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Anthony Ly | September 23, 2014

The Booth Review - 49ers vs. Cardinals

"Sometimes, the football gods can be unforgiving." - Jim Harbaugh

Is the sky falling yet? The San Francisco 49ers fall to 1-2 after folding to the Arizona Cardinals on the road. How do they bounce back? Read on, Faithful.

Frank Gore has seen it all during his nine years in San Francisco.

In 2005, he was drafted by a 49ers team that finished with a miserable 2-14 record, the worst in the league that year and the worst in franchise history since 1979.  You may recall that one of the most famed anecdotes in ‘the lore of Gore', perhaps the one that defined him, happened that season.

It was Week 3 when the team hosted the Dallas Cowboys at Monster Park (shudders) and had a two-possession lead heading into the fourth quarter.  The defense fell apart.  San Francisco allowed 15 unanswered points to drop the game to Dallas, 34-31.  After the game, Gore, heartbroken, walked into the players' parking lot to find his teammates cracking jokes and laughing as if nothing had happened.  Gore started to cry, struggling to understand how his team could take defeat so lightly.

[Frank Gore] will go down as one of the greatest and most beloved players in 49ers history, the heart and soul and embodiment of an entire franchise for a near-decade.

So much has changed since then.  Last year, the team finished 12-4, coming just short of their second-consecutive Super Bowl berth.  Gore himself was named to five Pro Bowls, captured the NFC rushing title, and became the 49ers' all-time rushing leader for yards and touchdowns.  And most recently, he received the rare distinction of being only the 29th player in league history to record 10,000 yards rushing.

For these reasons, he will go down as one of the greatest and most beloved players in 49ers history, the heart and soul and embodiment of an entire franchise for a near-decade.

But the individual accolades didn't matter to Gore, and quite frankly, I don't think they ever did or will.  And I can't speak for him, but if you ask me, I think he would trade in every single one for a regular season win, a team win, in a heartbeat.  Because, for Gore, that's the only thing that matters, not so much for the personal fame and glory, but out of love for his team and his fans...for the love of the game.

So, as you can imagine, it was heartbreaking to see his reaction to Sunday's loss against the Cardinals, huddled by his locker with his back turned to reporters.

Asked about his limited role on Sunday, he stumbled over his words, "You know, I guess, you know, how, that was...I didn't know. We did what the defense gave us. The looks they gave us, that's what we did."

"What was the look they gave you?" a reporter asked.

"I guess...look what we did. What we did on the field, that's the look they gave us," Gore said, glancing over his shoulder.  "Y'all can answer that. Y'all saw the game. You know, I'm alright man. I can't talk right now. I'm sorry, I can't talk. Alright?"

Excuse me, I think I have something in my eye...

Craft_medium (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

New-Look Niners

For the last couple of years, San Francisco represented the old guard in offensive philosophy, one predicated on grounding and pounding the trenches, and they did it with great success.  So why have they abandoned it?

As they did last week against the Bears, the 49ers came out firing through the air. On their first drive, they passed seven times for 61 yards including the 2-yard grab by Michael Crabtree to score the first touchdown of the game.  Gore ran just twice for zero net yards.

In the entire second half, the team ran the ball just three times on designed running back plays.

The next drive began with more of the same, but once the team got into the red zone, the ground game came to life...briefly.  Colin Kaepernick gashed through the middle for a 7-yard gain which was followed by three consecutive carries by running backs.

Gore carried for 3, Carlos Hyde for 4, and Hyde, again, for 6 yards, plunging forward like a battering ram into the endzone for a second score.  San Francisco led, 14-6.

From this point on, yes, the run game was abandoned.  Left for dead, even.

In the entire second half, the team ran the ball just three times on designed running back plays -- technically two, if you exclude the single carry by receiver Bruce Ellington who lined up in the backfield as a running back.

There are a few things we can surmise from the stat-sheet. Chief among them is the strong possibility that Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman simply felt that attacking the Arizona defense through the air was a more sensible gameplan. And in some ways, they were right.

We saw the emergence of Stevie Johnson who had his best game in a 49ers uniform. Johnson recorded 9 receptions for 103 yards while Crabtree, more or less, repeated his production from last week, posting 10 receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown.

(Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)

Starting the second half with a 14-6 lead, that would have been the time to establish some sort of rhythm in the running game and sustain a few long drives.  Obviously, that didn't happen.  Instead, the Cardinals caught up by scoring a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter while the 49ers' second half woes continued as they were unable to manufacture a single scoring drive.  This is when having the skillset of someone like Vernon Davis would have proved useful, for so many reasons.

Speaking of Davis, his absence, along with Vance McDonald's, is a huge reason why the 49ers opted for such a pass-heavy gameplan.  Derek Carrier made a beautiful, leaping 23-yard reception down the middle, but aside from that, San Francisco's tight ends took a backseat which opened the door for more three-, four- and even five-receiver sets.

You read that right: the 49ers went with five-receiver personnel for the first time in the Harbaugh era, using it on six consecutive plays in the opening drive.

"We hadn't shown that before," said Kaepernick. "It was something new."

It was refreshing to see a new wrinkle in the offense, but it's not enough to do something different, especially when it's implemented at the expense of an element that was never broken.  The key then, moving forward, is to balance all these moving parts, but it won't happen overnight.

'Sack Francisco'? I don't think so

The 49ers did not register a single sack that wasn't negated by penalty.

With Aldon Smith out, the 49ers need to find a way to better utilize young talents like Aaron Lynch and Corey Lemonier.

On Arizona's second offensive drive, San Francisco sent seven into the backfield including cornerbacks Perrish Cox and Jimmie Ward (the first time all year that Vic Fangio blitzed a defensive back). Under heavy pressure, Drew Stanton rolled right into the arms of Justin Smith who brought him down, but the sack didn't count since safety Eric Reid was called for illegal contact downfield.

Later, on that same drive, the 49ers blitzed seven again. Corey Lemonier dropped Stanton just as he let go of the ball. However, Reid was penalized once more, this time, for grabbing the facemask of John Brown.

In the second half, by my count, the 49ers only sent more than four pass-rushers five times.  However, Stanton was mostly able to nimbly navigate the pressure.

(Photo by Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports)

You may recall one play where, on a five-man rush, Patrick Willis broke through the pocket between the center and right guard to get to Stanton. Willis was penalized for roughing the passer and making contact with Stanton's helmet.

Harbaugh was initially reluctant to comment on the penalty but eventually relented.

"It looked like his face was up," Harbaugh said. "It looked like he was making a tackle that was seeing what he hit.

"You do teach that, yes."

In other words, it appeared to be a textbook tackle.

But Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians begged to differ.

"[A hit like Willis'] was on the tape last year sent out by the referees," Arians said. "You can't lead with the crown of your helmet on a quarterback, so that was a very good call."

I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree?

Even with the nullified sacks and hurries, you can count on one hand the number of times they even sniffed Stanton's jersey. With Aldon Smith out, serving a nine-game suspension, the 49ers need to breathe life back into the pass rush.  And they can start by finding ways to better utilize young talents like Aaron Lynch and Corey Lemonier.

About the Author

49ers Faithful. Sports blogger. Musician. Microbrew enthusiast.