Cardinals were able to keep the 49ers off the field and away from the end zone almost the entire second half.

Ray Horton Pressure Too Much for Alex Smith

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    Arizona defensive coordinator Ray Horton has transformed the Cardinals defense into a dominant force to be reckoned with. Just ask Alex Smith.

    The entire Arizona defense applied constant pressure to Smith on almost every down. Smith was unable to complete half of his passes, going 18-of-37 for an underwhelming 175 yards. Cardinals safety Adrian Wilson came this close to picking Smith on three occasions. 

    Horton carried the pressure that he showed last week against the Dallas Cowboys over to the 49ers and will likely show for the remainder of the season. The outlook for this defensive unit is trending upward for the 2012 season.