49ers defense does an about-face in loss to Cardinals

David Johnson, Vance McDonald awarded game balls for their efforts (2:26)

NFL Nation reporters Paul Gutierrez and Josh Weinfuss dole out their awards following the Arizona Cardinals 19-13 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium. (2:26)

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A loss is a loss is a loss, right?

And there are no such things as moral victories, no?

However, a week after getting shredded by air and by land to the tune of 500-plus yards by the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers defense put up more than a game effort against the top offense in the league.

Sure, the 49ers fell to the Arizona Cardinals, 19-13, on Sunday, but it was their defense that had them in the game, and in position to steal a victory at home against a team that blew them out, 47-7, in Week 3.

“It’s a sign of progress,” Niners inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “We were focused prior to this game.

“Today’s team, like coach was saying, is going to win a lot of football games. For us to respond like that after losing the first game, I think that says a lot about this team. I’m happy about the way we played. We have no moral victories, as we say, but we can definitely build on this.”

To paraphrase former 49ers running back Ricky Watters, build for who? Build for what? Especially given CEO Jed York’s statement last offseason that the organization’s only goal was winning Super Bowls.

It’s as clear as the banner being flown over Levi’s Stadium 90 minutes before kickoff, the one trailing an airplane that read, “JED & 49ERS SHOULD MUTUALLY PART WAYS.”

The Niners (3-8) are a different team at home, no doubt, all three of their victories coming in Santa Clara, against the Minnesota Vikings (20-3 in the season opener), Baltimore Ravens (25-20) and Atlanta Falcons (17-16). And they scared the living Larry Fitzgerald out of the Cardinals -- thanks to the defense.

There are only five games remaining in this rebuilding season -- we can call it that now, right? -- and the Niners were officially eliminated from the NFC West race with the loss. They are technically alive for the wild card but that require them doing something they have yet to accomplish -- winning a road game.

Rather, what this defensive performance did against the most powerful offense in the league was give the 49ers confidence they can play with anybody, at home. And well, when you’re on your way to a potential 5-11 season, that will have to do.

After limiting the Cardinals to a mere two field goals in the first half -- one after a muffed punt by Bruce Ellington, the other after Tramaine Brock dropped a sure interception in the end zone -- and a scant 128 yards of offense, the Niners finished with more total yards than the Cardinals, 368-337. They also knocked the Cardinals’ top two running backs out of the game a week after Seattle undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls rumbled for 209 yards.

“They gave us a great chance,” said quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who passed for a career-high 318 yards while completing 25 of 36 attempts with a touchdown and an interception.

“All you can ask for is the ball at the end of the game with a chance to win. And that’s what it came down to and I failed to put a touchdown on the board, and that’s on me.”

As the game wore on, you could sense the confidence of the 49ers defense growing. Until one tough fourth-quarter penalty seemed to sap the energy.

On second and 10 at the Arizona-32-yard line, Quinton Dial sacked Carson Palmer for an 8-yard loss -- until the flag flew in penalizing Dial for roughing the passer. The Niners disagreed; Palmer said it was the right call, and the drive continued.

Eight plays later, Palmer stumbled in from eight yards out for the winning score.

“We were in ‘zero’ coverage; everyone had their backs turned,” free safety Eric Reid said. “We actually did a good job in coverage, he just was able to scramble. We keep him in the pocket and hopefully maybe get a sack.

“But he had enough room to keep the angle wide enough to where I couldn’t get to him. It was just unfortunate.”

The Niners’ bend-but-don’t-break defense, which was missing the concussed Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker, had finally given way.

“It’s a loss,” Niners coach Jim Tomsula said. “What I see in the positive are the things that we emphasized in ourselves, in terms of defensively with the run fits and tackling and going after those things.

“Yes, I believe there is progress. But we’re in the business of winning games. We have to win games.”

Playing so solidly on defense, a weak after looking done, will help.