The concerns facing the 49ers on offense would be put to the test on Sunday against a stout Arizona defense ranking 4th (now ranked 6th) against the run. The 49ers had struggled in the passing game, a major concern against a team that would make running the ball a tall task. The 49ers defense remained elite against the pass however, intercepting two poorly thrown balls from Carson Palmer setting up two short fields in the redzone. However, Arizona’s defense shutdown all and any progress on those two drives yielding a meager 6 pts and keeping it one score game. The 49ers’ offense’s inability to punch in the early gifts could have easily proven costly as the game wore on, but San Francisco found it’s identity and won a hard fought battle in a clash of division foes with sole possession of 2nd place in NFC West at stake.
Colin Kaepernick had faced much criticism leading up to Sunday on his poor performances through the past 4 weeks averaging 139 yds/game with 3 TDs and 4 INTs. Critics began throwing around the label game manager and slumping, and could not be farther from the truth. Watching the game Sunday, one thing was evident, given enough time Kaepernick is still very lethal. His two perfect passes to Vernon Davis for 61 yds and 35 yds, respectively, showed Kaepernick’s pure passing accuracy. The 6′ 5″ dual threat QB preferred to stand tall in the pocket and throw for 16 for 29 for 252 yds, 2TDs and 1 INT averaging a superb 8.7 yds/att .The only blemishes to a rather artistic day under center was a deflected pass by Karlos Dansby that landed awkwardly in front of Bruce Miller but allowed Yeremiah Bell to step in front and pick it off at the half yard line, and a Kaepernick fumble due to poor ball protection when the pressure surrounded him near the end of the 2nd quarter. The Cardinals would not score any points off turnovers and the 2nd half would prove to be Kaepernick’s for the taking as he led the 49ers’ offense to victory with a balanced attack. The 49ers are currently ranked last in the league in passing, averaging 181.6 yds/game. This will need to improve for the 49ers to be legitimate contenders in the postseason. The lack of passing targets for Kaepernick is part of the equation, and Kaepernick is not Tom Brady…yet. The real measure will come when his reinforcements arrive in the form of Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree later in the season.
Despite Tyrann Mathieu and Arizona’s 4th ranked run defense stifling Frank Gore for only 25 yards in the first half. The 49ers remained committed to the run throughout the game. While the offense sputtered at times, the 49ers kept Arizona’s defense honest by feeding the Tank continuously. With the game fleetingly in control and nursing a marginal 2 pt lead in the 3rd quarter. The 49ers began to push Arizona’s defense off balance with shifts and counter running plays. Gore began using his vision and downhill running to amass 101 yds rushing on 25 attempts for an all pro 4.04 yards per clip performance. Amassing 76 yds in the 2nd half with 41 of those yards coming on a crucial game breaking 18 play drive for 89 yds that lasted deep into the 4th quarter and gave the 49ers a two possession lead with 6:35 left to play against a Arizona run defense that only gives up on average 79.0 yds/game. Gore has lifted the 49ers back into a top 10 rushing team through 6 weeks of play. The 49ers are averaging 140.2 yds/game and Gore has trailblazed back into a 1000 yd watch with a total of 477 yds through 6 games on pace for 1272 yds and another pro bowl nod. It is clear, the 49ers need to embrace their ground game genuinely henceforth to ensure they control the game and force their opponents to play their style of football. Straying away from this formula will risk victory. Kaepernick has proven he can shoulder games, but has struggled so far this season due to defenses adjusting to him and a thin WR corps. In the interim, the 49ers must utilize their dangerous assets in the backfield.
Time of Possession:
The 49ers controlling the clock is key to their success and was again on display. The offense held the ball for 34:19, nearly 5 min longer than their average. The 49ers are combining great defense with a competent balanced offensive scheme that plays to their strengths and allowing them to hold onto the ball longer. Kaepernick led an incredible clock consuming 18 play, 89 yd TD drive starting at the 49ers’ 11 yd line. The 49ers ran 12 running plays and 6 passing plays finishing with a Kendall Hunter 6 yd run that ignited a frustrated Arizona defense seeing Mathieu throw down Hunter, and Alex Boone taking a kick to the helmet from Alameda Ta’amu. Boldin made sure to make his presence felt by shoving Mathieu and and is a very welcome addition to a stacked 49ers’ roster. Despite 2 poorly called personal fouls on Boone and Boldin, the 49ers got the last laugh by having their way in the 4th quarter putting up 10 pts and putting the game out of reach.
5 turnovers, count them, FIVE. The 49ers’ defense was lights out on Sunday, looking like the opportunistic identity created 2 years ago. The 2013 version is different with their run and pass rankings switched from their 2011 counterpart. The defense created 2 early turnovers in the first quarter deep in Cardinals territory and setup two short drives inside the redzone. The 49ers would come away with only 6 pts despite being ranked 9th in scoring offense. With the cardinals threatening late in the 3rd quarter with Michael Floyd and a mix of Rashard Mendenhall and Andre Ellington, the defense was able to generate a rare Larry Fitzgerald fumble deep in 49ers’ territory. This key momentum shifting play would change the outcome of the game entirely with a point swing of 14. The 49ers offense would embark on their back breaking 9:32 drive to put the game out of reach. The 49ers would generate two more turnovers even later with an Alfonso Smith fumble setting up a Phil Dawson 44 yd field goal to extend the lead to 12, and an inspired turnover on downs to ice the game entirely. The team scored 13 pts off turnovers. The 49ers possess an underrated opportunistic defense that can change games with timely turnovers. The defense has amassed 13 turnovers (8 INT, 5 FF). Where the passing defense was a liability in 2012 ranking 31st in the league and was exposed in the postseason last year has now become an incredible strength in 2013 ranking 6th in the league after facing top rated QBs in Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson, and Andrew Luck. The run defense has become the new liability due in large part to injuries at nose tackle. The 49ers have become very thin at the position losing Ian Williams for the season, and Glenn Dorsey out with an undisclosed injury suffered in Sunday’s contest. The 49ers defensive line has struggled to set the point of attack and has mitigated the situation with an elite linebacking corps and rookie hard hitting safety Eric Reid who is slowly making a claim for DROY (Defensive Rookie of the Year) honors with his team leading 3 INTs, 1 FF, and 24 tackles through 6 games. The 49ers will also have another care package drop of reinforcements on the defensive side with Cornelius (Tank) Carradine and Quinton Dial coming off the PUP list. There presence will be vital to keeping Justin Smith and Ray Mcdonald healthy and fresh for a long season ahead. Aldon Smith’s scheduled return later this month would only boost an already high caliber defense.
With today’s win, the 49ers are in a neck and neck battle for 1st place with the Seattle Seahawks who continue to find ways to win. After a disastrous week 2 and 3 that saw the team reeling into a spiral, the 49ers have hedged their losses and repositioned themselves to compete again for the NFC West. The team’s schedule looks better and better heading toward the bye week with contests against the Titans and Jaguars on the road. Sitting at 4-2, the 49ers need to continue to improve on offense with the Saints, Redskins, Seahawks, and Falcons on the schedule deeper into the season. The 49ers are in a great situation despite all the struggles and injuries they have had. The schedule is currently forgiving enough to allow time to address these issues. Kaepernick can easily begin spreading the ball around when Manningham and Crabtree are back in the lineup opening up coverage on Boldin and Davis. However, for now the 49ers will need to continue replicating the formula they have used over the last 3 weeks to enter the bye week at 6-2.