The Arizona Cardinals had the opportunity in a home prime-time game to not only rejuvenate their season, but also to rejuvenate an NFC West division that has reverted to type in recent weeks after a wide open start to the season. Entering the game losing three on the bounce, and with fellow NFC West teams in Seattle and St Louis now sporting two and three game losing streaks respectively, this game was pivotal for Arizona to arrest their slide and halt the momentum of the San Francisco 49ers toward a second straight NFC West title.
While the 49ers comfortable victory did not clinch the NFC West it could prove to be a key landmark in identifying the class of the division. San Francisco are now trending upwards and pulling clear of the rest of the pack, who between them have lost their past nine games. It didn’t even take the 49ers’ best performance of the season on either side of the ball to claim this crucial victory — just clinical efficiency and not giving the Cardinals a helping hand toward staying in the game.
After such a promising start the Cardinals are now in freefall, and those playoff contenders at 4-0 are now in danger of plummeting out of the playoff race entirely as we head into the second half of the season. Here are some of the notable performances that maintained the status quo in the NFC West.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Facing off with D’Anthony Batiste has proven to be a boost to even the most out of form pass rushers this season, so it was inevitable that Aldon Smith would put up one of his most productive games of the season this week. Smith did just that registering seven pressures, just short of a season high, and five stops en route to his highest pass rushing grade (+3.3) of the season. Now playing a full-time starting role in the 49ers’ defense, Smith has lacked a little bit of the explosive impact on games this season but it would be difficult to say that his all-around game hasn’t been impressive. Managing expectations is an important facet of tracking a young player’s development, and that Smith is still capable of destructive games like this when matchups are favorable while maintaining a steady baseline of performance has to be encouraging for the 49ers moving forward.
Young Ball Hawks
While Carlos Rogers stole many column inches last season with his improved play in San Francisco after years of inconsistent play in Washington, it is the 49ers’ other two corners in their nickel defense that shone this week. Building upon solid seasons to date, both Chris Culliver (+3.8) and Tarell Brown (+5.1) recorded the highest single-game grades of their careers as they got their hands to an astonishing eight passes combined, with Culliver collecting one interception and Brown five pass defenses. Between them they allowed only five completions on 19 targets for a miserly 43 receiving yards; allowing a combined QB rating of 17.6 to John Skelton on these throws. Brown’s five pass defenses were as many as he had recorded in his prior 16 games dating back to the Cardinals’ visit to San Francisco in Week 11 of last season.
Completing 18 of 19 targeted passes for 232 yards and three scores — you can’t get much more efficient than that, and there was a time when San Francisco 49er fans would never have dreamed that Alex Smith would be capable of such brutal efficiency. The 49ers sent nothing deep in this game at all, with everything being targeted within 19 yards of the line of scrimmage. Two of the 49ers’ more maligned receivers came through with their biggest and decisive plays as Michael Crabtree twice got the better of Patrick Peterson for scores, and Randy Moss showed the sort of skills after the catch that we haven’t seen from him for some time. This was one of the stronger defenses in the league that simply couldn’t get close the 49ers’ passing game, and when this passing game clicks like this there will be very few teams that can stay with such a complete team as the 49ers proved themselves to be this week.
Arizona – Three Performances of Note
Good But Not Good Enough
Prior to the game, Darnell Dockett was quoted as saying that for the Cardinals to win their defensive line had to play a great game. In all honesty he was probably right, and while the Cardinals’ defensive line did probably the best job we have seen against the 49ers’ offensive line all season, it still wasn’t good enough to really put pressure on the 49ers’ offense to force the turnovers that would have been necessary to give them any chance of victory. Dockett himself played an important part in ensuring that 49er RG Alex Boone (-2.6) had his worst game of the season, as he collected a sack against the impressive first-year starter late in the third quarter. The Cardinals’ star studded defensive end pairing collected a combined 10 defensive stops, including one sack each, with Calais Campbell (+2.3) looking particularly impressive with his five stops in run defense. However, with the lack of pass rush from the outside limiting what the Cardinals’ defensive line could do against such a powerful unit, they simply couldn’t come up with the telling display that Dockett highlighted as being so crucial to their chances of victory.
Out of Balance
The San Francisco 49ers have, arguably, the league’s best run defense, but you still have to run the ball to keep them honest and stop their pass defense from simply pinning its ears back. The Cardinals failed to do that and their passing game suffered as a result. Pass rushers got a free run at the Cardinals’ outmatched pass protectors and the 49ers’ defensive backs were able to play the pass with no reason to fear being caught out of position against a run that was never going to come to them. Such an imbalance in your play-calling is inexcusable and it says something of the modicum of credit the Cardinals’ pass protectors deserve that they allowed John Skelton to be pressured on ‘only’ 19 of his 57 drop-backs. This is better than the Cardinals’ season average, which is north of 40% and, almost, average. In fact, lost in another poor game from D’Anthony Batiste was the second positive pass protection grade of the season for Bobby Massie.
Washington Plugs Away
The strength of the Cardinals’ interior defense is not simply reserved for the defensive end position, as Daryl Washington once again showed up with a fine display at inside linebacker. Bouncing back from his first really poor display of the season in Minnesota last week, a performance which included three missed tackles, Washington did everything he could to patrol the heart of the Cardinals’ defense almost single-handedly. He grabbed a pair of sacks for the second week in a row and added another stop in run defense. Washington also drew a holding penalty from Garrett Celek in the first quarter, putting the 49ers into a long-yardage situation — which, of course, they converted, but the inside linebacker was at least doing his part. The Cardinals’ defense is on the brink of brilliance but for certain performers in close proximity letting others down. Players like Paris Lenon next to Washington and William Gay opposite Patrick Peterson, are holding them back from becoming a truly elite unit.
– The only incompletion that Alex Smith threw in this game was a dropped pass by Delanie Walker. This gave Smith an accuracy percentage for this game of 100%.
– But for a shotgun run (11 yards) against a 49er defense playing prevent to end the first half, the Cardinals would have recorded negative rushing yardage in this game.
– John Skelton had a higher QB rating under pressure (82.1) than when the 49ers failed to get pressure on him (63.6).
PFF Game Ball
Much like Julio Jones in Philadelphia on Sunday, Michael Crabtree didn’t need to see the ball a massive amount to influence this game. His two first-half touchdowns were decisive, as he made a statement against his naysayers by grabbing a pair of touchdowns against the highly thought of Patrick Peterson.