The 49ers close out the regular season with a road victory, extending their win streak to 6 after a close defensive battle against the Arizona Cardinals. For the second week in a row, the 49ers looked out of synch. A great first half gave way to some of the most porous defense the 49ers have played all year, made worse by an offense that couldn’t convert a single 3rd in the second half. Once again, certain players stepped up at the right moment to seal the game, but the 49ers didn’t heartily earn this win. Anquan Boldin, no doubt hoping to end the season on a high note, had a huge day, but some conservative play calling and less than impressive pass rush gave the Cardinals a chance they should never have gotten. Here is what I saw:
The Good Things:
Kaep had another great game against an excellent defense. He still isn’t taking over the game and dominating in all four quarters, but he has proven extremely efficient. Even if he doesn’t throw a ton, his propensity for ball security has helped the 49ers stay out ahead of their opponents. The Cardinals’ defense took the run away early, putting the offense on Kaep’s shoulders, but he was able to step up and lead scoring drives in the 49ers’ first three possessions.
Whether it was his desire to show off in front of his former team or simply stay hot heading into the playoffs, Anquan Boldin lit up the Cardinals, picking up 149 yards on 9 receptions and a touchdown. He was able to outmuscle a very good Cardinals secondary and give the 49ers an early lead. He also did a little coaching on the sideline, telling rookie wideout Quinton Patton to rise to the occasion.
Patton might be the most hyped inactive player in league history. After winning the hearts of 49ers fans everywhere by flying to San Francisco right after the draft out of sheer excitement, Patton spent most of the season on the sideline. He saw his first real action on Sunday, picking up 60 total yards with 1 rush and 2 receptions. His second catch was an athletic grab over the head of Antoine Cason that allowed Phil Dawson to kick the go-ahead field goal. I was pretty skeptical of Patton’s ability amid all the hype, but he proved me and any other doubters wrong on Sunday. If you were one of his many fans, congratulations: you knew it all along.
The Bad Things:
After a solid first half, the defense struggled to get anything right, surrendering 482 total yards and allowing Arizona to move the ball effortlessly. The defense had a tough time against Palmer earlier in the season, but looked even worse than they did in week 6. Yet again, it came down to turnovers; Navorro Bowman’s early pick kept the pressure on the Cardinals, and they were never able to take a lead. The pass rush was nonexistent, giving Palmer all the time in the world to throw to Arizona’s dangerous receivers. I am hoping this is the last time we see such an inconsistent effort; playing this poorly won’t fly in the playoffs.
Offensive Play Calling
The 49ers’ biggest failure of the day was their inability to extend the early lead. They were never able to make a transition to the run, which the Cardinals stubbornly defended, and looked totally lost in the second half. A lack of creativity on 3rd-and-short situations doomed them early in the 3rd quarter; they failed to gain a single first down rushing, including a 4th-and-1 give to Anthony Dixon that saw him stuffed at the line of scrimmage. After an incendiary first quarter, Greg Roman stayed basic and conservative. I have a feeling this is more an attempt to keep some plays hidden from other playoff teams than just lackadaisical planning. We will find out soon.
The Other Thing:
The Cardinals held the 49ers to 83 yards on the ground, their second lowest total of the year. Frank Gore only got 14 yards on 13 attempts, which limited what the 49ers could to to eat the clock. Normally I would put these stats in the “Bad” column, but the 49ers’ ability to move the ball without the run was actually really nice to see. Taking away the run has been a common strategy against the 49ers, but Kaep has been tough to stop with a full complement of receivers. With Patton emerging as a viable receiving option, stacking the box to stop Gore may not be a successful approach any longer.