SANTA CLARA – Oh, how quickly expectations can change. The optimism surrounding the San Francisco 49ers at the start of the season has been abruptly snatched from the team, much like the two interceptions the Arizona Cardinals took off C.J. Beathard in the team’s 28-18 loss today.
Injuries have tagged the offense in a brutal fashion that is incomparable to any other team in the league. Jimmy Garoppolo, Jerick McKinnon, Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin – arguably the team’s top four offensive weapons – were all out injured coming into today, with Garoppolo and McKinnon obviously done for the year with torn ACLs.
Yet, in spite of those injuries, the 49ers were not so inept on offense today that they couldn’t move the ball down the field. The first drive was a blisteringly quick eight plays which featured three screen passes for 50 yards, capped off by a shovel pass touchdown to Matt Breida. But no matter what team you play – in this case, the NFL’s last remaining winless team in the Cardinals – turnovers are the sin which cannot be overcome past a certain point.
Immediately after that lightning bolt of an opening drive, the 49ers got sloppy. After a false start, Beathard tried to sling a ball to Pierre Garcon on a slant route over the middle. Garcon couldn’t secure the ball – a reoccurring theme in the game – and it careened off him into the hands of Cardinals safety Tre Boston.
It was just the first of five turnovers committed by the 49ers today. That opening interception preceded a fumble on the Arizona 39-yard-line by Raheem Mostert, normally a fourth-string running back. Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson scooped up the loose ball and returned it to the San Francisco 18-yard-line, which set up a second touchdown for Arizona. The 49ers offense sputtered for a while from there with three straight punts.
The first drive of the second half ended in a fumble by Beathard recovered by the Cardinals near midfield. The next drive finished with a missed field goal by Robbie Gould, who hadn’t missed in 33-straight tries. Still, a 49ers touchdown followed, leaving just a two-point deficit. Despite the almost comical inability by the 49ers to hold onto the ball, they were still very much in the game.
But on the ensuing drive, the game was fumbled away. That drive, in which even a field goal would have given the 49ers a lead, instead ended in a sack-fumble touchdown for the Cardinals.
Then, with the hope of a potential comeback hanging on by a thread, Beathard threw an easy interception to Cardinals’ cornerback Bene Benwikere around midfield. He returned it to the San Francisco 26-yard-line, which set up another Cardinals touchdown.
As star fullback Kyle Juszczyk said, “You look at every other stat, and it tells a different story than what the score was. Turnovers tells you the whole thing.”
Juszczyk is right. Five unanswered turnovers: it is the only statistic which matters. But what’s so devastating about those five turnovers is that they came in spite of a generally effective offensive performance while the 49ers were down to a barebones group of players.
Breida left the game in the first quarter with an ankle sprain, leaving just Alfred Morris and Mostert – neither of whom have a shred of Breida’s explosiveness – as the remaining tailbacks.
Even with that depleted lineup, the 49ers picked up 33 first downs to the Cardinals’ 10. The team more than doubled Arizona’s 220 yards with 447 of their own and almost tripled their rushing total (56 yards for Arizona, 147 for San Francisco). It was a historically bad turnover day when compared with the offensive output:
The 49ers are the first team in NFL history to pick up 30 first downs, hold their opponent to 10 or fewer first downs, and lose by double-digits.
After today, NFL teams are 46-4 all time when they pick up 30 first downs and hold their opponent to 10 or fewer.
— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) October 7, 2018
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said it’s essentially impossible to win with five turnovers and none in return.
“I haven’t been part of any game, I don’t think many people have, where five turnovers to zero leads to a win,” Shanahan said. “We have to improve that drastically to have a chance.”
It was not just that the 49ers turned the ball over five times, it was that lack of a defensive response. While the Cardinals had trouble moving the ball, the 49ers never forced a turnover. Cornerback Richard Sherman said that was a failed duty by the defense, which gave up an opening-play 75-yard touchdown.
Safety Adrian Colbert failed to back up cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon on that play, as wide receiver Christian Kirk caught a ball on a seam route and went nearly untouched into the end zone.
Sherman said the play and result were frustrating. While he commended the defense for limiting rookie quarterback Josh Rosen and the Cardinals’ offense, he stressed the need for defensive playmaking.
“We needed to make a play,” Sherman said. “It was one of those days that the defense needed to make a play and create a turnover. They had a young quarterback so they played it pretty conservatively.”
The All-Pro cornerback explained how the 49ers could create more takeaways and maligned a one-hop pass that Sherman nearly picked off.
“It’s rushing the passer,” Sherman said. “It’s any time you can take the ball from the quarterback, it’s just more strip attempts. It’s tighter coverage in the back end, being where you’re supposed to be.”
Shanahan said he was proud of his team’s effort with a depleted lineup. Still, the turnovers could not be excused.
“I thought our guys fought hard and gave us a chance to win the game,” Shanahan said. “But when you have five turnovers, that’s borderline impossible.”