Rapid reactions: Cardinals do enough to hold off pesky 49ers
Riding four big fourth-down stops and a few big plays by receiver DeAndre Hopkins, the Arizona Cardinals moved to 5-0 by defeating the San Francisco 49ers and first-time starting quarterback Trey Lance.
Here’s what Arizona Sports’ hosts and editors took from the win.
Luke Lapinski, co-host of Wolf & Luke: Well, that was ugly.
The 49ers wanted an ugly game, they managed to make it an ugly game, and the Cardinals still won the ugly game anyway. For the third time this season, this feels like one they probably wouldn’t have won the last few years. But they found a way, and they’re a resounding 5-0.
The five wins have all been pretty different too, which shows the kind of versatility you need if you want to make a run in January. And that’s definitely the way the Cardinals are looking at this season now. It’s not just the fact that they’re the only undefeated team in the NFL, it’s the fact they’re 2-0 in this gauntlet of a division. And today’s win drew a clear divide through the NFC West as well – the Cardinals and Rams are clearly at the top, the 49ers and Seahawks are both below .500, with injured quarterbacks.
For all the balance Arizona has shown this season, it was the big name players stepping up to make the pivotal plays today. DeAndre Hopkins wouldn’t be denied with the game on the line, making acrobatic catches look routine when they needed him most. Kyler Murray didn’t have his normal video game stats, but he hung in there despite being banged up, made plays when they mattered, and refused to turn the ball over.
JJ Watt had his best game as a Cardinal, James Conner picked up his fifth touchdown in the last three games, Budda Baker was everywhere and the Arizona defense slammed the door on San Francisco’s attempt to convert on fourth down… four separate times. I don’t really know why the 49ers felt compelled to go for it on fourth down so many times, but that’s their problem.
The downside is Arizona may have lost Maxx Williams for awhile. He’s a big part of what they’re doing, and the players reiterated that when they all ran across the field to see him as he was being carried off. And we don’t really know the status of Rodney Hudson yet either. They can’t afford to lose him.
The Cards found a way to grind this one out despite not having Byron Murphy or Marco Wilson in the secondary though, so they’ve already shown some resiliency. That might be tested next week, but it’s a little (okay, a lot) easier to get through the tough stretches when you start 5-0.
Dave Burns, co-host of Burns & Gambo: For about 2.5 quarters, this game resembled the spinning wheel of death you get on your smartphone. We waited … and waited for the Cardinals offense to download. Blame it on the 49ers’ pressure. Blame it on the awful injury to tight end Maxx Williams, for which Kyler Murray suggested took a toll on the Cards offense. But a funny thing happened on the way to a potential upset in the division. The Cardinals won a grinder of a game.
Zach Allen pointed out it was a chance for the Cards to prove they could win a gritty game and he’s right; they hadn’t really won a game like this in 2021. The Vikings game was the closest you’ll find but that was more shootout than street fight. And so while the defense was generously giving yards during portions of the game, that unit got nasty when necessary. The goal line stand was a portrait of physicality. Each fourth down stop more durable than the one before. Through it all, three players stood out to me.
Isaiah Simmons, for the price paid for that goal line stop. J.J. Watt, in what was easily his finest moment as a Cardinal. And DeAndre Hopkins for rescuing the Cardinals offense in the fourth quarter.
For the first time since 1974 the Cardinals are 5-0, a fact that they continue to insist doesn’t matter to them. But it’s hard to look the other way when two of those wins are against division rivals. Remember, Kliff Kingsbury came into this year with only three division wins in 12 tries. Maybe they can ignore that. And maybe they can work around the injuries to Williams and center Rodney Hudson.
For now, in all of its gritty, grindy glory, this team keeps finding new ways to win.
Tyler Drake, ArizonaSports.com Cardinals reporter and editor: Ugly victories are still pretty in the win-loss column. The Cardinals did quite a bit of bending but in the end didn’t break. Just when the defense looked to be caving, it would come up with a big stop, whether it was an early interception by Budda Baker or four of the five fourth-down stops the unit had throughout the night.
The offense turned in one of its worst showings of 2021 but instead of spinning the tires and letting a far less superior team take over, it turned to DeAndre Hopkins late to put the game out of reach. He answered with a touchdown grab over Josh Norman.
This team has answered the call every week so far. If last year’s Cardinals faced the same tests as Arizona has this year, that 5-0 record would look a whole lot different. In 2020, the Cardinals would have found a way to lose this game. Instead, they found a way to win.
The tide is undoubtedly turning in the desert.
Vince Marotta, co-host of Bickley & Marotta: It was a tough watch and, in many ways, a frustrating day for the Arizona Cardinals, but their 17-10 win over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday might be just what the doctor ordered.
For the first game this season, the offense didn’t click smoothly for the Cardinals. They had just over 300 yards of offense and put only 17 points on the board, but they proved they can win a physical, defensive style of game. The play of the game happened early when Isaiah Simmons stopped Trey Lance on the goal line to turn away the 49ers and preserve a seven-point lead in the second quarter. Simmons left and was evaluated for a concussion (he later returned) but his bodily sacrifice set the tone for the rest of the contest.
They won a game in which Kyler Murray wasn’t 100% health-wise and struggled against a San Francisco defense that had a good plan to slow down the league’s most electrifying quarterback. They won a game when they really couldn’t run the ball. And they won a game without two of their top two cornerbacks and two other important players — Maxx Williams and Rodney Hudson — left with injuries.
It was a gritty win against a division opponent and the Cardinals are 5-0 for the first time since 1974 — a pretty good place to be heading into a tough game on the road at Cleveland next week.
John Gambadoro, co-host of Burns & Gambo: The Cardinals’ high-powered offense was stuck in mud. It’s MVP candidate quarterback was flustered. There was not going to be a fifth consecutive game with 30 points. Heck, they didn’t even score 20. There was no 300-yard passing game for Kyler Murray — in fact his 238 passing yards was his lowest total this season. No running back rushed for even 50 yards and the 49ers defense held the rushing attack to just 3.4 yards per carry.
But there was another win, and the Arizona Cardinals are 5-0 for the first time since the “Steve Miller Band” sang The Joker, “Paper Lace” came out with the song The Night Chicago Died and “Wings” sang Band on the Run. That was all in 1974.
Arizona won because of its defense. Niners coach Kyle Shanahan figured his team with a rookie signal caller making his first start on the road would have to put up some points, so he was going for every fourth down that seemed reasonable. But they weren’t successful. The Cardinals defense stopped San Francisco on 4 of 5 fourth-down attempts, including one at the goal line in the first half with a vicious collision between Trey Lance, Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo. There was also a Zaven Collins stop of Lance a yard short on a 4th-and-2 run early in the first half.
There was a direct snap to Kyle Juszczyk on a 4th-and-1 at the Cardinals 49-yard line with 9:23 left in the game that Zach Allen snuffed out for no gain. And J.J. Watt, still with no sacks but having his best game as a Cardinal, tipping a 4th-and-4 pass with 7:53 left and Arizona clinging to a 10-7 lead. The Cardinals took over after that turnover on downs, and five plays later, DeAndre Hopkins put the game away with a nine-yard TD grab that followed his 30-yard reception on a Murray pass that was put up for grabs.
The Cardinals remain the lone unbeaten team in the NFL and they are now 2-0 in the division. They have a three-game lead over both Seattle and San Francisco. And now they can get back to work in finding out how the 49ers were able to shut down an offense that up until now no one could contend with.
Kellan Olson, ArizonaSports.com editor and reporter : The common sports phrase “doing enough to win” comes to mind with this one. Outside of Chase Edmonds’ fumble, the only thing the Cardinals did right was avoiding self-inflicted errors, which was just enough to beat a rookie quarterback in his first start.
Where I can give the Cardinals credit on that line of thinking is with the defense, where the huge goal line stand to stop a touchdown and a few other big plays were ultimately the difference. Zach Allen and J.J. Watt had huge games.
With that in mind, the 49ers showed that if a defense mostly does its job in coverage and keeps Kyler Murray from scrambling to run or buy time, Arizona needs to establish a run game to avoid being stifled offensively. Who knows how many defenses are capable of that, but the blueprint has been put on display and shown as possible to execute. Murray messing with his right arm is a worrying flashback to last year as well.
In the same game, the Cardinals could not have appeared more in rhythm offensively on their first drive, so it was a strange flow.
The biggest concern is obviously the run defense, which has now allowed teams to average at least five yards a carry in four straight games. Let’s check the schedule to see who is next … oh boy.
Ultimately, this is a good team that has a chance at being great if it can improve over the next couple of weeks to hit its stride in the second half instead of peaking too early (again). Let’s see how they do.
Kevin Zimmerman, ArizonaSports.com lead editor and reporter: There should be no raining on a 5-0 team’s parade. The Cardinals overcame a well-coached 49ers squad that had enough juice to at least move to ball.
Vance Joseph’s defense for Arizona, already in a predicament without starting cornerbacks Byron Murphy and Marco Wilson, bent but did not break. The fourth-down stops showed the limits of a predictable offense that kept its rookie quarterback from making too many mistakes. The defensive line that got beat up in the run game solidified as the game wore on, and the linemen and linebackers were active getting hands on Lance’s passes.
Yes, Arizona’s offense looked off as Murray showed skittishness in the pocket at times. But Murray and Kingsbury both made things right with the final scoring possession, targeting Hopkins and winding the clock to put San Francisco away.
But here’s where this gets weird: Losing Maxx Williams and Rodney Hudson for any amount of time puts GM Steve Keim’s roster-building in question. The Cardinals’ talent in free agency, trade and the draft has turned out better than anyone could have expected, but the depth was always what looked like it could sink the team.
That is still on the table until backups prove they can keep the winning going.