It was a weird game right from the start. But then, what did the 49ers expect? The Cardinal defense has been rejuvenated. Active, smart and hard-hitting, it did well to cram the middle. Even first-down pass plays and some trickery did little against the Arizona defense.
But when the Niners have a 3-0 advantage in turnovers, had a 62-yard punt return to inside the Arizona five and about a 22:30-7:30 advantage in to time in the first half, the Niners were not able to open a sizeable lead. And from that the avid 49er fan can start to worry about the team’s chances in the playoffs.
Against better teams—and Arizona at home is playing much better—the Niners cannot expect to succeed when leaving so many points in the dirt. That’s what happens when three Red Zone possessions—three deep Red Zone possessions—bring only field goals, not TDs.
That’s nine instead of 21 points. That’s the difference in the game. And thus going forward, the Niners suffered for the first time from what they’re lacking to be a real threat in the NFL playoffs, touchdowns. From that here are the five things we learned in the 21-19 loss.
This is a defense that held Beanie Wells, who had over 200 yards rushing against the Rams, to 27 yards on 15 carries. This is a defense that had three turnovers and another forced fumble to go along with two sacks, and yet the Niner offense left them hanging.
Interestingly, it wasn’t about play-calling. There were first-down throws into the end zone. There were reverses, and even plays to the third receiver, Kyle Williams. And the Cardinals were able to handle it all.
More to the point, when your offense doesn’t capitalize on its opportunities, you leave open to chance the possibility that big-plays can haunt you. And with Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals have one of the big-play threats in the game.
Fitzgerald’s 46-yard TD catch and run in the third quarter was simply a great play. Dashon Goldson, the 49er safety, was right there and went for the breakup. Against most receivers, it is a pass defensed. Fitzgerald brought it down and turned it into the TD.
And Fitzgerald did it again in the fourth quarter, taking a short pass, shucking two tacklers and turning a nominal gain into 52 yards that led to the go-ahead TD.
That’s what happens when you don’t capitalize on the chances inside the red zone. And Fitzgerald, who most likely will end up in the Hall of Fame, is the type of player who can make you pay for your mistakes. Or in this case, the 49ers lack of getting into the end zone.
Kevin Kolb gets knocked down and, thus, knocked out of the game. A knee to the head does that. John Skelton came in, and no doubt the 49ers remembered his dismal performance last month in Candlestick Park.
But Skelton did something he didn’t do well in San Francisco—twice in what looked on pass plays that would end in certain sacks he kept alive by movement in the pocket. The 49ers were this close so many times. But that’s the NFL.
Skelton finished 19 of 28 for 282 yards, three TDs and two interceptions. The first TD, a 60-yarder to Early Doucet, came on a wonderful throw that threaded four defenders and caught Doucet in stride.
The 46-yarder to Fitzgerald was all Fitzgerald, as was the third big pass play of the game, a 52-yard gain that set-up Andre Roberts’ fourth-quarter reception.
Take away those three throws and Skelton’s numbers are 17 of 26 for 124 yards. Or less than five yards a throw.
Great plays by great players do that; they overcome good defense. And the Niners were in position in all three plays. It was just on the first Skelton’s throw was perfect, and on the last two Fitzgerald was Fitzgerald—god-like.
But that’s what can happen in the NFL, and why your offense needs to capitalize on every chance it can get.
Greg Roman tried. There were deep throws to Michael Crabtree. There were play-action passes on third-and-short. There were trick plays—well, two. But the point is, the Niners were exposed for their limited offensive attack.
Frank Gore’s 37-yard TD run in the third quarter came off a fake fly sweep. That was the only 49er TD of the day. In other tries, whether from the red zone or at midfield, not enough creativity.
Finishing 18-of-37 passing for 175 yards, Alex Smith had a 4.7 yards-per-attempt average. Factor in the five sacks, and it dropped to 3.9 yards per pass attempt. Woe-FULL.
The three throws to Braylon Edwards—including one in the end zone—did not work. There was only one throw to Vernon Davis that worked out. Delanie Walker has disappeared as a receiver of late.
Perhaps the best indication of that came on the first offensive play in the second half. Smith threw a four-yard (not in downfield yards, more like distance) pass to Walker, who was just beyond the tight end. The Cardinals stuffed it for a four-yard loss.
Frank Gore (21) finished with 72 yards on only 10 carries. Kendall Hunter added 20 on eight carries and the Niners finished with 90 yards on 21 tries. One thing to ponder is why, at second- and third-down yardages on the last possession of the game, there wasn’t at least one rush attempt to get the first down. For a team built on power, that’s something to revisit.
Because of the lack of big play, the Niner offense can only be described as claustrophobic. They cannot find any space on the field. It looks like playing in a telephone booth.
OK, if the 49er fans want to bitch, they can bitch about the weird events in the second quarter. Facing a 3rd-and-18, Smith hit Kyle Williams for 10 yards, putting them in field goal range.
Up 6-0 at the time, you could see that this was a game with a decided edge, and that it was not going to be a blowout. And to his credit, coach Jim Harbaugh called for the fake that looked like it would have resulted in a TD on an Andy Lee pass to Johnathan Goodwin.
Except the challenge flag had been thrown. Except the whistle that sounded the challenge flag game about a beat after the snap to Lee. Adding to the befuddlement, the review of whether Kyle Williams made a catch wasn’t determined because the replay system failed.
What an embarrassment for either the Phoenix stadium or NFL. It cost the Niners a TD, and in the end it led to a replay, which in this case was a David Akers field goal attempt from 50 yards. Naturally, to fit in with the weird juju that was going on, Akers missed it.
At the same time, Ted Ginn Jr. (19) had a 62-yard punt return to set up a 49ers touchdown...wait. To set up a 49er field goal. Ho hum.
That right there should have told Jim Harbaugh that the 49ers weren’t in Kansas anymore, figuratively speaking.
The play itself worked well. The punt coverage team smothered Patrick Peterson, who came into the game with four TD returns. Field position changes were, by and large, in the 49er favor and kept them in the game.
The Niners have the tougher schedule. Pittsburgh, coming off 10 days of rest, visit SF on Dec. 19. Then the Niners hit the road for games at St. Louis and Seattle. If the Niners get by the Steelers, it’s the Christmas Eve game against in Seattle that could be their downfall. The Seahawks are much better than they were in September, where you take a 19-7 lead in the second half are ones that you do everything you can to secure victory.
In other words, close games on the road, especially ones, did that. There were no blown coverages nor no stupid penalties that kept the Cardinals alive.
But this no doubt was a game that leaves Harbaugh chewing his Sharpie™ down to a nub. That ever-so-desirable No. 2 seed in the playoffs just slipped a little further away.