SANTA CLARA — Turns out it didn’t matter who the Arizona Cardinals were missing Sunday.
What mattered more was who suited up for the dysfunctional 49ers, resulting in a 31-17 defeat that extended their year-long home losing streak.
If the 49ers (3-5) can’t beat an NFC West rival missing its best players — quarterback Kyler Murray, wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and A.J. Green, and defensive end J.J. Watt — then what exactly will it ever take to win for the first time at Levi’s Stadium since Oct. 18, 2020?
For starters, it will take a defense that doesn’t make quarterback Colt McCoy and running back James Conner look like All-Pros, the result of missed tackles, sloppy coverage and, most egregious, baffling penalties, including a taunting call that got Josh Norman benched.
Was there a pregame letdown knowing the 49ers would be minus Murray?
“I would hope not. It’s something I aggressively talked about last night,” coach Kyle Shanahan said.
“You guys saw how we tackled,” Shanahan added. “We didn’t stop the runs and didn’t stop those screens. We were giving up explosive screens and free yardage. It wouldn’t matter who was playing quarterback, we made it extremely easy on them.”
The 49ers’ offense was dismal, too, including first-half turnovers by George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk after promising receptions. Each rebounded by catching a Jimmy Garoppolo pass, but, even so, the 49ers trailed 31-7 with some 20 minutes to go until their next home date, a Nov. 15 visit by the Los Angeles Rams on “Monday Night Football.”
Said Kittle: “Definitely disappointed. It’s tough when you turn the ball over twice after moving the ball on explosive plays. It kind of kills a team.”
Unlike their last home game in which they could blame heavy rain for their dysfunction against the Indianapolis Colts, this defeat came under mostly sunny skies — other than the dark cloud perpetually hanging over the 49ers franchise since their January 2020 win in the NFC Championship Game.
Here are my top takeaways as the 49ers fell to 0-4 at home this year, and the Cardinals improved to 5-0 on the road:
As the Cardinals began a third-quarter series at their own 9, Fred Warner waved his arms to rile up fans behind the end zone. They responded with noise. The defense? It allowed Colt McCoy to scramble for a third-and-4 conversion, with McCoy slipping out of Nick Bosa’s grasp the way Murray would.
“It’s pretty embarrassing and it’s unacceptable, for sure,” Warner said of the overall loss.
Early in this game, the 49ers’ run defense either wilted up the gut or missed containment on the edge, with Conner scoring two touchdown runs as a result. Later on, McCoy heated up as a passer, and the 49ers’ pass rush didn’t answer his challenge.
McCoy completed 22-of-26 for 249 yards with a touchdown, no turnovers, two sacks and a 119.4 passer rating.
“He’s a veteran and knows where to go with the ball, not going to give you too many opportunities,” Nick Bosa said. “We did shoot ourselves in the foot a lot. We have to stop the run if we’re going to get after anybody.
Conner totaled 96 rushing yards (21 carries, two touchdowns) and 77 receiving yards (five catches, one touchdown).
Why was the defense so undisciplined?
“We’ve got to find out,” Shanahan said. “It was extremely disappointing. We didn’t tackle very well. We didn’t have 11 guys swarming to the ball enough. We made it pretty easy on them.”
The 49ers allowed only 17 points to a fully staffed Cardinals offense last month. First-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans hasn’t seemed overwhelmed and Shanahan reinforced his support for him postgame.
Second-string safeties Tavon Wilson and Talanoa Hufanga showed how much the 49ers need the steady but unspectacular combo of Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, who are both hurt, as has been the case too often in their careers.
GEORGE KITTLE’S RETURN
A three-game hiatus did George Kittle and his calf injury well. He tallied over 100 yards and scored his first touchdown this season — and his first since their last home win, in that Oct. 18, 2020 victory over the Rams.
When Garoppolo wasn’t getting smashed in the pocket, he was targeting either Kittle, Aiyuk or Samuel — the ideal trifecta. Kittle had a 19-yard reception on the opening series to announce his return, but he fumbled away an 18-yard reception on the second series to signal how bad things would go for the 49ers.
“He started off the game pretty rusty but came back and made plays for us,” Shanahan said.
Kittle went over the 100-yard mark with a 15-yard catch in traffic at the Cardinals’ 21-yard line in the fourth quarter.
AIYUK HOT, SAMUEL NOT
An Aiyuk fumble surely would have sent him back into Shanahan’s doghouse if this was earlier in the season. Instead, thanks to his recent efforts, Aiyuk got a chance to atone for his fumble (at the Arizona 8-yard line). Two snaps prior to Kittle’s touchdown, Aiyuk infused life into a last-minute drive by making a 16-yard catch deep in Cardinals territory – and holding onto the ball after enduring two hits.
In the fourth quarter, Aiyuk caught an 11-yard touchdown pass that Garoppolo shot over four defenders, and Aiyuk later delivered a 27-yard punt return to set up a final scoring drive, albeit one that ended with just a Robbie Gould field goal.
“His touchdown grab, that was a hell of a catch,” Garoppolo said. “=I love where he’s at and where he’s going. He’s a young guy on the upswing. He’s got to keep making plays and I’ll keep getting him the ball.”
The comeback bid essentially ended with 3:03 remaining when Jimmy Garoppolo’s pass toward Deebo Samuel was intercepted. Samuel, who was questionable entering the game with a calf issue, caught only 3 of 7 targets for 53 yards.
Garoppolo finished 28-of-40 for 326 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He took all the snaps and split no reps with Trey Lance.
Also galling was how quiet things looked on the sideline. After the defense let a 17-10 halftime deficit mushroom to 31-7 midway through the third quarter, there was no sideline huddle, no pep talk from Ryans nor Shanahan.
I asked Shanahan if he ever gives the defense a piece of his mind, to which he replied; “I talk to the coaches throughout the game. I don’t bring the defense together on the sideline to give some big speech. I don’t do that to the offense either.”
However, Shanahan said he spouted off in the postgame locker room to the defense about its widespread miscues.
His coaches did take command with a second-quarter benching of Josh Norman for his penalty-inducing taunting of Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury.
Down 17 with 13:08 remaining, Shanahan opted to punt and play the field-position game, which kind of worked, if only the 49ers had more time to score more points.
Still down 17 with 8:26 remaining, Shanahan opted to have Robbie Gould attempt a 25-yard field goal, rather than go for it on fourth-and-8 (against a Cardinals defense the 49ers failed four times on fourth down last month.)
NORMAN TAKES SEAT
Cornerback Josh Norman, the 49ers’ most penalized player, was pulled from a second-quarter drive after an egregious penalty.
The 49ers’ K’Waun Williams had made a third-down stop, during which Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury went ballistic on the field shouting at the officials, who responded by calling an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on him.
Then Norman sauntered over and taunted Kinsbury, resulting in a taunting penalty that was assessed first for a first-and-25 situation for the Cardinals, who eventually settled for a field goal and 17-0 lead with 4:02 before halftime.
Said Shanahan: “Josh told me some of their coaches were talking to them, he talked back and he got headbutted by one of their offensive linemen.”
Norman was replaced by Dre Kirkpatrick, to which Shanahan said: “I wanted him to get out right there, to cool down a bit. Keeping Dre in wasn’t my decision but I was OK with it.”
MITCHELL BATTLES HARD
Rookie Elijah Mitchell played through a rib injury, and, with a 9-yard run on the opening snap, looked poised for another 100-yard game. Instead, the 49ers eschewed the run, and as the Cardinals pulled away on the scoreboard, there wasn’t much use for Mitchell’s legs other than as a receiver (he caught his first five targets for 43 yards). Mitchell had eight carries for 36 yards.
Jeff Wilson Jr. suited up for his season debut but didn’t see any backfield action, with JaMycal Hasty retaining his role as the third-down back.
INJURY TO WATCH
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey bowed out with a second-quarter knee injury, leaving veteran Tom Compton to man that spot rather than rookie Jaylon Moore, per their second-team reps in practice.
Moore is an option to take over at right tackle if McGlinchey’s injury proves serious. He required meniscus repair to a knee during the 2019 season.
Compton’s insertion didn’t implode the offensive line. Rather, the Cardinals defensive front did that across the board.