The 49ers lost 21-19 to the Cardinals yesterday because scoring touchdowns in the red zone continues to be a struggle for the offense. The offense not scoring with three chances inside the end zone in the second quarter is bad. You might read around that it is not time to panic yet, but I disagree. The 49ers are now tied with the Saints for second-place in the NFC and cannot afford to lose another game if they want a first-round bye in the playoffs. If the 49ers cannot solve the red zone issues it will not matter where the team is seeded in the playoffs - they will be eliminated in the first game. Let’s hand out some Game Gold Nuggets:
= VERY GOOD
The 49ers offense had no answer at any point in the game. The offense in the second half only converted one first down, punted five times, had four three-and-outs and ended the game on an incomplete pass to RB Kendall Hunter (4 receptions, 42 receiving yards). Normally the offense makes adjustments in the second half to fix the red zone failures in the first half, but the 49ers played just the same all game, if not worse in the second half. The 49ers had 12 points heading into halftime on four field goals. On three of the field goals Alex Smith (62.3 QB rating, 18-for-37, 175 passing yards, 0 TD’s, 0 INT’s) and the offense failed to score even though they were inside the Cardinals 7-yard line on all three possessions. Last week I wrote about how lower level teams like the Cardinals will eventually take advantage of the 49ers red zone issues if they did not fix them. As we all saw on Sunday the 49ers look lost inside the red zone. Pathetic.
A big problem scoring in the red zone is a lack of protection from the offensive line. The O-line has played well this season after having a horrible preseason and a bad start to the regular season. Since the Ravens game however the 49ers O-line has given up 18 sacks with five of them by the Cardinals defense yesterday. At the end of the first quarter the offensive line had given up three sacks. Center Jonathan Goodwin had a rough day giving up a costly sack in the second quarter that moved the 49ers out of Cardinals territory and a missed snap that caused a delay of game. On the penalty Goodwin was supposed to snap directly to Ted Ginn Jr. who was in motion but did not get it off in time. The 49ers had to take a delay of game because they had just called a timeout. The penalty moved the 49ers out of Cardinals territory and eventually had to punt.
The only positive to take away from the offense yesterday was Frank Gore (10 carries, 72 yards, 1 TD) rushing for 1,000 yards on the season, his fifth time accomplishing the feat in his career. Gore’s third quarter touchdown put the 49ers up 19-7 on a 37-yard run. The 49ers could not score at least a field goal on their next five possessions. Horrible.
Note: Alex Smith only completed four of his last 15 passing attempts
Despite Cardinals starting QB Kevin Kolb out of the game with an injury after their first offensive series I still can’t get over the fact that the 49ers lost to a backup quarterback. John Skelton started three weeks ago against the 49ers so he did have knowledge and experience going up against the defense. But in that game Skelton played so bad the Cardinals went to their third-string QB. After a slow start Skelton (106.5 QB rating, 19-for-28, 282 yards, 3 TD’s, 2 INT’s) rebounded and burned the 49ers’ secondary for a 60-yard and 46-yard touchdown pass. Skelton also completed 53-yard pass that did not go for a touchdown. Skelton and the Cardinals offense responded to the 49ers first TD of the game with a 46-yard pass to Larry Fitzgerald (7 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD).
Even though the 49ers defense has played well all season and is one of the best D’s in the NFL, they still have issues covering the pass. When a backup QB lights up your secondary for 282 yards and three touchdowns, in the end it will not matter how well you play against the run if your pass coverage is so weak. Having Patrick Willis in the game, who was out with a hamstring injury, would have helped with short passes over the middle. But he would not have helped covering Fitzgerald and Early Doucet. Willis’ replacement Larry Grant led the 49ers with nine tackles.
The defense played well enough towards the end of the game to get the ball back and give the offense a chance to win with three minutes left. The defense held the Cardinals to 55 rushing yards and finished with two sacks, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
If you had told me the 49ers would lose to the Cardinals I would have guessed in the end it was return man/cornerback Patrick Peterson with another game-winning punt for a touchdown.
The 49ers special teams were the one unit that played well all game. The star on special teams was safety C.J. Spillman who had a great tackle on the first punt to Peterson for a one-yard loss. Spillman had another great play in the first quarter on the second punt of the game as he straddled the goal line trying to keep the football from going into the end zone. Spillman was able to throw the football back allowing the 49ers special teams to down it at the Cardinals one-yard line. On five punts Peterson was held to just 8.8 yards per return.
The normal suspects did well per usual on special teams. Punter Andy Lee had a net average of 46.9-yards per punt with three landing inside the 20. The longest punt traveled 62-yards.
Ted Ginn almost broke one return for a touchdown on a 52-yard return in the first quarter. Kicker David Akers led the 49ers in scoring once again with 12 points making four of five field goals. Akers made kicks of 46, 22, 27 and 22-yards, missing a 50-yard field goal in the second quarter.
It’s too bad the 49ers wasted a great game by the special teams and could not win.
The most frustrating part for Jim Harbaugh and his coaching staff has to be that the 49ers caused three turnovers and committed none, yet were still on the losing end of the game. Harbaugh made some good moves and calls but it was not enough to get the offense to score more than one TD. In the first quarter Harbaugh challenged a non-call fumble even though the Cardinals recovered. Harbaugh challenging the play was all about field position for the offense and it paid off as the team started at the Cardinals 43-yard line. On the ensuing possession Harbaugh went for it on 4th-and-5 at the Cardinals 38-yard line. Smith converted a pass to Hunter on a broken play that almost ended with a sack and turnover on downs.
Harbaugh’s gutsiest call in the game was in the second quarter. The 49ers offense was facing 4th-and-7 at the Cardinals 32-yard line. Harbaugh had special team’s coordinator Brad Seely try a pass on a fake field goal that resulted in a completion but was ruled dead before the snap. Before the play Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt threw a red flag to challenge the catch on the previous play. Whisenhunt looked like a genius as the 49ers not only would have converted the first down but would have scored on the play. You can voice your frustrations about the refs call by clicking here. The challenge started a downward spiral for the 49ers. The referee could not view the replay because the equipment was not working, so the play was not reviewed but also the 49ers completed fake field goal pass did not count either. Akers went on to miss a 50-yard field goal and on the Cardinals next offensive possession they scored their 60-yard touchdown pass, going up 7-6. Despite the outcome you have to give up for Harbaugh calling the fake.
Late in the second quarter offensive coordinator Greg Roman for some reason called a naked bootleg for Alex Smith to the left on 3rd-and-3 at the Cardinals 3-yard line. If Roman wanted to go with a run play on third-and-3, Gore and Hunter are the better options. Roman might have thought he could catch the Cardinals D off guard but they were prepared for it. Instead Smith lost 3-yards on the play and had to kick a field goal.
On the 49ers last offensive possession Roman choose to pass on the final two plays trying to convert 3rd-and-1. It was a good call to pass but Gore was not on the field for the final two plays. At a time when the 49ers needed to convert or face a loss, you would think all of your best players would be out on the field. On 4th-and-the game Smith had to scramble to make a play and just missed the pass to Hunter who was in for Gore.
The red zone issues continue to haunt the 49ers but what I don’t get is why TE Vernon Davis is not thrown to inside the 20. Davis was not targeted with a pass once inside the red zone. With how big and athletic Davis is, he presents a mismatch with linebackers and the secondary anywhere on the field. So why doesn’t Harbaugh and Roman go to Davis inside the red zone?
NEXT UP: @ home vs. Steelers
The Steelers are coming off a win over the Browns that saw QB Ben Roethlisberger go down but come back with an ankle injury. The 49ers will want to show the loss to the Cardinals was a fluke and they can score in the red zone and beat good teams like the Steelers. Problem for the 49ers is the Steelers have ten days to prepare for the Monday Night Football showdown after playing on Thursday.