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Cardinals fight, but humbled by 49ers

Howard Balzer Avatar
December 18, 2023
Kyler Murray

It was a strange December afternoon Sunday at State Farm Stadium for Kyler Murray and Co., but surely not unexpected. The Cardinals had 18 more plays on offense than the 49ers, totaled 436 yards and scored six times to San Francisco’s seven.

Unfortunately, six by the 49ers were touchdowns with four in the red zone on that many attempts, while the Cardinals scored on 2-of-3 red-zone trips, added one other touchdown to go with three field goals in a 45-29 loss.

It sounds counter intuitive to say it didn’t seem that bad, but when the 49ers are the opponent, that just might be true.

After all, this is a team that:

–In its five-game winning streak entering the game had outscored opponents by 19.7 points per game;

–Defeated Dallas by 32, Jacksonville by 31 and Philadelphia by 23 earlier this season. Those teams have a combined record of 28-13 prior to the Eagles’ game Monday night against Seattle;

–Outscored the 11 teams they have beaten by an average of 19.3 points.

As Murray said, “I felt like the guys played hard and fought hard. We’ve just got to be better. I’ve got to be better. We moved the ball, but they’re a good team and against a good team like that you’ve got to put the ball in the end zone, because they’re a potent, explosive offense and they put points on the board. You’ve got to match that.”

When asked if after the bye there were any issues with effort or energy, coach Jonathan Gannon said, “No, not at all. I thought we had our best week. I was driving 100 in here today, I was so excited for the game. I probably shouldn’t say that. But no, I thought that we had a really good week. These guys prepared their ass off. We practiced well. We were in pads. We knew it was going to be a physical game. We just didn’t do enough to win the game.

“(But) I just told them I like the fight, battled a really good football team; give them credit. I appreciate the fight.”

When it was noted that the 436 yards were a season high along with 234 rushing yards, he said, “(Those aren’t) winning stats, as I would say. We lost the takeaway battle 2-0 (with one a pick-six). That’s what you get versus a good football team.”

Defensively for the Cardinals, the game wasn’t much different from Week 4, when the 49ers won 35-16. That day, San Francisco ran 53 plays for 395 yards, a 7.5 average. It was identical Sunday, averaging 7.5 on 54 plays for 406 yards.

Explosive plays were the theme again, a big reason why the 49ers had only seven third-down plays after having five in Week 4.

Also similar to Week 4, whenever the Cardinals made it a game, the 49ers responded.

On Oct. 1, an Arizona 11-play, 99-yard drive cut the 49ers lead to 21-16 with 4:12 to play in the third quarter. However, the 49ers then went 75 yards in eight plays with none on third down to take a 28-16 lead. The Cardinals then reached the San Francisco 35-yard line, but a third-and-10 sack lost eight yards, forcing a punt.

Déjà vu. San Francisco took 7:14 off the clock on a 14-play, 77-yard drive that included two third-down conversions and it was 35-16.

Sunday, after forcing a three-and-out, the Cardinals moved to the 5-yard line. However, an incomplete pass and a bobbled handoff pushed the ball back to the 9 and Murray wasn’t able to connect with wide receiver Michael Wilson at the back of the end zone. Still, a 28-yard field goal by Matt Prater made it a 12-point game (28-16).

However, quarterback Brock Purdy hit wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk for 22 yards on second down and running back Christian McCaffrey had 18- and 11-yard runs leading to a 1-yard touchdown and a 35-16 lead after a six-play, 60-yard drive with no third downs.

Dec 17, 2023; Glendale, Ariz, United States; San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs in for a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium.

The Cardinals cut the lead again (this time to 13 points when the 2-point conversion failed) with 11:30 remaining in the game on running back Emari Demercado’s stunning 49-yard run.

Then, it was here we go again. McCaffrey for 13 and 12, an 11-yard pass to wide receiver Deebo Samuel, a 17-yard run by running back Jordan Mason and finally a 19-yard touchdown to Samuel for a 42-22 lead. It was seven plays for 75 yards, again with no third downs.

Also as it was in Week 4, it was the Purdy and McCaffrey show; two players that should be in the top five of MVP voting.

Overall, cornerback Antonio Hamilton Sr. said their offense is “pretty diverse as far as spreading the ball out and what they want to get to, pass- and run-wise. (Coach) Kyle Shanahan, he has it. He is an offensive mad scientist. He knows how to get those run schemes set up. He’s been around the game for a long time and he understands how to rush the ball, how to screen the ball, how to get these short passes out to get those guys into a rhythm. He does a great job with those guys. Hats off to them.”

The Purdy and McCaffrey show

McCaffrey totaled 187 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage on 18 rushes for 115 yards (6.4 average/one touchdown) and five receptions for 72 yards (14.4 average/two touchdowns). His 23 touches averaged 8.1 yards.

Eleven weeks ago, he had 177 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns, with three rushing and one receiving. He had 20 attempts for 106 yards (5.3 average) and 71 yards on seven catches (10.1 average). His 27 touches averaged 6.6 yards.

In the two games, McCaffrey had 221 yards rushing and a 5.8-yard average to go with 12 receptions for 143 yards (11.2 average). Combined, that’s 50 touches for 364 yards (7.3 average).

He also became the fifth player in the Super Bowl era to score seven touchdowns against one team in a season.

The others are Lydell Mitchell of the Colts against the Bills in 1975; Marshall Faulk of the Rams against the 49ers in 2000; LaDainian Tomlinson of the Chargers against the Broncos in 2006; and Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs against the Raiders in 2013.

How hard is McCaffrey to defend? Hamilton said, “We have to have a better account for him. Even if he’s going out as a receiver or No. 1, 2 or 3, or be in the backfield, he’s so dangerous. You just can’t put all the extra help to one side or the other. He’s one of those guys that obviously is a game-changer. He’s a great player.”

For the season, McCaffrey has 1,801 yards from scrimmage on 1,292 rushing yards and 57 receptions for 509 yards. He became the fourth player in history to have at least 1,000 rushing yards and 500 receiving yards in four or more seasons joining Marshall Faulk (five) and Thurman Thomas and Tiki Barber (four).

Noting there is MVP talk for both McCaffrey and Purdy, Shanahan said, “I don’t have to differentiate. I have been around a couple of MVPs in my career and these two are the most obvious to me. I might be a little biased being on their team, but I don’t think so. All you have to do is look at numbers or you have to look at the film. Whichever one you say is more important to you, I think it’s extremely obvious since they’re both important. It should make it even that much stronger.”

For his part, Purdy deferred to McCaffrey in the MVP debate.

“I think Christian should be MVP,” he said. “I really do believe that. He does everything for us. Runs the ball well, catches the ball; he does everything. So in my eyes that’s an MVP.”

What about those talking you up? Purdy said, “I’m real honored, but I think I have a great team around me. Guys are willing to make plays so I’m trying to do my part and help our team win. I’m very honored to hear it, but I think we just have an MVP team overall.”

Asked about McCaffrey’s toughness, Purdy said, “I’m the guy that hands him the ball and then I turn back and watch sort of what he does. Bouncing off guys, making cuts, twisting off guys when he’s got all of these guys holding onto him. So I see the beating that he takes, and just his grit to continue to drive his legs to get extra yards and inches.

“Then he goes off to the sideline and he’s immediately using Theraguns (a deep muscle stimulator) and moving his body; he’s just non-stop moving. We all can respect it, man. He’s the guy that does it all. You can put him out in the slot and throw him the ball; he just does everything. He’s smart, and I’ve said it before, we definitely look up to him and his toughness and he sets the standard and we follow his lead.”

As for his ability to extend plays, Purdy concluded, “When he does it, it still sort of blows my mind. But at the same time. I’m like, ‘That’s Christian.’ He’s done that time and time again. To see him continue to do that and then get back in the huddle and then go and run a route and catch the ball and have explosiveness, it’s like, this is crazy. So, I’m definitely thankful and blessed to be playing with him.”

The Cardinals can’t argue with anything said.

Meanwhile, Purdy completed 16-of-25 passes for 242 yards, four touchdowns and a 135.3 passer rating Sunday after going 20-for-21 for 283 yards, one touchdown and a 134.6 rating in Week 4.

He now has six games this season with a passer rating of 130 or higher.

McBride and Hollywood

It was somewhat surprising to witness solid offensive play with no production from the team’s wide receivers.

In the Week 13 win over Pittsburgh, tight ends accounted for 11 of Murray’s 13 completions and 120 of his 145 yards. Sunday, Trey McBride, Elijah Higgins and Geoff Swaim combined for 15 of Murray’s 26 completions and 172 of his 211 yards.

Wide receivers were targeted 13 times, but managed only four receptions for 20 yards. Greg Dortch and Rondale Moore each had three targets and two catches with Dortch gaining 15 yards and Moore five. Zach Pascal and Michael Wilson had no receptions on four and three targets, respectively.

When Pascal is targeted multiple times on downfield passes, that illustrates the problem.

Hollywood Brown, who continues to be hobbled by a heel injury, had no targets and might be shut down. It would make sense with two road games in cold-weather climates ahead (Chicago and Philadelphia), with hope he might be healthy enough to contribute in the season finale against Seattle on Jan. 7.

Brown said afterward, “It’s very difficult, but it’s out of my control. I just go out there and do what I can do. If I can go, I’ll go. If I can’t, I can’t.”

Asked if it was his decision to leave the game, he said, “The plan was for me to be on and off, and it got to the point where I just couldn’t go anymore.”

Said Murray, “I know who he is, what type of guy he is and what type of player he is. At the end of the day, his health is most important. He’s got to get healthy and be able to be himself when he’s out there.”

Is Gannon concerned? He finally admitted, “I am. It’s been going on for a little bit and he’s trying to grind through. He’s a warrior and we need him, but if he can’t go, he can’t go. Obviously, that hurts us because he’s a good player.”

In the last two games, the numbers are startling for the team’s pass-catchers. Murray is a combined 39-for-62 for 356 yards. The tight ends have combined for 26 receptions on 29 targets for 292 yards; wide receivers 6 on 22 targets for 45 yards and running backs 7 on 11 targets for 19 yards.

Tight ends have 66.7 percent of the receptions, 46.8 percent of the targets and 82.0 percent of the yards.

McBride, of course, is front and center.

Dec 17, 2023; Glendale, Ariz, United States; Arizona Cardinals tight end Trey McBride (85) is tackled by San Francisco 49ers cornerback Deommodore Lenoir (2) during the third quarter at State Farm Stadium.

He had 10 receptions on 11 targets for 102 yards Sunday and is now distancing himself from the former club record of 56 receptions for a tight end in a season originally set by Jackie Smith in 1967. McBride had 56 entering the game and now has 66 for 712 yards.

That vaulted him to fourth on the franchise list for most yards in a season, passing Smith’s totals of 648 in 1965, 657 in 1964 and 687 in 1970. Next up is the 789 Smith had in 1968 and 810 in 1966.

It is unlikely he will reach Smith’s best (1,205 in 1967) this season, but the sky’s the limit in the future.

McBride said, “I feel like I’m in the zone. I feel like I can play well. I match up well. Kyler gave me a few opportunities today. I just do what I can to make plays for him.”

The one he didn’t bothered him.

He said afterward, “We’re close. It’s a tough team and tough defense. We’re really close. We played well on offense. Missed a few opportunities, I think. That pick-six, I wish we could get that one back, but we’re close. We’re really close. That’s a good football team, a really good football team, and we’re right there with them.”

He expounded on the pick-six, saying, “That is driving me nuts, because maybe if I come back to the ball that doesn’t happen. It’s just the little things like that. We really clicked as an offense. There’s a lot to look forward to that’s exciting. It makes me happy. I think we’re moving in the right direction. We just need to tighten it up just a little bit.”

Murray agreed, saying about the play of McBride, “He’s just getting better each and every week. I say it every week. The more he plays, the more confident he gets, and the swag and the juice from him just continues to grow. I think there’s still things that me and him can be better at.

“Like today, we had the opportunity to make a play (and) we didn’t, the interception that (went) the other way. But those are little things that, as we play together more, those things happen and we’ll fix them.”

Charvarius Ward, who had the interception for the 66-yard touchdown, said, “It was cover three, tight end 85, McBride; I saw him coming over. If he would’ve continued to go I would have to let him go, but as soon as he sat down he turned into my man. As soon as he sat down, just kind of drove on it and Kyler threw the ball kind of late. I caught it and didn’t break stride.”

Still, McBride embodies the attitude of this team that doesn’t feel like one that’s 3-11. In many cases, there is doom and gloom when a season has resulted in a record like that. But Gannon and the coaches have harped on the process and there appears to be buy-in.

Gannon’s positive take from the game came when he said, “I know the leadership in that locker room. I know the want-to. I know their will. That was evident to me. We didn’t lay down at the end of the game. The game is out of reach and we go down and score. I actually was very pleased about that because there’s a point where you could say, if you’re in my seat, ‘Let’s pull everybody and let the other guys go.’ No way. They weren’t coming out of the game either.

“So, that’s what we need to keep doing to give ourselves a chance to win. That has to be consistent. It’s the NFL; it’s a big-boy league. You have to bring it every week. I think our guys do. From a coaching perspective, we have to help them out. Keep coaching the details, keep setting up good plans, keep coaching our ass off in practice every day.”

As McBride said when asked about owning the record for tight-end receptions, “That’s really cool. There’s a lot of great tight ends that have played in this organization. To be right up there with those guys and to break that record in this game is very cool. It’s very special to me to have a record like that. That’s a huge honor, but that’s not what I’m focused on. I can care less about that truthfully; I just want to win.”

Don’t hesitate to comment or ask questions on Twitter @hbalzer721 or email me: howard@gophnx.com. Also, become a DIEHARD and use the promo code HOWARD

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