Four Takeaways in the 49ers 36-26 Win Over the Cardinals

Maverick Pallack

Following a tough overtime defeat at the hands of the division-rival Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco 49ers (9-1) were able to bounce back, defeating the Arizona Cardinals (3-7-1) in a 36-26 last-minute win on Sunday.

The 49ers now hold a one-game lead over Seattle (8-2) in the NFC West standings, as well as a one-game lead over the Green Bay Packers (8-2) and New Orleans Saints (8-2) for the best record in the NFC.

San Francisco will have to quickly get back to work as its schedule continues to get tougher. The 49ers’ next play the Packers at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday Night Football (the 49ers’ first SNF game since 2015).

Jimmy Gunslinger, Baby

Boy does Jimmy Garoppolo love playing the Arizona Cardinals. The third-year 49er has eclipsed 300 passing yards just twice this season, and both times were against Arizona. In the week nine matchup, Garoppolo had 317 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. He wasn’t as perfect the second time around (two interceptions), but he still matched his career-high four touchdown passes and set a new career-high with 424 passing yards on 34/45 attempts.

The run game was nonexistent and the Cardinals were taking care of the ball. Unlike last week against Seattle, the 49ers could not rely on a defensive score to get them back in the game. They needed their million-dollar arm to prove he belongs among the top-half of NFL starters. Garoppolo shook off his poor game last week and put the 49ers’ offense on his back. He trusted his inexperienced receiver group of Deebo Samuel, Ross Dwelley and Kendrick Bourne and carved up the Arizona secondary.

Samuel once again stepped up with No. 1 wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders in-and-out with a rib injury. The rookie from South Carolina followed up his 112-yard performance against Seattle with a career-high 134 yards on eight catches. Dwelley, who was replacing the injured Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle, caught his first two career touchdowns (he had a third nullified by penalty). The best throw, and possibly the most shocking, was to running back Jeff Wilson Jr.

 The goal-line back had just one catch for two yards prior to Sunday. Yet, on first-and-10 from the 25 yard line, trailing by three with 39 seconds left, head coach Kyle Shanahan and Garoppolo called Wilson’s number, hitting him for the game-winning touchdown, which was the first touchdown reception of his career. The more Garoppolo proves he can spread the ball around, and doesn’t have to rely on Kittle and Sanders to be above-average, the more likely Garoppolo can take that leap into the upper-echelon of NFL quarterbacks.

The Bend-Don’t-Break Defense Comes Through

The 49ers’ defense was not its best on Sunday, but they were able to keep the game close enough for the offense to come alive. Arizona scored on three of its first four drives, but allowed just 10 points the rest of the game. Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray was able to evade pressure on a few plays, but the San Francisco pass rush was able to punish him when they could catch him. Most notably, the 49ers had four sacks and 10 tackles for loss.

Damontre’ Moore, who was just signed this week to replace the injured Ronald Blair III, and Julian Taylor both saw increased workloads with Blair and D.J. Jones inactive. The duo made the most of their chances. Taylor had two tackles for loss and Moore forced a late-fumble. With 31 seconds left, three timeouts and only a four-point deficit, the Cardinals still had a strong chance to retake the lead. Murray kicked off the drive with a quick pass to KeeSean Johnson. 

As Johnson and cornerback Emmanuel Moseley wrestled for yardage, Moore delivered a fumble-inducing blow. Safety Jaquiski Tartt was able to recover the ball, and give the 49ers a chance to run out the clock. After Arizona caused a turnover on downs, the Cardinals had six seconds to get 78 yards. On the final play, Larry Fitzgerald lateraled the ball, but it was batted around and eventually recovered by DJ Reed Jr. for a last-second 49ers’ touchdown.

Establishing the Run Game

For the second time in three weeks, the 49ers proved they could win on the arm of Garoppolo. Just like its previous two games, San Francisco failed to establish the ground game, rushing for a season low 34 yards. In their first seven games, the 49ers averaged 181.14. San Francisco and its play-action offense is at its best when the running game is successful. Whereas the 49ers were seen as one dimensional due to their lackluster passing game, its been Garoppolo that has fueled the offense as of late.

It should be noted that Kittle, running back Matt Breida and left tackle Joe Staley were all out this week. Those three are major parts of the running game, but are not the reason for the low yardage on Sunday. The 49ers entered Sunday averaging 36.7 rushes a game, but were forced to abandon the running game due to a double-digit deficit and early ineffectiveness. 

Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert combined for 18 carries and just 27 yards, ending their 10-point victory with a total of 19 attempts. Although Garoppolo once again torched the Cardinals, the 49ers can alleviate the pressure he faces in the coming weeks by establishing the ground-game.

Penalties A One Time Thing?

In addition to the running game, the 49ers committed some costly penalties. In total, San Francisco committed 10 penalties for 127 yards. Penalties have not been a problem this season until Sunday. The 49ers entered the day averaging 5.7 penalties for 51.4 yards. One of the most costly came right before halftime when a touchdown pass to Ross Dwelley was nullified due to a hold by center Weston Richburg. The Cardinals went on to hold the 49ers to a field goal. Richburg had another hold two drives later, which was followed by a Garoppolo interception two plays later.

On the defensive side of the ball, two pass interference penalties by cornerback Richard Sherman put Arizona in prime scoring position. The Cardinals turned those penalties into 10 points, but it could be argued that both of those interference's were strategic. On the first penalty, Sherman was beat by wide receiver Christian Kirk on a go-route, but was able to close in and break up the pass. The penalty was originally not called, but after a challenge by Arizona head coach Kliff Kingsbury, was determined to be interference. 

Although penalties are not preferable, preventing a potential touchdown is well worth it. Despite the Cardinals having first-and-goal on the three yard line, the 49ers’ defense was able to buckle down and force a field goal. It’s almost impossible to commit zero penalties with the way today’s NFL works, but if the 49ers can limit their penalties to beneficial or harmless ones, the 49ers can get back to their expected disciplined play.