A defensive bounce back, especially up front
On the heels of a short week, the Niners defense struggled mightily against the Rams last week. Though they didn't want to make any excuses for allowing the Rams to hang 41 points on them, the 49ers looked forward to having a little extra time off before Sunday's game against Arizona. In order to win in the desert, they needed a defensive bounce back, particularly from the front four.
In addition to the extra rest, the 49ers also figured to benefit from an Arizona offensive line that has struggled to pass protect.
Through three games, the Cardinals ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game (59) and yards per rush (2.77). Carson Palmer had been sacked 11 times (third-most in the NFL) and pressured on 31.3 percent of his dropbacks, tied for the fifth-highest rate in the NFL.
Just as the Niners hoped given those numbers, the defense rebounded just fine in Sunday's game, particularly when it came to getting after Palmer. They sacked Palmer six times and hit him on an additional 16 occasions, according to the unofficial press box statistics. Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and end Elvis Dumervil each had their first sacks of the season.
Of course, the 49ers will lament not getting to Palmer another time or two late in overtime.
“I thought we got to him a couple times and we didn’t on others," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "You aren’t going to get to him on every play. When you don’t you have to play good coverage. Hopefully, you get off quick so you can make him rush it. It seemed like he had to hold it a couple times. We also did get a sack on that [last] drive, which gave us a chance to knock them out of field goal range. I would love to get it every time but definitely get the job done there on the last drive.”
All told, the 49ers allowed 368 yards, likely more than they'd have liked but they still limited Arizona to a respectable 4.7 yards per play. Even after allowing the game-winning touchdown in overtime, it's still safe to say the defense turned in a performance good enough to win.
Quarterback Brian Hoyer & Co. simply couldn't generate much offense in the first two games but finally had a breakthrough against the Rams. It was no coincidence that said breakout came in the same week in which the Niners' passing game finally found some success pushing the ball down the field.
In the first two games, Hoyer was 0-for-7 with an interception on throws traveling at least 15 yards in the air. Aware of that, the Rams basically dared Hoyer to beat them down the field, even sitting on underneath routes early in the game (one of which resulted in an interception on the game's first snap). But Hoyer and his receivers soon got on the same page and made a number of big plays. Against the Rams, Hoyer finished 7-of-9 for 227 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions on throws traveling at least 15 yards in the air.
The goal for Hoyer this week was to continue to hit on those big plays and to establish them as a threat early in the game. Those opportunities figured to be there for the 49ers against the Cardinals. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Cardinals entered the game having allowed opponents to complete 12 of 18 passes thrown 15-plus yards downfield. That 66.7 percent completion rate on such plays is tied for fourth-worst in the NFL so far this season.
Alas, this was something the Niners desperately needed and didn't have in Sunday's loss. Hoyer's accuracy was up and down and when he was on target, his pass catchers didn't help him with four drops. The worst of those came on a deep ball late in the game for receiver Aldrick Robinson that he couldn't haul in. It would have been a tough catch but it was there to be made and Robinson couldn't come up with it.
For the game, Hoyer was 24-of-49 for 234 yards with an interception and a passer rating of 54.3. His longest completion went for 24 yards.
"Obviously, I probably missed a few throws," Hoyer said. "I have to get that figured out and then just keep going. I think the one thing that comes to mind is we had some drives going, but then we would shoot ourselves in the foot with a penalty. We have to avoid that. It is frustrating when you get so close and the difference in the game was one touchdown and we have to be able to score touchdowns when we get in the red area. We will go back and look at the film and see what we can do better.”
In 26 career games against San Francisco, Arizona receiver Larry Fitzgerald had 2,067 receiving yards and 16 receiving touchdowns, both of which represent the highest total by a player against the 49ers in league history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Fitzgerald's ability to line up all over the formation made him particularly dangerous for a young Niners secondary. In order to slow him down, they needed that aforementioned pass rush to get to Palmer and to be on top of things on the back end.
For most of the game, that's exactly what the Niners did, limiting Fitzgerald to just three catches for 13 yards in regulation. But when the Cardinals needed it most and everyone watching knew the ball was going to him, Fitzgerald came through. He climbed the ladder for a 19-yard score late in overtime to win the game.
"It’s one of the top five greatest receivers of all time and I had an idea that they were going to try to find him to seal the deal and it was a heck of a play by him," linebacker Eli Harold said. "It was a hell of a ball by Carson and great call by coach [Bruce] Arians."