Main takeaways from Cardinals’ lopsided loss to 49ers in Week 15
Dec 17, 2023, 7:48 PM | Updated: Dec 18, 2023, 10:16 am
(Felisa Cardenas/Arizona Sports)
GLENDALE — The Arizona Cardinals tried to go toe-to-toe with the NFC-leading San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
And for about two quarters of play, Arizona hung around with the Super Bowl favorites.
The end result, though, showed anything but in a lopsided 45-29 defeat at State Farm Stadium. It could have looked a lot worse had it not been for a late Arizona touchdown, too.
A look at what went right and what went wrong for the Cardinals in their 11th loss of the season:
Cardinals offense follows the formula
Arizona’s last game before the bye was arguably its most complete offensively since quarterback Kyler Murray’s return to the field post-ACL tear thanks in large part to the run game getting established from the jump.
That was the case on Sunday against a 49ers defense that entered the matchup as a top-five unit against the run.
But instead of getting stuffed behind the line early and often, the Cardinals stuffed the stat sheet behind 234 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries.
The ground-and-pound approach was led by none other than James Conner. The starter didn’t see the 20-plus carries he saw two weeks prior in Pittsburgh but still managed to put up 86 yards and a score on 14 carries.
Emari Demercado added another score of the 49-yard variety, while Michael Carter and Murray made the most of the handful of carries that came their way.
So why didn’t the result mirror Week 13?
Turnovers kill the Cardinals
There are a few answers to that question. The easy one is San Francisco is a far superior team that has mostly been together for a while now under head coach Kyle Shanahan. They are the gold standard (no pun intended).
But what really impacted the outcome in Sunday’s tilt was the lack of ball security by Murray and the Cardinals.
The quarterback’s pick-six to Charvarius Ward in the first quarter on fourth-and-3 was the ultimate momentum killer and an early turning point in this one after trading opening-drive blows.
“It’s on me. It’s on me,” Murray said of the pick. “We’ve got to be better. I’ve got to be better.”
From that point on, the Cardinals never led again.
Murray tossed one more interception to Ward in the fourth quarter with the game pretty much out of reach. He also lost the handle on the football twice but recovered both of his fumbles.
Murray was far from the only one with butterfingers, with Rondale Moore, Trey McBride and Clayton Tune all putting the ball on the turf on Sunday.
And while Arizona jumped on each and every fumble, it was unable to make up for the lost yardage.
The best example of that was late in the third quarter when Arizona was threatening deep in San Francisco territory.
Looking to make it a one-score game with a touchdown and staring at second-and-goal, Murray put the ball on the ground while trying to hand off to Conner, pushing Arizona back into no-man’s-land at the nine-yard line.
The Cardinals failed to find paydirt and instead settled for a Matt Prater field goal that kept the 49ers’ lead at two scores.
Turning the ball over — or simply losing the handle — never helps. Doing so against a juggernaut like San Francisco is a death sentence.
“We’ve got to take care of the ball,” Murray said. “That’s something that’s a losing and winning stat. They didn’t turn the ball over today. We did. Usually, it turns out you’re going to lose if you lose that stat.”
Trey McBride, record breaker
The magical season of McBride continues in 2023.
The second-year pro continued his breakout year Sunday behind 10 catches on 11 targets for 102 yards.
Once again, he paced all Cardinals pass catchers.
And once again, he walked out of State Farm Stadium with his name etched in the franchise record books.
“He’s just getting better each and every week,” Murray said. “I say it every week. The more he plays, the more confident he gets, and the swag and the juice from him just continue to grow. I think there’s still things that me and him can be better at. Like today, we had the opportunity to make a play (and) we didn’t, the interception that (went) the other way.
“But those are little things that, as we play together more, those things happen and we’ll fix them.”
McBride entered the matchup needing one reception to surpass Zach Ertz and Jackie Smith for the single-season record for catches by a tight end in franchise history with 57.
He left with nine more than he needed to reach the honor.
McBride didn’t stop there, either, becoming the first Cardinals tight end since Smith in 1968 to post at least 700 yards in a single season.
And to think he only had 62 yards on six catches through the first four games.
The records are meaningful to McBride, but they’re for naught when the scoreboard reads what it did on Sunday.
“That’s really cool,” McBride said of the honor. “There’s a lot of great tight ends that have played in this organization. To be right up there with those guys and to break that record in this game is very cool. It’s very special to me to have a record like that on a national football team.
“That’s a huge honor, but that’s not what I’m focused on. I can care less about that, truthfully. I just want to win.”
Cardinals wide receivers underproducing
Seeing McBride come into his own is a welcome sight for the franchise and its fans.
Want to know what’s not?
The disparity in production between Cardinals tight ends and receivers.
As a team, Arizona’s three tight ends finished with 15 catches for 172 yards and a touchdown.
On the flip side, the four Cardinals WRs to record at least three targets finished with a combined four grabs for 20 yards, one fewer yard than the trio of RBs put up as pass catchers.
Just like when tight ends accounted for eight of Murray’s 11 completions in Week 13, it was clear where the ball was going more times than not on Sunday.
McBride’s emergence paired with injuries to Hollywood Brown and Michael Wilson have certainly had an impact, but those numbers have to be greater if the Cardinals want to push the field — and the offensive envelope — moving forward.
“I feel it, too. I don’t know. I keep trying to find ways to get those guys the ball,” Murray said about the WRs room. “We’ve got to go back and that’s something that I can be better about. As an offense, find ways to get those guys the ball, because I know it’s frustrating. Hell, I’m frustrated for them. I’m not used to that, so we’ll be better.”
Cardinals showed no quit
With the score well out of reach, it wouldn’t have been out of the ordinary to see Gannon sub out his starters or for his players to start looking ahead to next week.
Instead, the Cardinals hung in for a full 60 minutes, a now-constant characteristic for the Gannon-led squad.
“I know the leadership in that locker room,” Gannon said. “I know the want-to. I know their will. That was evident to me. We didn’t lay down at the end of the game. The game is out of reach and we go down and score. I actually was very pleased about that, because there’s a point where you could say, ‘Let’s pull everybody and let the other guys go.’ No way. They weren’t coming out of the game, either.
“That’s what we need to keep doing to give ourselves a chance to win. That has to be consistent. It’s the NFL, it’s a big boy league. You have to bring it every week. I think our guys do. From a coaching perspective, we have to help them out. Keep coaching the details, keep setting up good plans, keep coaching our (expletives) off in practice every day. We’ll give it a go again next week.”