Despite promise in second half, Arizona Cardinals grounded vs. San Francisco 49ers

Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon said although the effort was there, he needs to see more from his defensive line after 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy was sacked just once. (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

TEMPE – The Arizona Cardinals led at halftime in each of their first three games, but inconsistent play down the stretch produced a 1-2 record.

After falling behind by 18 Sunday at Levi’s Stadium, the Cardinals found themselves needing to flip that script to beat the San Francisco 49ers on the road. While the Cardinals rallied, it was too much to ask against a 49ers team that many consider a Super Bowl contender.

The 49ers immediately came out firing on all cylinders offensively and never looked back in a convincing 35-16 win that dropped Arizona to 1-3.

San Francisco moved to 4-0 and is now just one of two remaining undefeated teams in the NFL along with the Philadelphia Eagles (4-0). The 49ers generated 395 yards of total offense, with standout performances from star running back Christian McCaffrey and former Sun Devils wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

The two skill players combined for 325 yards from scrimmage, and McCaffrey scored three touchdowns on the ground and another on a catch.

An Arizona pass rush that was excellent in the first three games was neutralized in Northern California. Through the first three games, the Cardinals had 11 sacks but only mustered one sack of 49ers quarterback and Perry High School alum Brock Purdy, who completed 20 of 21 attempts for 283 yards and the touchdown to McCaffrey. He also ran for one score.

Related story

Purdy’s 95.2 completion percentage is a 49ers record, and Cardinals coach Jonathan Gannon felt he needed more from his defensive line.

“Collectively, coming out of the meetings today, they know, they’ve got to play a little bit better,” Gannon said. “A little bit cleaner. The effort is there, the motor is there. The pad level has to be a little bit better, we’ve got to put our hands on the right people all the time.”

Playing inside a clean pocket for much of the game, Purdy picked apart the Cardinals secondary, completing his first 13 passes. Protection also allowed Aiyuk to get free down the field on a number of occasions for a six-catch, 148-yard day.

Despite trailing big in the second quarter against a stout 49ers defense, the Cardinals fought back with a couple of impressive drives. Arizona quarterback Josh Dobbs led a 99-yard touchdown drive right before the break to cut the deficit to 21-10, and then cut the lead to five with 4:12 remaining in the third quarter on an 8-yard pass from Dobbs to Michael Wilson.

“We started off really slowly, but we built our confidence and picked it up in the second half,” Cardinals center Hjalte Froholdt. “We kind of got a feel for the game.”

Dobbs continued to play well in the absence of Kyler Murray, with a 68% completion percentage. The Tennessee product has completed over 70% of his passes in four starts and has not thrown an interception. His ability to succeed off-schedule makes him difficult to defend.

“(He) is doing a tremendous job of being a pocket passer when he needs to be,” said Cardinals center Hjalte Froholdt. “And whenever he needs to make some plays with his legs, he’s able to do that. He’s not a guy they expect to bounce it out constantly, so I think he kind of catches guys by surprise. Dobbs has done an absolutely tremendous job coming in here and taking charge of everybody.”

Center Hjalte Froholdt for Cardinals in front of mic

Arizona Cardinals center Hjalte Froholdt spoke highly of quarterback Josh Dobbs. “He’s not a guy they expect to bounce it out constantly, so I think he kind of catches guys by surprise.” (Photo by Reece Andrews/Cronkite News)

Arizona’s running game has been a major bright spot so far this season. The Cardinals, currently ranked sixth in the NFL in rushing offense with 574 yards, were productive against one of the best front sevens in the league. San Francisco allowed 159 yards on the ground combined in the first three games, but gave up 105 yards to the Cardinals Sunday.

“I think we had a good plan for what we wanted to do, how to attack the defense. You got to play physical with these guys,” Froholdt said. “It’s always good when you have a fast quarterback and an aggressive runner in (James)Connor, so we’re fortunate to have those guys in the backfield.”

After a great spell in the second and third quarters, Arizona’s offense went quiet again in the final period and was shut out the final 19:12 of regulation.

The 49ers took advantage, pulling away against a tired Cardinals defense. After the Cardinals cut the deficit to 21-16, San Francisco immediately responded with an eight-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped off with McCaffrey’s fourth touchdown of the game.

The fourth quarter hasn’t been kind to the Cardinals this season. Opponents have outscored them 44-7 in the fourth quarter, and Arizona has been shut out in the final period three times.

The Cardinals aim to flip the trend against a struggling but formidable 1-3 Cincinnati Bengals team Sunday at State Farm Stadium.

“I’m proud of our guys’ effort,” Gannon said. “I thought we kept fighting. We just got to play a little better to beat a good football team.”

Jordy Fee-Platt(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jordy Fee-Platt expects to graduate in December 2023 with a master’s degree. Fee-Platt has announced for Blaze Radio and Pac-12 Stream and covered Cactus High School for AzPreps365. He worked in the Northwoods League as the Duluth Huskies’ broadcaster.

Reece Andrews REES AN-drooz (he/him)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Reece Andrews expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Andrews has worked for the State Press and at WCSN. He has also been in Cronkite News Los Angeles.