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Week 10 Game Recap: San Francisco 49ers 20, Arizona Cardinals 23


What you need to know

San Francisco 49ers

San Francisco's offense didn't accomplish much of anything before Arizona was up 14-0 two plays into the second quarter. Both before and after, the Cardinals defense just seemed faster or highly prepared to shut down the 49ers' (few) offensive strengths. To wit, all but one of San Francisco's longest offensive gains, be they run or pass, were more the result of errors in Arizona's defensive execution than successes in San Francisco's offensive execution.

Arizona Cardinals

While the team walked away with a necessary win for their playoff chances to stay alive, they also struggled to put away a one-win team, despite playing at home and coming off the bye. That does little to inspire much confidence in this team’s ability to make a real run in the second-half. The schedule is not favorable from this point on, meaning quite simply the team must play significantly better in all phases.

San Francisco 49ers

QB Colin Kaepernick, 63 offensive snaps, Pass: 17 - 30 - 210 - 1 TD / 0 INT, Rush: 10 - 55 - 1
This game was a microcosm of Kaepernick's skill set (or lack thereof). On an early-game run for 10 yards and his tying touchdown at the end, he perfectly executed the read-option. And on at least five plays, he deftly navigated through and around Arizona's pass rush -- often via blitzes -- to produce either successful scrambles or completed passes. But then there was the negatives. Kaepernick threw multiple interceptable passes, two of which required Vance McDonald going on the defensive. He was inaccurate on easy completions. And he scrambled before routes came to their designed fruition. All in all, he is -- and has always been -- a typical NFL quarterback with strengths and weaknesses, whereby, unless Jim Harbaugh's around, there's no accentuation of the former and no dimunition of the latter.

RB Carlos Hyde, 42 offensive snaps, Rush: 13 - 14 - 0 (1 targets)
Except for a couple of 5-yard runs that he manufactured out of thin air, Hyde's performance was a case of San Francisco's offensive line losing the battle against Arizona's front seven. In his first three carries, Hyde had -3 yards on 3 carries, including a toss sweep that netted minus-5 yards. On a later zone-blocked run for minus-4 yards, he encountered no hole on the front side and a Cardinals backside pursuit (and ultimately a backfield tackle) suggesting Arizona wouldn't be fooled. A further indictment of San Francisco's run-blocking was that Arizona accomplished all this -- and shut down the 49ers run offense overall -- despite playing with only six men in the box for the entire game. If there's any criticism of Hyde to be made, it's that, late in the fourth quarter, he found himself wide open on a deep corner route out of the backfield. Kaepernick delivered a perfect pass for a tying touchdown, but Hyde dropped it all alone in the end zone. Granted, the impact of this drop ended up being minor because San Francisco succeeded at tying the game two plays later, but it's worth noting going forward.

RB DuJuan Harris, 21 offensive snaps, Rush: 5 - 14 - 0
Harris was relegated to being the clear backup, but he enough snaps to comment on his performance. To wit, his best run of the game was an eight-yard scamper on read-option when Cardinals outside linebacker stayed outside, thereby allowing for a massive hole up the middle. Otherwise, accounting for the fact that San Francisco's run scheme was (seemingly) thwarted by Arizona's preparation, Harris missed out on a couple of huge gains due to picking the wrong lane on a zone-blocked run, thereby leaving at least 20 rushing yards on the field.

WR Jeremy Kerley, 51 offensive snaps, Rec: 7 - 71 - 1 (7 targets)
Arizona's pass defense played Cover-3 zone for most of the game. Therefore, it's no surprise that five of Kerley's catches were the result of finding the hole in said zone five times; and another -- his touchdown -- was the result of being wide open thanks to a blown zone coverage that left him wide open. Only once did Kerley beat man-to-man coverage; it was his longest gain of the game. In an infrequent situation lined up in man-to-man against Marcus Cooper, Kerley beat him inside on a deep post for a 45-yard gain.

WR Quinton Patton, 53 offensive snaps, Rec: 3 - 52 - 0 (9 targets)
No doubt, the highlight of Patton's performance was beating cornerback Justin Bethel one-on-one on a deep post for 45 yards. Unfortunately, he couldn't beat anything else Arizona's defense offered. For example, after weeks of success, the 49ers' patented "shovel-pass jet sweep to Patton in motion" play was snuffed out, resulting in a 6-yard loss. One supposes that, to his credit, Patton's two incomplete targets involved Kaepernick firing a fastball at Kerley's shoulder from 10 yards away and throwing an inaccurate corner route thrown out of bounds.

WR Torrey Smith, 57 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 26 - 0 (4 targets)
Important note: Smith's absence in the passing game had nothing to do with Patrick Peterson. In fact, no Smith vs. Peterson matchup ever materialized because Peterson spent most of the game in zone on one side of the field and Chip Kelly's game plan (apparently) called for Smith lining up on the other side of the formation more than usual. It was a sound strategy that didn't work out. But it actually did! With 2:33 left in the game and the 49ers at the Arizona 31-yard line on a potential game-winning drive, Smith once again lined up on the opposite side of Peterson. He beat linebacker Kevin Minter on a quick slant and was wide open. The play design against that specific Cardinals defense saw all other receivers (and defenders) going in the opposite direction. This was an easy, walk-in touchdown. Colin Kaepernick delivered a perfect pass. Smith dropped it. (Thankfully for Smith, the 49ers tied the game a few plays later, so this drop will be forgotten forevermore.)

TE Vance McDonald, 44 offensive snaps, Rec: 4 - 50 - 0 (6 targets)
McDonald may not have scored a touchdown, but he made three huge contributions to San Francisco's passing game. First, all but one of his receptions involved finding the hole in Arizona's Cover-3 pass defense. Second, McDonald prevented two Colin Kaepernick interceptions. Third, on his 32-yard reception, McDonald badly beat linebacker Kevin Minter in one-on-one coverage.


Arizona Cardinals

QB Carson Palmer, 79 offensive snaps, Pass: 30 - 49 - 376 - 1 TD / 2 INT, Rush: 1 - 16 - 0
As has been the case throughout this tumultuous season, there was a lot of good in Carson Palmer’s game Sunday afternoon. Yet falling into the same patterns the offense has all season, breakdowns and mistakes at inopportune times prevented the offense from really breaking out in any significant way. Palmer was aggressive Sunday, continuously looking deep for the big passing plays that have eluded this team all season, albeit to mixed results. Palmer is still frequently underthrowing the deep ball, something that can be justified when throwing to a jump-ball receiver like Michael Floyd, but not the small speedsters like Brown and Nelson. Furthermore, Palmer’s fumble and second interception both ended promising drives simply on careless play. Despite that, Palmer was great when the team seemingly needed him most. His 2-minute drill play at the end of the first half was nearly flawless and the game-winning drive was equally as good. As Palmer goes so does this offense, and unfortunately despite coming off the bye, Palmer and the offense looked every bit as rocky as before.

RB David Johnson, 70 offensive snaps, Rush: 19 - 55 - 1, Rec: 5 - 46 - 1 (7 targets)
Facing the worst rushing defense in the league, many were predicting a monster game for Johnson. While that never really came to fruition on the ground, Johnson’s two early touchdowns provided the breathing room the team operated with most of the afternoon. Johnson’s inability to get the ground game going was likely a result of multiple factors. The 49ers defense no doubt schemed to take away the ground game, and John Wetzel filling in for the injured Jared Veldheer at LT did them no favors either. Both of those factors will be present for the remainder of the season, and its incumbent on Johnson and this offense to find more running room for the second-year stud. Arguably the biggest mark Johnson left on the game was the mismatch he presented as a receiver. This was present on the team’s first touchdown, with Johnson matched up against a linebacker, and later on the team’s game winning drive for a crucial 3rd down conversion.

WR Larry Fitzgerald, 69 offensive snaps, Rec: 12 - 133 - 0 (18 targets)
Fitzgerald’s 18 targets on Sunday highlight two notable takeaways: Larry Fitzgerald seemingly has not slowed down a beat, and Carson Palmer is locking onto his primary receiver far too often. Equally troubling as that second statement was the status of Fitzgerald’s health after the game. Fitzgerald entered the game with a hamstring injury, injured his ribs diving for a ball early in the first quarter, was later up-ended onto his neck, and later came out for the second half wearing a rather noticeable knee-brace. There is some conflicting information on the severity of Fitzgerald’s knee injury, but at best, he is well short of 100% heading into the second half. This week’s injury report will be worth following closely for clues about his health.

WR Michael Floyd, 59 offensive snaps, Rec: 5 - 101 - 0 (6 targets)
After a lot of bluster over the bye week from Coach Arians, Floyd backed up his coach’s words with what was his best game of the season. Despite not finding a way into the end zone, Floyd caught 5 of his 6 targets, many requiring impressive acrobatics, and much like Palmer himself, proved best during the team’s 2-minute drive before the half and later on the game winning drive. So many of Floyd’s shortcomings this season have been in at critical moments, so it was encouraging to see him step up when it was most important. Time will tell whether this was a single-game breakout or the start of a second-half run, but either way it was nice to see the good Michael Floyd again.

WR John Brown, Rush: 1 - 10 - 0, Rec: 2 - 30 - 0 (4 targets)
It has been a tough year for Brown, dealing with concussion-symptoms that slowed him down early in the season and a sickle-cell issue that has hampered him of late. Brown claims to be back to 100%, but is still struggling to integrate back into the offense. J.J Nelson was the recipient of all of Palmer’s deep targets Sunday, and was the least-targeted receiver on Sunday (including RB David Johnson and TE Jermaine Gresham). Between Brown’s health and role in the offense, it is increasingly difficult to expect a true second-half breakout for Brown, but this offense will undoubtedly lean on him at some point this season. It is simply a mystery if Brown will be ready.

WR J.J. Nelson, 49 offensive snaps, Rec: 2 - 29 - 0 (6 targets)
In his second game as the anointed #2 receiver, J.J Nelson was downright bad. Having as many turnovers as receptions (Palmer’s first interception hit Nelson square in the hands first,) is not an ideal mark to leave on a game. Nelson did draw 38-yard pass interference penalty that immediately preceded David Johnson’s 18-yard touchdown run, but outside of that one play left little positive impact on the game. Nelson’s assent was a credit to his play early in the season, but also a factor of the struggles of the remaining receiving corps. With Floyd looking to build on Sunday’s positive momentum, and John Brown still working back from health issues, Nelson’s role will likely take a bit of a hit from true #2 status, but regardless of the role simply must play better than he did on Sunday.