Dealing Cards: Arizona finds nowhere to run against NFL’s worst run defense
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The San Francisco 49ers entered the game with the NFL’s worst run defense, as they allowed an average of 193 yards per game on the ground.
And since holding Todd Gurley to just 47 yards in Week 1, the 49ers had allowed a 100-yard rusher in seven straight games.
So of course David Johnson, who was one of the league’s leading rushers, gained just 55 yards on 19 attempts in Sunday’s 23-20 Arizona win.
“Oh yeah — hell yeah,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said when asked if he knew Johnson would find it tough to run Sunday. “There was never a doubt. And, we didn’t block it very well at times. But, he needs to stick it up in there and quit bouncing outside and putting guys in jeopardy of holding penalties and losing yardage.
“A two-yard gain is better than a one-yard loss or a 10-yard holding penalty, when you get frustrated and you try to make big plays.”
Johnson’s longest run of the day was an 18-yard touchdown scamper around the left edge, in which he raced to the pylon before diving in. Other than that, he was bottled up pretty regularly, to the point where the Cardinals seemed to just give up on trying to run the football at times.
Part of the struggles, as Arians said, can be pinned on Johnson not playing up to par. However, the 49ers also deserve some credit, as they seemingly went into the game determined to not let the second-year runner beat them.
“I think our guys were where they were supposed to be,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. “I think we had the right fits. Guys battle, we were lined up right. I think our guys did a nice battle in how to defend certain things that Arizona was doing and putting guys in position.”
The way the Cardinals saw it, the 49ers were loading the box and daring them to throw, which they did with a considerable amount of success. For Johnson, who has been the focal point of the team’s offensive attack of late, it was a departure from the norm.
“I think they were really determined to stop the run — that was their biggest thing, and I could tell it just because every time I ran the ball, they were yelling at each other,” Johnson said. “That was what their weakness was, so they were focusing on that. But our offense, our offensive line, our receivers, our tight ends did a good job of changing it up.”
Johnson said from his very first run, the 49ers were vocal about being sure to stop him, and for the most part, they succeeded. He still managed to top 100 yards from scrimmage by adding 46 receiving yards on five catches, thereby extending his streak of such games to nine. It is the longest active streak in the NFL and the longest in franchise history.
However, if more teams approach the Cardinals like the 49ers did, he may find it difficult to extend it much further. The new reality is that as Johnson has ascended to the role of offensive focal point, he has since become the No. 1 priority for defenses to stop.
“It’s going to be years of that for him to come, he might as well get used to it,” receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “Teams are going to try and take him away because he’s our bell cow, he’s going to make the big plays.”
It’s unfamiliar territory for Johnson, who has taken the league by storm since being inserted into the starting lineup in the middle of last season.
“That’s something I’m going to have to get used to, and with the help of all the guys around me, it definitely won’t take long,” Johnson said.
“You get what you can get,” guard Earl Watford said. “You get what they give you. You’ve got to make adjustments; that’s the league, you’ve got to adjust to what throw at you.”
If defenses continue to load up the box, they will in a way be playing right into the Cardinals’ hands. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald noted that at their heart, the Cardinals are a team that likes to throw the football. But with a runner as talented as Johnson, it makes sense to “continue to feed him.”
If the passing game is what’s there, defenses have to pick their poison.
“That’s the goal offensively every week,” Cardinals QB Carson Palmer said. “That’s the chess game between coordinators and obviously between offense and defense. They did a really good job today and played really stout up front. We made plays when we needed to.”
Fitzgerald is banged up but still comes through
It’s really not surprising when Larry Fitzgerald makes big catches.
It also probably will not come as a shock that the veteran receiver had a big day Sunday, as even though Arizona’s offense has sputtered this season, No. 11 has been consistently good.
However, what may raise some eyebrows is that Fitzgerald’s 12-catch, 133-yard performance represented his first 100-yard game of the season.
“I wish I could have done it on less targets,” he said. “You give me 18 targets in 2006, I might have had 200 yards.
“It’s nice to be involved. Coach believes in me and it’s great to have that kind of trust. Carson (Palmer) comes to me in opportune moments and it’s great to have that kind of trust. I just want to do everything I can to continue to have those guys’ trust in me and my teammates who believe in me. That’s something that you pride yourself on.”
49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward, who was victimized by Fitzgerald for much of the day, said it was fun going against the star.
“That is a legend,” he said. “I look forward to playing him. He ended up giving me his jersey and he wrote something on it for me. I like playing against competition. There are not too many words to say but legend. He is great and is one of the greatest.”
Ward is not the only one who has run out of superlatives for Fitzgerald, and all Palmer could say is that his receiver consistently makes plays.
Sunday, he dove for some catches and also picked up a first down while reaching for the marker. He was a reliable target once again, and produced in an effective if not flashy manner. Fitzgerald, who has been playing through ankle and knee injuries, left the field at the end of the second quarter after a tough hit but was back and ready to go in the third.
“Well he’s the old man on the team, and he’s going to gut it out for us week in and week out,” receiver Michael Floyd said. “That’s what he’s been doing for his whole career and we know the plays that he can make. It’s hard to keep him down, so I’m glad that we’ve got a player like him on our team.”
But will they have him going forward?
Ward said Fitzgerald told him “he ended up tearing something” during the game and Fitzgerald, who admitted after the game that he was sore, said he’s been better.
“I’m good enough to go,” he said. “This is Week 9 in the National Football League, everybody is dealing with something. You tape it up. We have the best trainer in the National Football League in Tom Reed. He’ll have me ready for Sunday.”
Quick hits on Carson Palmer
– Palmer was sacked twice Sunday, bringing the season total to 26 in eight games. He was sacked just 25 times in 16 games last season. So, what’s the problem?
“Me not getting the ball out fast,” he said. “We’ve lost our starting left tackle, starting right guard. We’ve had a lot of shake ups. We’ve had guys play guard and tackle. That’s going to happen when something like that happens. We’ll continue to clean those things up.”
– Speaking of Palmer, the quarterback completed 30-of-49 passes for 376 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, though one of the picks came after a well-thrown ball bounced off receiver J.J. Nelson. Palmer also lost a fumble in the red zone after holding the ball for too long before getting sacked.
“I thought he had a solid game other than taking that sack,” Arians said. “The two sacks in the red zone. There are probably three plays that I would say. Other than that, he throws for three-something and lights it up.”
As for the interception that didn’t bounce off of Nelson but instead was thrown right to 49ers linebacker Gerald Hodges?
“I just should have gotten more air on it and got it over the top of him,” Palmer said. “I probably shouldn’t have gone over there. I should have gone over to the other side of the field.”