The Arizona Cardinals have taken a knee in each of the first four games this season. On Sunday the Cardinals traveled west to Silicon Valley to face off against the San Francisco 49ers. After a hard-fought battle for 60 minutes, Arizona found themselves on the field waiting to kneel the ball and count down the final seconds. On Sunday Arizona lined up in victory formation for the first time in 2018. How did they get there?
One Shining Moment
The 49ers jumped out to an early six point lead to open the game. Arizona benefited from a special teams mishap as San Francisco was unable to get the point after. The Cardinals started their first drive after a touchback off the kickoff. Off play-action, Josh Rosen found an open Christian Kirk for a 75 yard touchdown pass to give Arizona the early lead. The pass protection on the play was superb as Rosen had a large pocket to throw from. Rosen’s pass was perfectly placed and allowed Kirk to maintain his speed to get away from pursuit.
The play itself featured just Kirk and Larry Fitzgerald running a route. The fake was to running back David Johnson and he found his way to the flat as an outlet. Fitzgerald lined up tight to the right of the formation and ran a deep crossing route to the left side of the field. Kirk lined up tight on the left and ran a deep post route. Fitzgerald drew double coverage while Kirk was single covered but a deep safety lurked on the play. 49ers second-year safety Adrian Colbert took a terrible angle as the pass flew overhead.
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The long pass was the lone bright spot for the offense on Sunday. While the unit scored a total of three touchdowns, only the first score was not set up by a 49ers turnover. Arizona took over near midfield twice after a turnover and both times failed to put points on the scoreboard. The offense struggled to establish the run game consistently. Part of the issue was losing starting right tackle Andre Smith with a leg injury. The 49ers defense was also a major factor as the unit surrendered just 220 total yards and routinely forced the Cardinals into short drives.
Rosen struggled with his accuracy on Sunday, completing just 10 of his 25 passing attempts. He finished with 170 yards and the touchdown pass to Kirk. The rookie quarterback had issues with overthrowing his targets but Arizona receivers also suffered from drops. It was another mistake filled performance by the Cardinals offense on a day where they should have run away with the game. It was more about what the offense didn’t do, turn the ball over, than about what they were able to do.
Defense Gets Offensive
For most of the 2018 season fans and media have opined about the glorious past of Arizona defenses. Through four losses the defense showed glimpses but never put it all together. On Sunday, Al Holcomb’s unit survived barrage and barrage from the 49ers offense but found ways to make a difference. The Cardinals defense forced five turnovers on Sunday, more than they have forced through the first four weeks combined.
Arizona’s defense was the only reason for the team’s first victory. The offense struggled and forced the defense to play more than 40 minutes. The Cardinals defense struggled mightily on the game’s first drive as the 49ers used a mix of draw and screen plays to go 75 yards in just over five minutes. Arizona’s defense benefited from a tipped pass on the 49ers second position which was snagged by a diving Tre Boston. That was followed by a fumble by running back Raheem Mostert which was recovered by Patrick Peterson and returned deep into 49ers territory. Mostert was only in the game due to a lower leg injury to Matt Breida earlier in the drive.
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The rest of the first half saw the Cardinals defense bend but not break as they kept the 49ers out of the end zone. Midway through the third quarter the 49ers found themselves threatening in Arizona territory when Chandler Jones beat left tackle Joe Staley around the edge and swatted the ball away from C.J. Beathard. Jones fell on the football and ended the San Francisco scoring attempt.
After the 49ers scored a touchdown and pulled within two points, the Cardinals defense against forced a turnover to change momentum. On a second down, linebacker Haason Reddick blitzed and slapped the ball away from Beathard. Fellow linebacker Josh Bynes recovered the fumble and ran 23 yards for an Arizona score. The defensive touchdown gave Arizona a 21-12 lead. With the 49ers needing two scores to take the lead the Cardinals sealed the victory on a Bene Benwikere interception which set up a second Johnson touchdown run to make it a 28-12 lead. San Francisco would score a late touchdown but it was too little and too late as the Arizona defense had put their stamp on the game and snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Cardinals rode a ball hawking defense to their first victory of 2018. Arizona’s offense exploded early but failed to find sustained success. The defensive performance came despite another significant discrepancy in time of possession and plays run. San Francisco gave every opportunity to the Cardinals to run away with the game. Arizona’s lack of execution nearly cost them the win. For the first time in his career, head coach Steve Wilks was able to order his offense to get in victory formation for the final seconds. It is a good feeling for both the team and fans.