SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Drew Stanton was not special for the Cardinals in Thursday’s 33-21 win over the 49ers, but he didn’t have to be.
Facing an opponent that ranked last in the NFL in rushing defense, the gameplan was to run the ball until the 49ers stopped it. They never did, so the Cardinals kept running.
It was the perfect scenario for the Cardinals and their backup quarterback, who got his first start since 2014 due to Carson Palmer recovering from a concussion.
Stanton completed 11-of-28 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He struggled with his accuracy early, often overthrowing receivers, but settled into a bit of a groove toward the end of the second quarter and then played fine the rest of the way.
Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said Stanton was playing a little fast early in the game.
“He is so smart sometimes,” the coach said. “He knows where he’s going with it. He’s got to let the play develop, but I was really pleased with the running game, and especially the last (touchdown) drive.”
With the help of an opportunistic defense and a dominant running game, any problems Stanton did have were minimized and ultimately not particularly costly.
Arizona’s first two touchdowns came from short fields following turnovers. The Cardinals produced just three drives that lasted more than five plays and produced six passes that went for a first down.
But he threw two touchdown passes, and when time ran out the Cardinals had more points than the 49ers.
“Yeah, it feels great,” Stanton said of earning the win as a starter. “This is a huge team win. This is what we needed. That was my mindset all week. I felt good about it. I liked the gameplan. It’s tough going through a walk-through because you’re trying to visualize everything that’s going on but at the same time I really liked it.
“I was on the same page as B.A. Once I got a chance to settle down and feel good about everything, I was very comfortable.”
Stanton completed 7-of-20 passes in the first half and 4-of-8 in the second. He found the bulk of his success when throwing to Larry Fitzgerald, who caught six of the eight passes thrown his way for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
Arians pointed out that Fitzgerald played more on the outside in this game because they felt his ability to pull off double moves could give the 49ers secondary some trouble, and it did.
But all the double moves in the world would be useless without the throw going to the right guy in the right place, and while it wasn’t always pretty, Stanton was mostly effective.
“Well, Drew did a great job today of getting us in the right plays, being a real sparkplug, inspiration in the huddle for guys,” Fitzgerald said. “We really fed off his energy. He made some great throws. He got out of duress a couple times when things broke down. He was able to extend some plays.
“So, he really did a great job of managing the game in terms of not turning the ball over and when things weren’t there, just throw it away and our defense played outstanding.”
In a lot of ways, Stanton was the perfect backup quarterback Thursday. He did not lose the game and made enough plays to supplement a great effort from the running game and defense. And while that recipe may not lead to wins every week, for at least this one, it worked.
That it took a little while for Stanton to settle in and settle down is less relevant now.
“Yeah, it’s hard to do, you know,” Arians said about Stanton slowing things a bit. “It’s hard to do when, you know, when you haven’t played in a little while and you know where you want to go with it. And it’s like guys were turning around and pft, there’s the ball, you know?
“And so, I didn’t want him to play any slower, you know? But, I was very pleased with his effort.”
Markus Golden leads the pass rush
Markus Golden came on strong toward the end of last season as a rookie, finishing the year with four sacks.
Five games into the 2016 seasons, he has already blown past that number.
“Oh, he’s lightyears ahead, because he understands what he’s doing,” Arians said of Golden. “He’s gotten better. He’s got better guys around him, and he’s been a force since he’s been here.”
Golden now has six sacks on the season, two of which came in Thursday’s win over the 49ers. His effort was part of a seven-sack night for a Cardinals defense that seemed to spend at least half of its time on the field in San Francisco’s backfield terrorizing San Francisco QB Blaine Gabbert.
“We have to give credit to the coaches,” Golden said. “All of them called the right calls today. We were able to get after them up front.”
Even when the Cardinals weren’t bringing Gabbert down, they were pressuring him.
“I think there was a little bit more twist game going on up front and then we didn’t do a very good job of handling that, from where I’m standing,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. “We have to go through that because a lot of those pressures that occurred on the quarterback occurred in a four-man rush.
“So, they have a lot of guys in coverage and there for the quarterback has to hold the ball a little bit to make sure that we’re getting the ball out to the right receiver and then he doesn’t have a lot of time because of the pressure that they got. But they did a nice job in their twist game with four guys, just four men rushing, creating pressure on the quarterback. Obviously, mathematically, we should be up there. There’s five offensive linemen and four defensive linemen. We should be in a good situation.”
Along with Golden, Calais Campbell had two sacks, Kevin Minter had 1.5, D.J. Swearinger had one and Alex Okafor had 0.5.
“Everybody is competitive,” Golden said. “You wouldn’t be in the NFL if you were not competitive. Everybody just wants to get a sack. Everybody wants to make plays to make the team win and we did that tonight.”
Mathieu back in the slot, but not back yet
Earlier this week, Tyrann Mathieu said he was ready to return to his former role in the slot if the team needed him there.
Once it was learned safety Tyvon Branch was placed on injured reserve, the Cardinals needed Mathieu there.
Mathieu lined up in the slot for much of the game Thursday night, and was in on a few tackles but also got burned on some plays and drew a penalty.
“I felt good, at times,” he said. “I wasn’t really able to practice covering — I haven’t covered since December of last year, man-on-man; everything this week was a walk-through.
“So at first it was kind of sloppy; I felt like I played a little sloppy, as far as the coverage side of it. The more I play in the slot, the more I’ll get back comfortable covering people, different things like that.”
Mathieu acknowledged there was some rust, and while he said he was ready to cut it loose and be his former self before the game, actually getting on the field and attempting to do that was a good thing.
“I made it out of there alive — one play I gave up a touchdown, on the pick route, but other than that I felt like I played pretty well,” he said.
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