The 49ers lost a hard-fought battle Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals to fall to 2-3 on the season. The story was the same despite a different starting quarterback: mistakes, mistakes, mistakes, despite the defense doing everything in its power to win. Here are four takeaways from the game.
DeMeco Ryans is the right guy for the job
It feels as though nobody is ever satisfied with defensive play, and we forget that they get paid on the other side of the ball. During the game, I said that Ryans was doing a great job and received some pushback.
Kyler Murray threw for the fewest amount of yards this season, had his lowest yards per attempt, his worst QB rating (by 29 points), and rushed for one yard. Trey Lance had a higher QB rating than Murray.
Arizona went 3-for-10 on third down. San Francisco even found some turnover luck after Dontae Johnson forced a fumble. When you hold an opponent to 17 points in the NFL, you have to win.
There were seven games during Week 5 where teams failed to score 20 points outside of the Cardinals/49ers matchup. Each of those teams lost. Sunday was another game in a long list where the defense did more than enough to win.
They gifted a possession to the offense around midfield, which failed to yield points. If we exclude the final drive, the Cardinals scored two touchdowns on nine drives. It took two defensive penalties for Arizona to kick a field goal on another. On the six other drives combined, Arizona had 28 plays for 110 yards. That’s 3.9 yards per play for one of the most electric offenses in the NFL.
Kudos, DeMeco. I know nobody wants to hear this, but we should also give Trey Lance some credit as the offense went three-and-out just once. They stayed on the field, which gave the defense plenty of time to rest and remain fresh.
Failed conversions were the difference on offense
The 49ers were 4-for-16 on third and fourth downs Sunday. Their offensive EPA went from -0.01 on first and second down to -0.72 on third and fourth down, per RBSDM.com. The Niners’ ineffectiveness wasn’t due to one person, either. You can’t single-handedly blame one person.
Lance missed some throws. The penalties were brutal. You can’t ignore drops, and early down play-calling left a lot to be desired.
Five second-half holding calls seems like a good place to start. Lance found Kyle Juszczyk to move the ball into Arizona Territory, and Trent Williams, of all people, was flagged to make it 3rd & 7. After Lance picked up the first down with his legs, Mike McGlinchey was called for a holding to make it 3rd & 17. Lance found Ross Dwelley for 12 yards and Mohamed Sanu for six yards to convert a third and fourth down despite both penalties.
On the Niners touchdown drive, they overcame another holding call and converted a 2nd & 25. Their next drive? You guessed it, another holding call. That was the drive where Juszczyk failed to gain a yard on fourth down.
After the game, Shanahan said, “There were a couple options on that play, and we didn’t end up doing the one we preferred.” That was the longest one yard, and it didn’t seem like a “sneak” was the right way to go. If you didn’t like the look the defense gave you, then call timeout.
It’s important to point out a couple of holding calls and even sacks were on Lance. If Lance cuts the ball inside instead of bouncing it wide, Travis Benjamin isn’t flagged for a holding. Lance ran into a sack on the same drive.
When you’re behind the chains as often as the 49ers’ offense was, scoring is next to impossible. They had valiant efforts to overcome each penalty, but this team can’t seem to get out of its own way.
No looking back for Lance
Trey has to be “the guy” moving forward. I mentioned above how he single-handedly overcame multiple long-yardage down and distances. But, first, let’s get the bad out of the way.
Lance’s four batted passes (the most by any 49ers QB in the past ten seasons, per ESPN Stats & Info) tell you Lance was staring down his targets.
There were times you’re watching the game telling Lance to “throw the damn ball” when he’s scrambling and a receiver is open at the intermediate portion of the field. Missing a wide-open Benjamin on the first drive was killer. You draft Lance to convert 4th & 1 from the one-yard line. The failed conversion and miss to Benjamin takes at least ten points off the board.
After the game, former 49ers Donte Whitner, Patrick Willis, and Joe Staley all said Lance wasn’t the reason the offense failed to score and went as far as saying Lance was the offense.
Lance’s average depth of target Sunday was 10.8 yards. Jimmy Garoppolo’s during the first three games was 6.9 yards. Offense is easier when you stretch and use the entire field. It also opens up your running game.
The 49ers’ offense in Weeks 2, 3, and the first half of Week 4 with Garoppolo: 4.84 yards per play. The last six quarters with Lance: 6.12 yards per play. The Eagles and Giants are tied for ninth in the NFL in yards per play at 6.1. The Texans and Colts are 28th & 29th in the NFL, averaging 5.0 yards per play.
You can’t blame Lance for three drops. But, Shanahan said, “Overall, I think we could have done a little bit better around him. I thought he did good enough to win.”
We see a more confident Lance and a better offense if Sanu catches his laser on 3rd & 11. That was the only three-and-out for the offense. Complementary football hasn’t existed this season for the 49ers. It may not have resulted in points, but the offense lived in Cardinals territory Sunday. If this is the worst version of Lance, knowing the one way to improve is to play, I’d be shocked if he wasn’t named the starter moving forward.
Shanahan coaches to win
Shanahan was more aggressive than I’ve ever seen. Of course, you can attribute some of this to Kyler Murray being on the other sideline. But, it shouldn’t be ignored that, with Lance under center, Shanahan relentlessly went for it on fourth down.
We’ve been screaming from the mountain tops for Shanahan to go for it on fourth downs. He did so, almost obnoxiously, on Sunday and coached to win.
Especially with Lance under center, we have to focus on the process and not the results more than ever. After an interception, Shanahan went back to Lance on Arizona’s 34-yard line on 4th & 2. He ran the ball out of empty up the middle, which was a head-scratcher.
You lose your numbers advantage in the box with the quarterback as a runner when he doesn’t have a lead blocker. So again, it was the correct process.
A 13-play, 93-yard drive that took nearly six minutes off the clock stalled when Lance couldn’t punch it in from the one-yard line. Everyone celebrated, thinking he scored. That wasn’t Kyle’s fault. If Lance either goes high or low and extends the ball, he scores.
After the defense forced a fumble, Shanahan said, “I know our defense had just gotten a turnover. I thought it was our chance to take that game right there. It was unfortunate” on the decision to go for it on fourth down.
That’s the type of mindset that’ll make this 49ers team dangerous in the long run. The 49ers had a higher passing EPA per play on first and second down than the Cardinals, yet, it felt like those early down throws came few and far between.
Two of Brandon Aiyuk’s four targets came on the drive. Lance missed Aiyuk on first down. That doesn’t change the fact that the process was correct. The outcomes didn’t go in the 49ers' favor, but these types of decisions yield results in the long run.