The final piece of a potential Super Bowl puzzle fell into place for the San Francisco 49ers when they acquired wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders from the Denver Broncos a week before the NFL trade deadline.
Sanders provides the 49ers with a true No. 1 receiving threat and a burgeoning security blanket for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
The fact that those claims can already be made is nothing short of astounding since the 32-year-old veteran has been with the team for less than two weeks.
Yet, both are true and became apparent during the 49ers' 28-25 victory Thursday over the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium.
San Francisco's earlier success was built on two driving forces: a beautifully designed running game and a relentless defensive front. It's a simplistic formula—a bit of a throwback—yet wildly successful, hence the 7-0 start before Thursday's action.
But the 49ers needed a different approach to beat the upstart Cardinals, starting with Sanders' usage and how it opened up the rest of the offense for Garoppolo to excel.
In the wide receiver's first contest wearing the red and gold, Sanders made an instant impact with a touchdown. His performance against the Cardinals was much different.
The transition from one team to another usually takes time. Even veteran and experienced players must learn new playbooks and work in cohesion with 10 new teammates on the field at any given time. Recent additions aren't supposed to immediately become focal points of the offense, but that's exactly what Sanders did while facing the Cardinals' best defender.
Patrick Peterson shadowed Sanders to the cornerback's detriment.
The two-time Pro Bowl target drew significant attention yet set a 49ers season-high among wide receivers with 112 yards on seven receptions. The numbers are impressive. Considering he consistently beat Peterson, even more so. His utilization in key moments was absolutely critical on a night when neither the vaunted Niners defense nor the ground game excelled.
A quarterback shouldn't be as comfortable throwing a receiver open as Garoppolo already is after a handful of practices:
Garoppolo released the ball well before Sanders broke off his stem and swiveled to locate the pass. The ball arrived right after the receiver turned to look for the toss. Garoppolo shouldn't trust Sanders this much already, but he does. It's quite amazing, actually.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan does, too.
San Francisco faced a 4th-and-goal from the 1-yard line with four seconds remaining in the first half. Shanahan designed a play where Sanders lined up as the fullback, the offense quick-snapped the ball, and the receiver-turned-lead-back became the primary receiver for a short scoring connection.
Shanahan could have easily gone with a conservative call by kicking the field goal or even utilizing a more conventional goal-line play. Instead, he maximized the newest weapon in the 49ers offense.
Two second-half scenarios cemented Sanders' status as San Francisco's primary outside threat going forward.
Watch the following touchdown pass from Garoppolo to Dante Pettis.
Looks like blown coverage, right? Wrong.
Prior to the start of the recording, Sanders went in motion across the formation and Peterson followed—a dead pre-snap giveaway for man coverage. Once again, Peterson locked onto Sanders.
San Francisco ran a simple switch concept (inside and outside receivers cross off the snap) out of a trips formation, which caused the heralded defensive back to take one false step toward Sanders' out-breaking route when he should have switched to the inside route run by Pettis. The momentary hesitation allowed Pettis to create significant separation for Garoppolo to exploit.
Again, Sanders wasn't the primary target, but his mere presence affected the coverage scheme.
The Cardinals came roaring back after the 49ers built a two-touchdown, second-half lead, though. After allowing Arizona to score 11 unanswered points, San Francisco received the ball with 4:53 remaining. The drive almost came to a premature end when the Niners faced 3rd-and-11 after two unsuccessful plays.
Arizona created pressure on the critical down. Once again, Garoppolo trusted Sanders to make a play by throwing the ball to a spot. The receiver worked back to the pass, made the crucial catch and extended the drive—which, ultimately, ended the contest.
"The energy. He's got good energy," Sanders said of the instant chemistry with his new quarterback, per 49ers team reporter Kieana Martin.
Garoppolo's effectiveness can no longer be questioned. He completed 75.7 percent of his passes Thursday for 317 yards and four touchdowns. He stared down pressure and made outstanding throw after outstanding throw.
"I thought Jimmy played a hell of a game," Shanahan said, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch. "His best game yet, probably."
A different version of the 27-year-old signal-caller appeared after Sanders' acquisition, as Forbes' Vincent Frank noted:
Sanders' presence creates a cascading effect; since he's now the 49ers' top outside receiving target, others can slide into more suitable roles. Tight end George Kittle can be the focal point of the offense if needed since he thrives after the catch, but he's also a great blocker. He and Sanders can easily alternate as Garoppolo's favorite target any given week. Rookie Deebo Samuel doesn't have to take on so much of the offensive responsibility, while Pettis is a solid third option.
Furthermore, San Francisco's offense will only get better based on two factors.
First, the rapport between Garoppolo and Sanders will grow in the coming weeks. Second, the unit will be much healthier next time it takes the field. Both starting offensive tackles—Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey—and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are expected back from injuries for San Francisco's Nov. 11 meeting with the rival Seattle Seahawks, according to Martin.
Even at 8-0, the Cardinals made San Francisco look vulnerable to a degree. Kliff Kingsbury's crew ran the ball exceptionally well and kept the game close.
But the 49ers no longer have to win in a certain fashion. They can win games by controlling the ball with a stellar rushing attack. Or, they can overwhelm opposing offenses with the game's best defensive front. Or, Shanahan and his quarterback can open up the aerial attack knowing they have a receiver who can create mismatches and, more importantly, capitalize on those opportunities.
San Francisco is now a complete squad thanks to Sanders.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski.