GLENDALE, Ariz. — Justin Bethel has waited more than three NFL seasons to get his hands on his first interception. When he finally got the chance on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, Bethel made it count.
On his first defensive snap of the season, Bethel stepped in front of a Colin Kaepernick pass intended for tight end Vernon Davis and returned it 21 yards to set the tone for the game and the Cardinals secondary just four plays into the 49ers’ first offensive series.
“It took me four years but I don’t mind getting a pick-6 for my first one,” Bethel said.
As interceptions go, this was probably as easy a read as you’ll ever see in the NFL. Kaepernick locked in on Davis and never looked him off. Bethel saw the entire play develop before him — as did everyone in the south end of the stadium — and then used his speed to close the ground to the ball.
“Those are the ones that you dream about,” safety Rashad Johnson said. “You don’t have to do anything; just break and it comes right to you and the next thing you know, you just walk right into the end zone.”
Bethel’s interception ignited a dream start for the Cardinals in a 47-7 win. They generated consistent pressure from the defensive line and on the 49ers’ second series, safety Tyrann Mathieu matched Bethel by intercepting Kaepernick at the 33-yard line and returning his pick for another score — one of two Mathieu interceptions in the game.
Two possessions for the 49ers equaled two touchdowns for the Cardinals. From that point, the Arizona secondary began what cornerback Patrick Peterson called a frenzy, intercepting Kaepernick a career-high four times in the franchise’s most lopsided win over San Francisco in 64 years and 47 meetings.
“That’s the most perfect possible way we can start a game off on defense,” said cornerback Jerraud Powers, who also had a pick. “If you don’t play better than your opponent’s defense in this division, you normally lose the game. Us getting those turnovers helped a lot.”
The Cardinals have made a habit of it the last three seasons. Arizona has the most defensive TDs (12) in the NFL since 2013 and as Sunday’s defensive domination wore on, they also became the first NFL team in 70 years (1945 Green Bay Packers) to record two interceptions for touchdowns, a safety and score 40-plus points in a game.
Kaepernick hadn’t thrown an interception in 72 attempts in his first two games, but he threw two on his first four attempts Sunday and eclipsed his previous career-high of three picks, set in Week 2 of the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
“I put our team behind the 8-ball from the jump and we never rebounded from that,” said Kaepernick, who posted a career-low passer rating of 16.7. “Very hard to see myself go out and play like that and hurt this team the way I did. I nullified all the efforts of every other player on that field today and that’s something I have to fix.”
Bethel sensed a lack of confidence in Kaepernick after the rocky start.
“You could kind of see it in his body language,” he said. “We could kind of tell his ball didn’t have that zing on it like it should. They were kind of wobbly and he was kind of throwing off his back leg.”
There are more than a few analysts wondering what has happened to Kaepernick, with some speculating that the loss of coach Jim Harbaugh to Michigan has had an adverse effect on his play.
Bethel, Mathieu and Patrick Peterson all said it was easy to prepare for the 49ers offense because there is so little complexity to it.
“I believe they only really ran five plays,” Peterson said. “All we had to do is keep our eyes on our keys and the plays were going to come to us.”
“Their passing game has been simplified so much it was easy for us to anticipate routes,” Mathieu added.
Peterson laughed when he was asked if he felt left out of the pick party.
“It’s only three weeks in so I’ll get my chances,” he said, “but you can always tell when you’re going to have a day like this. When you get an interception early, they start falling out of the sky.”