The 49ers lost to the visiting Arizona Cardinals, 28-18, Sunday afternoon. San Francisco now sits at 1-4 on the season.
Here are five thoughts from the defeat.
The 49ers lost their most winnable game of the season
This had all the hallmarks of a bounce-back win. The Cardinals entered Sunday as the only winless team in the NFL. They trotted out a rookie quarterback, Josh Rosen, who made his second professional start. Similar to the 49ers, the Cardinals have some young talent, and David Johnson is one of the top running backs in the league. But Sunday was the most winnable game remaining on San Francisco’s schedule, with the possible exception to its Week 17 matchup at Los Angeles. If the undefeated Rams continue this dominant pace, they will have secured playoff home field advantage by the final week, and they’d likely play their backups against San Francisco.
The 49ers needed to win Sunday’s game to preserve hope for a winning season.
In Week 6, they visit Green Bay. The 49ers have lost all three of their away games in 2018. For a young team to emerge with a win in that environment, against Aaron Rodgers and company, seems unlikely. In Week 7, the 49ers host the Rams. A win would be a massive upset.
If the 49ers lose in consecutive weeks, they will welcome the Oakland Raiders in Week 8 as a 1-6 team. That will officially divert all playoff hopes to 2019, when a healthy Garoppolo returns and another top draft pick awaits.
Meaningful injuries piling up
The injury bug had already bitten the 49ers in a serious way throughout the first five weeks of the season. They entered Sunday without their franchise quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo), starting running back (Jerick McKinnon), and two receivers at the “X” position (Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis).
You can add Matt Breida — the NFL’s third-leading rusher entering Week 5— to that list. Breida sprained his left ankle on a run during San Francisco’s fourth drive of the game. He limped off the field with help from the training staff, and he did not return.
The 49ers have endured a ridiculous bout of misfortune throughout the season’s opening five games. For a couple drives Sunday, Pierre Garcon was injured with a shoulder injury, but he returned, giving the 49ers some sort of name recognition among their skill players.
They had to rely on rookies, second-year players, and free agent pickups for offensive production. It did not happen.
The offense struggled after Breida left
The first drive of the game featured prime Kyle Shanahan: savvy misdirection with a healthy blend of runs and throws. The 49ers ran three screen plays to their backfield during the drive, which resulted in 50 yards. Breida ran in a five-yard touchdown to give the 49ers the 6-0 lead after the point after attempt was unsuccessful.
San Francisco hardly looked like the same team thereafter. It’s fitting that the 49ers squandered their fourth offensive drive with a lost fumble shortly after Breida left the game.
On the ensuing six first-half drives, the 49ers produced 89 yards. The biggest issue lay in the talent drop-off with all of San Francisco’s top options unavailable. The receivers didn’t get open. Alfred Morris tumbled forward for a few yards at a time, clearly lacking Breida’s burst. C.J. Beathard didn’t facilitate much on his own, with a good chunk of his production coming on screen plays. He did, however, throw for a career-high 348 yards, the majority of which came when the 49ers played from behind in the second half.
On San Francisco’s first drive of the second half, Cardinals defensive end Chandler Jones beat Joe Staley and stripped Beathard. The 49ers moved the ball well on the following two drives, the first of which resulted in a Robbie Gould missed field goal, his first in his past 34 attempts. The second resulted in a touchdown. George Kittle ripped a 45-yard gain on a screen play, and the 49ers moved the ball to the Arizona goal line. On fourth down, Beathard found Trent Taylor in the end zone. On the two-point attempt, Jones batted the pass down, and the Cardinals clung to a two-point lead.
The 49ers forced a stop on the next Cardinals drive. But Beathard fumbled two plays later, the Cardinals recovered, and ran it back for a touchdown. They added another touchdown following Beathard’s second interception for good measure. The 49ers scored late on a Beathard run, but the two-point conversion to Kittle failed. That was the game.
Production-wise, the 49ers crushed the Cardinals. But the 5-0 turnover margin cost the 49ers.
The defense responded after worst-case start
The ’28’ on the scoreboard doesn’t accurately reflect Arizona’s offensive success or San Francisco’s defensive failures.
Things picked up for the 49ers after an abysmal start. The Cardinals scored on their first offensive play —a 75-yard touchdown pass to Christian Kirk. Ahkello Witherspoon was in coverage, but he played Kirk’s route as if to expect safety help from Adrian Colbert. But Colbert horribly misjudged the play, biting on Kirk’s route rather than staying over the top. Rosen put a perfect throw on Kirk for the score.
For the following 53 minutes, however, the 49ers defense was clamped down. The Cardinals scored on the drive following Raheem Mostert’s fumble in the second quarter. The only time the Arizona offense scored again was late in the fourth quarter when the Cardinals took the ball at the 49ers’ 25-yard line.
With some help from dropped passes and missed throws, the 49ers defense rebounded nicely. They bottled up Johnson, Arizona’s best offensive player, for 55 yards on 18 carries.
The rebuild is in full effect
49ers fans are ready for the rebuilding stages to turn into results. Mostly uncontrollable circumstances have prevented that from happening in 2018.
Garoppolo’s injury deemed this season as another building block to eventual success. The flood of injuries that followed have made things challenging on a young, inexperienced team that was probably a year or two away from the playoffs regardless. There are just 12 49ers players from the 2016 team still intact, which is important to remember. Even though the record may not reflect it, the talent on this roster has improved from 2017, adding a shutdown corner in Richard Sherman and revamping an offensive line that has been terrific in run-blocking this year.
There aren’t many positives to extract from the current situation, aside from the comfort of a potential top draft pick.