49ers can’t finish strong, Cards win on final kick

The only thing recognizable about the 49ers on Sunday was that they suffered a 23-20 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

San Francisco (1-8) turned in an uncharacteristic effort that saw a stout run defense lead the way for a resurgent Colin Kaepernick, whose vintage performance nearly capped off an unlikely upset against the NFC West rival Cardinals (4-4).

After allowing seven straight 100-yard rushers, the 49ers defense battened down their hatches against the explosive running back David Johnson, holding him to just 55 yards on 19 carries throughout the day.

The 49ers finally saw a glimmer of hope from quarterback as well, as Kaepernick turned back to clock to make strong throws from the pocket while extending plays with his legs, finishing the day by throwing for 210 yards and one touchdown on 17-of-30 passing.

Kaepernick dealt damage with his legs as well, leading the 49ers with 55 yards on ten carries, including a game-tying touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

Ultimately, it was the 49ers’ usually solid pass defense that sunk an otherwise promising effort from the 49ers, as Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer (30-for-49, 376 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) would look to his explosive receivers during a two minute drill to set up a 34-yard field goal that would hand the 49ers their eighth straight loss.

It wasn’t all sunshine in the desert for San Francisco though.

Despite forcing four turnovers, the team would only capitalize on two of their short-field opportunities for 10 points.

Earlier in the game, San Francisco squandered a drive that started on the Arizona 40, following an Eric Reid interception, that could have otherwise set up a field goal that would have proved to be the difference in this game.

San Francisco also came into the game ranked 11th in the NFL in passing defense, allowing just 235 yards per game. But with the future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald leading the way with 12 receptions for 133 yards, the Arizona receiving corps shattered that mark while sinking San Francisco’s efforts yet again.

Receiver Jeremey Kerley led the way for San Francisco with a seven catches for 71 yards and touchdown, while Quinton Patton followed with his own 52 yard effort as well. Tight end Vance McDonald continued his run of big plays with a 32-yard catch that would help set up a score as well.

The first half of Sunday’s contest largely followed the pessimistic script that was laid out for the downtrodden 49ers‘ ahead of the game. But like a quick sunburst on a gloomy day, the game also featured some glimmering moments of hope for a struggling 49ers team.

Despite earning just 33 yards on the ground through two quarters, the 49ers could not keep the dynamic Johnson out of the end zone, allowing both a receiving and rushing touchdown to the second-year back while allowing him to showcase his diverse talents.

Johnson’s first score came during a pass-heavy drive that saw Palmer connect with the future Hall of Famer Larry Fitzgerald for three catches and 31 yards before a mismatch between Johnson and 49ers’ linebacker Nick Bellore allowed the running back to scamper unharmed into the end zone for a three yard scoring reception.

Johnson would find paydirt for the second time just two drives later, after WR Jeremy Kerley forced his own fumble on a punt return to set up an 18-yard rushing touchdown just two plays later.

Turnovers and a measly 0.4 yards per play average threatened to cause an early blowout in favor of a rolling Arizona offense, but the 49ers received a vintage Kaepernick drive just in time to keep the momentum from being sucked from their sideline.

Picking up where they left off from last week, Kaepernick connected on a big-play to tight end Vance McDonald, whose 32-yard pickup would move the team across midfield for the first time all game.

Kerley would then redeem himself for his early gaff, sneaking through the defensive backfield of Arizona before catching an uncontested 18-yard touchdown reception from Kaepernick all alone in the back of the end zone.

The drive marked the first time Kaepernick looked like his old self since being benched in favor of Gabbert. And it wouldn’t be the last.

Kaepernick continued to impress with his poise in the pocket and ability to extend plays during the 49ers next trip on the turf, beating blitzes and converting crucial third and fourth downs.

The drive would ultimately stall short of the goal line, but Kaepernick’s quarterbacking would set up a makable 49-yard field goal from the ever-trusty Phil Dawson.

But as they often do, the 49ers’ would unhinge their own efforts with defensive lapses that would cost them on the scoreboard.

A neglect to keep an eye on the plodding Palmer would lead to a 16-yard run by the quarterback-the longest of his career- to convert a third down. On an ensuing drive, the 49ers would allow big pickups along the sideline in a two-minute drill before a pass interference call on Eric Reid would set up a first-and-goal situation from the one yard line.

Both instances ended with field goals, giving Arizona a 20-10 advantage before heading into the locker room in what could have been a much closer game.

San Francisco would keep their foot on the gas against their NFC West rivals to open up the third quarter, following up a lackluster three-and-out with a big defensive stop in which Eli Harold forced a red zone fumble of Palmer to be recovered by DeForest Buckner.

Kaepernick made good use of the Cardinal’s second turnover of the day, launching a 45-yard pass to Quinton Patton before a third down sack would set up a 53-yard field goal attempt for Dawson. The elder veteran showed off a young leg by splitting the try down the middle with ease to pull San Francisco back within a touchdown.

Still, the Cardinals maintained a seven point lead with time winding down. But instead of looking to kill the clock with Johnson, the Cardinals opted to pick up first downs through the air, much to the delight of the 49ers’ defense.

The unit came away with their fourth turnover of the game when Gerald Hodges intercepted a Palmer pass across the middle of the field, intended for receiver John Brown. The pick would give the 49ers an enticing field position to start their make-or-break drive with just over three minutes to go.

Again, Kaepernick would turn back the clock, tossing long gains while picking up a crucial third-and-long with his legs to keep their hopes alive.

After carrying the offense with his play, Kaepernick looked to seal the equalizing score himself, using his legs again on third down to sprint into the end zone from four yards out on a designed keep to notch things up at 20 a piece.


Shawn Whelchel is SFBay’s San Francisco 49ers beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @ShawnWhelchel on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of 49ers football.