Cardinals base defense stands up against 49ers run game
GLENDALE, Ariz. — In their first meeting this season, the Arizona Cardinals needed five forced turnovers to beat the lowly San Francisco 49ers.
Their second game against the NFC West foe went quite differently, albeit with the same result: a win.
Arizona (2-6) lost the turnover battle 2-0, but a steady defensive effort that started with a switch to a base 4-3 look stymied the NFL’s third-best rushing attack that entered Sunday averaging 5.0 yards per carry.
“I thought the run defense looked well,” head coach Steve Wilks said. “I thought we did a pretty good job of stopping the run today.”
In the Cardinals’ 18-15 comeback win at State Farm Stadium, San Francisco averaged 3.5 yards per carry as Arizona regularly deployed a trio of linebackers: Haason Reddick, Josh Bynes and Deone Bucannon, the last of whom hasn’t played regularly or recorded a tackle dating back a month.
“You just feel it. When everybody is making those plays and just everybody was flying around, that’s the type of defense we’re about,” Bucannon said after recording five tackles. “Everybody feeding off each other, we’re having the offense’s back, the offense having our back. That’s football.
“Whatever my role is, I’m going to be the same. I’m here to play football.”
The move to a three-linebacker look was partially to match up against a run-heavy team.
But it also came as safety Tre Boston sat out for the second game in a row.
So the Cardinals shifted nickel corner Budda Baker to deep safety on first and second downs for most of the night. He moved into the box on the majority of third-down plays, while starting corner Bene Benwikere slid to safety and backup corner Jamar Taylor took over the second cornerback position.
“We just wanted to mix it up a little bit,” Wilks said of the personnel changes. “When you play a team twice, you want to try to show them something different. We wanted to go with base because of they were trying to do with 21 personnel.”
The success up front also came as veteran tackle Corey Peters sat out due to an ankle injury, leaving Robert Nkemdiche and Rodney Gunter to do the work inside. They got help from Markus Golden, the defensive end who put together his best game (seven tackles, 1.0 sack, two tackles for loss) since returning from a torn ACL.
The 49ers recorded a total net of 61 yards but led 5-3 at half, scoring in the first quarter on a safety when Arizona quarterback Josh Rosen was flagged for intentional grounding in the Cardinals’ own end zone. San Francisco added a field goal in the second quarter that was set up by a Rosen interception deep in Arizona territory.
The only defensive breakdown for the Cardinals came when Niners receiver Marquise Goodwin separated from Patrick Peterson on a slant and took it 55 yards for a score. That made it a 12-3 San Francisco lead with six minutes left in the third quarter, seemingly putting enough of a buffer between San Francisco and an opponent with an equally lifeless offense.
But while the Arizona offense surprisingly came to life, the defense kept showing up.
On the 49ers’ next possession, they drove 73 yards but stalled a few plays into the fourth quarter. A quarterback sneak on 3rd-and-6 from the Arizona 6-yard line was snuffed out by safety Antoine Bethea, who had missed part of the drive after suffering a stinger. He tackled quarterback C.J. Beathard at the 2-yard line, forcing a 20-yard field goal that made it 15-3 with 13:33 to go.
The play proved pivotal.
On the next Niners possession, Peterson broke up a deep shot as Beathard attempted to connect with Goodwin on a post route. And after an Arizona drive ended with five minutes left when tight end Jermaine Gresham fumbled in San Francisco territory, the Cardinals defense got off the field in five plays to give the offense one more touch with 2:16 left.
That was enough for Rosen to lead the offense on a 73-yard touchdown drive in just 1:42 for the lead, leaving just 34 seconds left on the clock.
“We know we’ve been capable of playing this style of ball,” Bethea said.
“That was one of our emphasis on Thursday, two-minute. Defense getting off the field, offense going in there, getting in the end zone.”