Upon Further Review: Three's Company, Too
The Cardinals hung with the 49ers for three-plus quarters this past Sunday, but ultimately the turnover battle doomed them. The Niners picked up some more injuries on the defensive side, but when the game gets down to late situations, Patrick Willis and Co. are tough to beat. Offensively, it was one of the most balanced games of the season as Frank Gore went over 100 yards, and Colin Kaepernick threw for more than 250 yards for the first time since Week 1.
The 49ers were gifted with two possessions in the red zone in the first quarter after they intercepted Carson Palmer. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman got cute inside the 10-yard-line with some exotic runs, instead of just pounding the power run game. They had to settle for field goals twice inside the 10 in the first quarter. The Cardinals made them pay by hitting on a big play to take the lead, but the offense picked it up in the second quarter. After a long drive ended in a Kaepernick pick near the goal line, Roman called up a perfect play on the next series. They got a big run from Gore to start the drive, so Roman continued with a jumbo formation as Daniel Kilgore and Adam Snyder both came on to play tight end. With just three guys running a pattern, it’s inexcusable for the Cardinals to get caught like that. But, Yeremiah Bell and Jerraud Powers bit on the play action — and Vernon Davis, who has his deep speed back since a hamstring pull, flew right by the defenders to a perfectly-thrown dart for six points.
Davis’ second long touchdown, later in the second quarter, was even more impressive. Kaepernick’s deep passing has been lacking this season, especially down the sidelines. Matched up on Bell wide right, Davis ran right by him and into a well-thrown ball from Kaepernick in the end zone. With Davis healthy, Roman can finally use his most dynamic weapon the way he’s meant to be. Although Davis is brilliant in-line, and next to unstoppable as a blocker in the running game, lining him up in the slot and out wide will get him favorable matchups against linebackers and safeties. Neither can stop him at his best. With Michael Crabtree still about five weeks away from possibly making a return, Davis has to be the go-to downfield target.
It took some time for Gore to get going, but as the game wore on the veteran back started to wear down the Cardinals. Early in the game, the Niners weren’t dialing up the power and wham running plays that had served them so well over the past few weeks. They tried running around the edges, but Calais Campbell and Darnell Dockett did well to get push on the edge, and John Abraham and Karlos Dansby came in to get stops. Finally, the Niners got back to the power running game.
I’ve said this before, but it deserves repeating: When the 49ers want to run their power style of football, it will be tough for any team to stop them. Despite having two of the more fearsome 3-4 defensive ends in Campbell and Dockett, as well as two very capable inside linebackers in Daryl Washington and Karlos Dansby, the Cardinals were helpless in stopping the Niners on an 18-play drive in the fourth quarter that essentially sealed the game. On the last eight plays of the drive, from the Cardinals’ 34-yard-line until Kendall Hunter plunged into the end zone, the Niners lined up in a run formation and dared Arizona to stop the offensive line. They couldn’t do it.
It was about as up-and-down a game as you could have for a defense, especially in the secondary. It started great for the Niners, as Eric Reid continued his strong rookie season with his third interception. He also showed off his return chops by bringing the interception back all the way to the Arizona 7. He came into the league with questions about his coverage skills. However, he’s found himself in the right place so often through the first six games. He’s missed his share of tackles, but has made up for that by being very good in the run-stopping game. The day got better when Carlos Rogers picked off his first pass of the season, and set up the offense in the scoring area again.
The Niners shut down Rashard Mendenhall, but it was rookie Andre Ellington who gashed the Niners repeatedly. He only had seven carries, but also picked up five catches as an extension of the running game. Over those 12 touches, the slippery rookie came up with 92 yards. Unlike Mendenhall, Ellington has lateral agility and can get through holes that his backfield mate cannot. Ellington’s burst and quicks absolutely fooled Tramaine Brock on his touchdown run in the second quarter. Brock committed himself inside and when the shifty rook jetted back outside, there was nothing to stop him from breaking the plane. I’m interested to see how the Cardinals bring along their rookie. They insist on him being just a 30-snap, change-of-pace player.
While the defense struggled in the middle portion of the game, it took a big play by one of the Niners’ stalwarts to swing the game. Patrick Willis, fresh off a two-week absence with a pulled groin, didn’t play his usual full complement of snaps. However, he made the play of the game for the Niners. Nearing the end of the third quarter, with the Cardinals driving, Larry Fitzgerald made a catch across the middle and made his way for the first-down marker. Willis not only stopped him short of the marker, but forced the ball loose a split second before Fitzgerald’s knee came down on the ground. Eric Reid recovered the fumble and the Niners proceeded to go on a 9-minute drive to salt away most of the fourth quarter. Willis, as cliché as it might be, has that Ray Lewis influence on his teammates, making them all better.