GLENDALE, Ariz. – The No. 1 step for the 49ers to remain competitive and in a position to upset the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday was to clean up the team’s most glaring deficiency.
And that’s exactly what the 49ers did.
The 49ers’ run defense, which entered the game allowing 193.0 yards per game, stiffened against running back David Johnson. Still, it was not enough to prevent the 49ers from their eighth consecutive loss.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro hit a 34-yard field on the final play of the game for the winning score in the Cardinals’ 23-20 victory over the 49ers. After the 49ers tied the game at 20-20, Arizona drove 69 yards on 11 plays to set up Catanzaro’s kick.
“I just told them I was proud of how they competed, but we still have to . . . they’re not handing out participation trophies in the National Football League,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said. “It’s about wins and losses.”
The 49ers’ defense snapped a streak of allowing seven consecutive opponents to rush for 100 yards or more. Johnson was held to 55 yards and a touchdown rushing on 19 carries. The Cardinals gained 80 yards on 23 run attempts on the 49ers’ last-ranked defense.
Arizona coach Bruce Arians said he knew it would be difficult to run against the 49ers, who stacked the box in an attempt to take away the Cardinals’ ground game.
“There was never a doubt,” Arians said. “And we didn’t block it very well at times. But he needs to stick it up in there and quit bouncing outside and putting the guys in jeopardy of holding penalties and losing yardage. A 2-yard gain is better than a 1-yard loss or a 10-yard holding penalty. When you get frustrated, you try to make big plays.”
Johnson entered the game as the NFL's No. 4 rusher with 705 yards. On Oct. 6, Johnson gained 157 yards and two touchdowns against the 49ers in a 33-21 win at Levi's Stadium.
Kelly said the improved 49ers run defense was a result of the front getting lined up correctly and each player taking care of his respective assignment. The 49ers also received a big boost from veteran nose tackle Glenn Dorsey, who made his first start after being in and out of the lineup with a knee issue this season.
“I think our guys were where they were supposed to be,” Kelly said. “We had the right fits. Guys battled. We were lined up right.
“I think overall as a group the one thing that stuck out was our guys tackled well. There weren’t a whole lot of missed tackles with guys running around. And usually when you have those big plays, a lot of times the first guy there doesn’t make the tackle and get him down or slow him down so the rest of the guys can get there. But I thought our guys tackled well as a better.”
Defensive back Jaquiski Tartt said the 49ers brought a determined attitude into Sunday’s game after being scorched repeatedly during their losing streak.
“I would say it’s our mindset,” Tartt said. “It’s about time we stopped the run. Coming into the game, we knew they were going to try to run the ball on us. We just had the mindset, nobody is going to run the ball on us any more.
“It’s easier said than done, but that was our mindset.”
Linebacker Gerald Hodges, who had six tackles and a late-game interception that enabled the 49ers to tie the score late in the game, believes Sunday’s game signals a transformation with the defense.
“People get confused, thinking it was big problem when it was never really a big problem,” he said. “It was little details here and there that you have to tweak and fix. And this display shows you the kind of defense that we really are. It’s not a fluke or anything like that. We just have to make sure that everybody is hitting on all cylinders when we’re out there playing.”