San Francisco 49ers defenders can only watch Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) take off down field during second half action Sun Nov 7, 2021 game at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara (AP News photo)
by Marko Ukalovic
SANTA CLARA, Calif.—Superstars injured?? Nothing to worry about for the team from the desert.
The Arizona Cardinals used the next man up mantra and it payed off well for them in their 31-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
San Francisco have lost five of its last six games. Arizona got back in the win column after losing their first game of the season last week against Green Bay. They are perfect on the road so far at 5-0 and have a half game lead on the Los Angeles Rams in the NFC West division.
The Cardinals were without their two best players on offense, quarterback Kyler Murray (ankle injury) and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (hamstring injury).
Arizona lost their starting running back Chase Edmonds on the first offensive series. James Connor rose to the occasion and one of the best game of his career.
Connor finished the game with 96 yards on 21 rushes and two touchdowns. He also chipped in with five receptions for 77 yards and one touchdown, a 50 yard screen pass that had him run past multiple 49ers defenders. The three touchdown game was a career best for Connor.
Replacing Murray at quarterback for Arizona (8-1) was backup quarterback Colt McCoy, who made his first start of the season.
McCoy looked comfortable throughout the game running head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense as he completed 22 passes on 26 attempts to finish with 249 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
“No we had everything in,” said Kingsbury if he needed to simply the offense to prepare for McCoy’s first start. “We ramped it up. He does a great job of communicating with me on what he likes, what he doesn’t like so it was a full array out there.”
San Francisco (3-5) had a rough day overall as their defense weren’t able to stop the run and make key stops on third downs that allowed to Arizona’s offense to keep drives alive.
Offensively it wasn’t much better as they had two fumbles in the first half that killed promising drives as they tried to keep pace with the Cardinals.
“We didn’t stop the run and we didn’t stop those screens,” said 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. “When you’re giving up some explosive screens and all of that free yardage, it doesn’t matter who was playing quarterback. We made it extremely easy on them.”
The 49ers welcome back their all-pro tight end George Kittle after he missed the past three games due to an calf injury. Kittle, who had one of the fumbles in the first half, was one of the few offensive bright spots for San Francisco. He led the Niners in receiving with six catches for 101 yards and one touchdown, a six yarder with 16 seconds left before halftime to get the home team on the board.
Connor scored the first of his two rushing touchdowns in the first quarter to get Arizona on the board. He capped off a nine play 57 yard drive with an 13 yard rushing touchdown on a sweep right that left him untouched on his way to the endzone.
The Cardinals finished the first quarter with its second touchdown of the game when they went 80 yards on eight plays that Connor finished off with a one-yard run up the middled for his second rushing touchdown on the afternoon.
The drive was allowed to continue thanks to a controversial 15-yard personal foul penalty on 49ers defensive lineman Arik Armstead that was called for grabbing the inside of McCoy’s helmet. It set up Christian Kirk’s 34 yard end around pass to Antoine Wesley at the one yard line.
This is a solid team,” said Connor. “When the stars go down, other players got to step up. That is what this team did tonight. I tried to manifest that. I just tried to picture myself having a big game and it happened.”
San Francisco cut Arizona’s lead to 17-7 when quarterback Jimmy Garopollo connected with Kittle just before halftime. That would be the closet the 49ers would get to the Cardinals.
Arizona put the game away in the second half as they scored on its first two possessions. They only needed three plays on their opening drive of the second half that was capped off with McCoy throwing a screen pass to Connor who found a seam with a cutback to the middle of the field and found paydirt 45 yards later for a 24-7 lead.
The Cardinals went up 31-7 with just over eight minutes left in the third quarter when Eno Benjamin rushed for a 21 yard touchdown to finish off a seven play 71 yard drive.
“It’s pretty embarrassing and it’s unacceptable,” said 49ers middle linebacker Fred Warner on his team’s poor defensive showing.
Arizona’s defense was the unsung hero of the game. They pressured Garopollo numerous times and ended up sacking him five times. They also held the 49ers rushing attack to just 41 yards on 11 carries turning San Francisco into a one-dimensional offense.
“That was the goal, to get out and stop the run,” said Cardinals outside linebacker Markus Golden, who had three of the team’s five sacks. “We knew it was going to be a nasty game, and we wanted to come out and get a little nastier than them early and make them switch up their game plan. Once the quarterback dropped back, we feel like we can get after any quarterback.”
Garoppolo had a subpar game despite finishing 28 of 40 for 326 yards with one touchdown and and one interception. The Cardinals constant pressure forced Garopollo to over throw ball on many occasions during the game. Arizona’s defense also made Garoppolo uncomfortable in the pocket which resulted in rushed decisions and the disrupting the timing on routes.
“I mean slow start,” said Garopollo. “I think that put us behind the eight ball from the get go. And just throughout the game, there’s just a little mess ups here and there that the turnovers killed us. Just little things like that.”
San Francisco made the score look somewhat respectable scoring the last 10 points of the game with a 11 yard touchdown reception by Brandon Aiyuk and a Robbie Gould 26 yard field goal but it was too little too late for the home team that is 1-8 at Levi’s Stadium in its past two seasons.
“Our crowd deserves it though because they’re out there screaming, yelling. They get loud for us, the faithful. And so we’ve got to play better for them,” Garoppolo said.
Aiyuk had his best game of the season for San Francisco catching six passes for 89 yards and one touchdown. Elijah Mitchell had just 36 rushing yards on only eight carries.
Kirk led Arizona in receiving with six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. Jordan Hicks recovered both fumbles and finished tied for the lead in tackles with six for the Cardinals.
UP NEXT: San Francisco hosts the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football on 11/15 at 5:15pm at Levi’s Stadium.