PHOENIX – In the 2000 film “The Replacements,” a group of everyday men step in to take the place of professional football players on strike and lead the fictional Washington Sentinels to a playoff berth.
While there is no strike currently happening in the NFL, the Cardinals had to rely on their own replacements to throttle the 49ers Sunday at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco.
Quarterback Kyler Murray, a league MVP candidate, and wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green all were out due to injuries.
Still, Arizona (8-1) bounced back from their first loss of the season against Green Bay with a thorough 31-17 win over the 49ers (3-5).
Colt McCoy got his first start at quarterback since week 15 of the 2020 season, when he was a member of the New York Giants. He had big shoes to fill, figuratively if not literally, filling in for Murray, and played well, throwing for 249 yards and a touchdown.
For coach Kliff Kingsbury, it meant a lot that McCoy was able to play well in a big divisional game, but Kingsbury and McCoy’s teammates apparently knew he was more than capable.
“It was more behind the scenes, nobody got to really see what he can do,” Kingsbury said on Monday. “That was great to see his hard work and preparation pay off.”
On the ground, starting running back Chase Edmonds left with an ankle injury after being on the field for only one play. James Connor and former Arizona State standout Eno Benjamin stepped up in a big way in his place.
Connor ran for 96 yards and a pair of touchdowns and also added a receiving touchdown on a 45-yard screen pass.
Benjamin added 39 yards on the ground, including a physical 21-yard touchdown run that increased Arizona’s lead to 31-7 halfway through the third quarter. It was his first NFL career touchdown.
While Connor has had previous success in Pittsburgh, the San Francisco game was Benjamin’s first opportunity to play a significant number of snaps. He did not play in 2020 after being drafted in the seventh round, and he only had two carries in 2021 heading into Sunday.
Kingsbury has been impressed with Benjamin’s progress.
“Just how far he’s come, on and off the field,” Kingsbury told Darren Urban of azcardinals.com. “Any time he touches the ball he has a chance to do something special. I think everyone is really proud of the progress he’s made.”
With Edmonds out for an extended time, both Connor and Benjamin should see more touches and production in the coming weeks.
On the defensive side of the ball, the front seven made 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo uncomfortable throughout the contest. The Cardinals sacked him five times, and Arizona safety Budda Baker intercepted him late in the fourth to ice the victory.
Outside linebacker Markus Golden led the way with three sacks and now has nine sacks for the season. Since he came back to the Cardinals in a trade with the Giants last October, Golden has developed into a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
“He’s been tremendous,” Kingsbury said of Golden. “The intensity he brings to practice, the focus, the energy… To see the results he’s having, it doesn’t surprise me at all. It’s awesome to see, and I think he’ll just continue to get better.
Murray’s status for Sunday’s matchup against Carolina remains up in the air. Kingsbury said that the team will assess his progress throughout the week before making a decision.