The SF 49ers looked like a team that didn’t have a preseason in their 24-20 upset loss to the Cardinals. So, how much this factor to blame for both teams?
Neither the SF 49ers, the Arizona Cardinals nor any of the other 30 teams across the NFL enjoyed the benefits of ironing out the kinks in a usually scheduled preseason.
And it certainly looked that way at times during the Niners’ 2020 home opener against the visiting Cardinals on Sunday, Sept. 13 even though cornerback Richard Sherman begged to differ.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad now finds itself 0-1 after suffering an embarrassing off a 24-20 loss over its NFC West division rivals, and that’s ultimately the most important thing in San Francisco’s early efforts to get back to the Super Bowl and win it this time. The 0-1 record doesn’t look good, and it wasn’t just a proverbial Super Bowl “hangover” affecting things.
The odd offseason amid the COVID-19 pandemic already had effects on the SF 49ers, notably in an altered training camp with no spring workouts. Exactly how much that influenced injuries to wide receivers Deebo Samuel (foot) and Brandon Aiyuk (hamstring) isn’t known or easy to quantify. But with neither player being available for the contest, Shanahan elected to go with four wide receivers on Sunday: Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor and Richie James.
And four tight ends, too: George Kittle, Jordan Reed, Ross Dwelley and Charlie Woerner.
Shanahan was able to get creative with some of his packages as a result. With no preseason film available, the Cardinals struggled early on to defend against some of these unique 22-personnel and 23-personnel groupings.
But they adjusted. Some could argue San Francisco didn’t.
Cardinals vs. SF 49ers: Week 1 gaffes, miscues and errors
Early on, the Cardinals showed some miscommunication issues with quarterback Kyler Murray and a would-be intended target, resulting in an intentional-grounding call against Arizona after EDGE Nick Bosa provided the pressure.
But one of the Cardinals players who arguably struggled more was rookie linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the team’s first-round NFL Draft pick, who was flagged early for a horse-collar tackle on Kittle, then was way out of position on running back Raheem Mostert‘s 76-yard catch-and-run touchdown:
Simmons was subsequently out of position on the Niners’ second touchdown of the game, too.
But the Cardinals weren’t the only ones who were showing a bit of rust in Week 1. San Francisco’s special teams, which had some issues early in 2019, surrendered a major gaffe in the first quarter when Cardinals linebacker Ezekiel Turner blocked a punt off the foot of the Niners’ Mitch Wishnowsky.
Arizona recovered it on the 49ers’ 15-yard line, scoring a touchdown the very next play.
While most of the lack-of-preseason focus heading into Week 1 largely centered on offensive and defensive play, the absence of practical special teams work certainly made its mark early on this particular game, and it’s something Niners special teams coordinator Richard Hightower will need to address between now and Week 2. The Cardinals also had their own special teams mistakes, kicker Zane Gonzalez missing X field-goal tries on X attempts, which certainly worked to San Francisco’s benefit.
Linebackers Fred Warner and Kwon Alexander missed tackles, which could be influenced by the lack of true tackling in training camp.
The Niners also had plenty of miscues on offense, too, including a first-half false start on Kittle and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo looking panicked in the pocket, holding onto the ball for too long and taking a sack off the hands of Cardinals EDGE Chandler Jones early in the second quarter. Later on, Garoppolo tried to hit running back Jerick McKinnon on third down, but the ball deflected off his hands and nearly into an Arizona defender.
While McKinnon missed the last two years recovering from a 2018 ACL tear, it was a pass he should have hauled in with relative ease. Another toss from Garoppolo late in the first half resulted in Kittle suffering a minor injury, as he was hit low by Cardinals safety Budda Baker.
That kind of sloppiness was prevalent for both offenses, particularly throughout the first half, as it looked if both squads were struggling to find rhythm. In many ways, it looked like the first drives during a preseason game where there were miscues and mistakes.
As far as the penalties went, San Francisco was flagged five times for 53 yards and Arizona 9 times for 102 yards. Some of those roughing-the-passer calls against the Niners were pretty ticky-tack as well, particularly the one called against EDGE Kerry Hyder early in the fourth quarter.
Although left tackle Trent Williams didn’t look as if he was rusty at all:
SF 49ers woes on third down
San Francisco struggled on third downs throughout the game after converting over 44 percent a year ago and ranking fifth best in this particular category. Over the first half, the 49ers went 0-of-6 here and finished the game 2-of-11 for an 18.0-percent conversion rate.
Expect that to be something Shanahan looks to focus on between Weeks 1 and 2.
What made this mark more frustrating, though, was the Cardinals surrendered third-down conversions 46.7 percent of the time last year, third worst in the league.
And yet the Niners weren’t able to take advantage of that figure at all.
Perhaps it had something to do with Samuel and Aiyuk being out. But Bourne, San Francisco’s leading red-zone receiver last year, wasn’t much of a factor throughout the game. In total, Garoppolo hit his wide receivers just four times for 41 yards overall.
One of Garoppolo’s last attempts, trying to hit Bourne in the end zone for what would have been a go-ahead touchdown with seconds left in regulation, was floated too high and with not enough zip.
Deflected as incomplete as a result, indicative of the quarterback’s efforts.
While it’s premature to blame the odd offseason entirely for San Francisco’s loss, it did play a role.
And one can only hope the Niners recover quickly enough from it.