Instant Replay: 49ers shows signs of life in 23-20 loss to Cardinals

Instant Replay: 49ers shows signs of life in 23-20 loss to Cardinals


GLENDALE, Ariz. – At least for one day, the 49ers solved their most obvious weakness of the season.

The 49ers’ last-ranked run defense, which entered the game surrendering 193.0 yards per game, shut down the running lanes on one of the NFL’s top runners.

While the 49ers’ defense mostly held up its end of the bargain, they couldn't come up with one final stop when they needed it on Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals in a 23-20 loss. The 49ers (1-8) lost for the eighth consecutive time, moving within one defeat of tying the franchise’s worst losing streak.

Trailing 20-13 late in the game, 49ers linebacker Gerald Hodges intercepted Carson Palmer. That set up Colin Kaepernick's 4-yard touchdown run to tie the game with under two minutes to go. But the Cardinals drove 69 yards on 11 plays to win the game as time expired on Chandler Catanzaro's 34-yard field goal. The Cardinals picked up a key first down on a 12-yard pass from Palmer to running back David Johnson on a third-and-8 play from the 49ers' 35-yard line against the coverage of linebacker Nick Bellore with a minute remaining.

In 1978, the 49ers lost nine consecutive games under Pete McCulley and his replacement, Fred O’Connor. The 49ers will look to avoid matching the futility of the 1978 team next Sunday against the New England Patriots on a day in which Hall of Fame owner Eddie DeBartolo will be honored at Levi’s Stadium.

The 49ers’ run defense entered the game allowing an NFL-record seven consecutive 100-yard rushers. After holding the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley to 47 yards in the opener, Fozzy Whittaker, Christine Michael, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, LeSesan McCoy, Jacquizz Rodgers and Mark Ingram each rushed for triple digits against the 49ers.

Johnson, who gained 157 yards against the 49ers on Oct. 6 at Levi’s Stadium, did not have as much success in the return engagement.

Johnson entered as the No. 4 rusher in the league with 705 yards. The 49ers held him to 55 yards on 19 carries. The 49ers even stopped him for no gain on a third-and-1 play early in the fourth quarter to force a punt. The Cardinals gained just 80 yards rushing against the 49ers on 23 rushing attempts.

The 49ers had their own problems with the run game. Running back Carlos Hyde, who returned after missing two games with a shoulder injury, gained just 14 yards on 13 carries.

Kaepernick had a solid game – just one season after his worst career showing against the same team. Kaepernick completed 17 of 30 passes for 210 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He ran the ball 10 times for 55 yards and the game-tying touchdown with 1:55 remaining in the fourth quarter.

A year ago, Kaepernick passed for just 67 yards with four interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns, in the 49ers' blowout loss at Arizona.

The Cardinals’ stadium in Glendale has been open for 11 seasons, but Chip Kelly became the fifth different 49ers’ coach to absorb a loss. Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, Jim Harbaugh and Jim Tomsula also lost games at University of Phoenix Stadium.

It was Kelly’s third loss at the stadium with three different teams. Kelly’s Oregon Ducks lost the BCS national championship game to Cam Newton and Auburn in January 2011. The Philadelphia Eagles, under Kelly, lost at the Cardinals in 2012.

Diving platform: The Cardinals took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on an 11-play, 91-yard drive that included three diving catches from their wide receivers.

After Michael Floyd made a sprawling catch for a 35-yard gain against the coverage 49ers safety Eric Reid, Larry Fitzgerald followed that up with two diving catches -- an 18-yarder and an 8-yarder on a third-and-3 play.

The Cardinals eventually scored on Palmer’s 3-yard pass to Johnson against the coverage of Bellore for a 7-0 lead.

The 49ers made mistakes that led directly to the Cardinals’ second touchdown. Kerley fumbled a punt return at the Arizona 44. On the next play, 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward was flagged for a 38-yard pass interference penalty.

On the next play, Johnson scored on an 18-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 lead.

Kerley strikes back
After his fumble set up the Cardinals’ second touchdown of the game, Kerley avenged that play with a 17-yard touchdown reception from Kaepernick in the second quarter to cut Arizona’s lead in half.

The 49ers had three consecutive three-and-outs to open the game. Kaepernick gained 10 yards on a designed quarterback run on a second-and-5 play. He hit tight end Vance McDonald for a 32-yard pass and wide receiver Rod Streater for 11 yards on back-to-back plays to set up the 17-yard pass to Kerley.

This ‘n’ that
-- Down by seven points late in the third quarter, Jaquiski Tartt had coverage on a Carson Palmer pass for J.J. Nelson that was tipped. Eric Reid made the interception and returned it 13 yards to the Arizona 40. It was Reid’s first interception since the 2014 season.

The 49ers picked up a first down at the Arizona 28, but consecutive holding penalties on tight end Garrett Celek and center Daniel Kilgore pushed the 49ers out of field-goal range.

--Outside linebacker Aaron Lynch (ankle) and cornerback Rashard Robinson (knee) were ruled out of Sunday’s game due to injuries. Eli Harold made his sixth start of the season in place of Lynch, who served a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy of substances of abuse to open the season.

--Harold collected his first career sack when he dropped Palmer in the third quarter and stripped him of the ball in the process. DeForest Buckner, who earlier recorded a sack, recovered the fumble. On the next play, Kaepernick hit Quinton Patton on a deep pass. The play set up Dawson’s 53-yard field goal.

--The 49ers’ offense has achieved just 11 plays this season of 30 or more yards. McDonald and Quinton Patton have caught three such passes. McDonald had a 32-yarder in the second quarter to set up the 49ers’ first touchdown. Patton caught a 45-yard pass in the third quarter.

--Second-year running back Mike Davis, who started the first game that Hyde missed, was inactive for the first time this season.

--Linebacker Shayne Skov saw limited action on defense in the second half and recorded an assisted tackle. It was the first time this season Skov has seen action on defense. Nick Bellore and Gerald Hodges started at inside linebacker and played most of the game.

--The 49ers were called for nine penalties totaling 100 yards. The 49ers were the league’s least-penalized team entering last week’s game, when they were flagged nine times for 78 yards against the New Orleans Saints.

Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in


Deepest position in the NFL Draft? 49ers VP of Player Personnel weighs in

The 49ers concluded the first wave of the free-agent signing period with the signings of players to fill the team’s biggest offseason needs.

--Cornerback. Aqib Talib would have been the answer in a trade with the Denver Broncos, but he wanted to play elsewhere. Instead, the 49ers signed veteran Richard Sherman, whom the Seattle Seahawks cut a day earlier.

--Interior offensive line. Center Weston Richburg was the player the team had rated as their top target in free agency, and they signed him to a lucrative five-year deal.

--Running back. The team decided Jerick McKinnon was a better fit than Carlos Hyde. They wrapped him up with a four-year contract.

--Edge rusher. Lacking many options in free agency, the 49ers signed Jeremiah Attaochu to a one-year contract in hopes he will earn a spot on the team and make a contribution at the “Leo” position.

The 49ers can still use more help at a number of different positions, including cornerback, wide receiver, offensive line, linebacker and edge rusher. While the 49ers might add some role players in the second wave of free agency, most of the major acquisitions at this point are likely to come in the draft.

On the 49ers Insider Podcast, 49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters addressed what positions he believes are strong in this year’s draft.

“I think running backs, absolutely. It’s a deep position,” Peters said. “Quarterbacks at the top is deeper than it was last year. Secondary, corners, it’s not deeper than it was last year, but it’s a strong class of corners. Those are the main ones. The offensive line class is a little better than last year, too.”

The 49ers got major contributions from their rookie class last season. Tight end George Kittle, receiver Trent Taylor, quarterback C.J. Beathard, running back Matt Breida, defensive lineman Solomom Thomas, cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, linebacker Reuben Foster and safety Adrian Colbert each played more than 300 snaps.

The 49ers feel good about Witherspoon, a third-round draft pick, as a starter with Sherman on the other side. Peters said a lot of the team’s rookies played larger roles than expected in 2017, but Witherspoon might have been at the top of the list.

“I don’t think he was active for the first four games,” Peters said of Witherspoon. “And he ended up playing at a high level at the end. Really driven, conscientious player who wants to be great. 

"We were lucky we got a chance to play a lot of rookies because that’ll help us moving forward.”

Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense


Shanahan sees versatile McKinnon as piece that was missing from 49ers' offense

The player Kyle Shanahan studied on video was a lot better than the player he saw on the stat sheet.

The 49ers coach said he places a lot more emphasis on how he projects a player in his offense than what the player did with his former team.

And that is why the 49ers placed a large priority on signing former Minnesota Vikings running back Jerick McKinnonon the first day of the free-agent signing period. McKinnon comes to the 49ers on a four-year, $30 million contract with $11.7 million guaranteed.

McKinnon's stats might not suggest he is anywhere near a top running back in the NFL, but Shanahan sees it differently. And that is why the 49ers opted to pursue McKinnon instead of Carlos Hyde.

“I don’t know the numbers until I like the guy,” Shanahan said. “I always watch the guy first, and turn on the tape and get lost in it for a while. There were so many things I liked about him, visualizing how we would use him and stuff he would do. And even though there wasn’t a ton of it, you still got to see him do some stuff that we do a lot. Where he did it, he excelled a ton and was very good at it.

“Eventually, I look at the numbers and it did surprise me. Then you go back and you try to see why. I’m not going to get into all the whys, but I know all the stuff we liked about him, we cut up those numbers. I think they would’ve been good numbers.”

In four NFL seasons as a part-time player, McKinnon (5-9, 205), averaged 4.0 yards per rushing attempt. The past two years, he gained 539 and 570 yards with rushing averages of just 3.4 and 3.8 yards.

Hyde (6-foot, 230) is a bigger back with more production in his career. He rushed for 988 and 938 yards in 2016 and ’17 with averages of 4.6 and 3.9 yards.

Shanahan said he looked at every player who was available, and McKinnon was the player he evaluated to be the best of all the free agents. Shanahan has long valued running backs who are versatile in the run and pass games with an ability to make defenders miss.

“A good run is when you get more yards than what it was blocked for,” Shanahan said. “Sometimes, runs are blocked for negative 1 (yard) and the best run in the game was a 1-yard carry.

“Sometimes the one that most people could do is a 60-yarder because it was a busted coverage or a busted front and nobody was there. Numbers do tell stuff, but it’s never an absolute."

The 49ers signed McKinnon to be the starting running back with Matt Breida likely mixing into the action. The 49ers could also be in the market to add to the competition and depth through the draft.

Shanahan is likely to deploy multiple players, just as he did successfully with Atlanta Falcons running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. McKinnon is expected to take Freeman’s role. In each of Shanahan’s two seasons as Falcons offensive coordinator, Freeman accounted for more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage. He rushed for 1,056 and 1,079 yards while catching 578 and 462 yards in passes.

“I’m just excited to be in the offense that I feel is a perfect fit for me,” McKinnon said on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

“Things that coach Shanahan has done with the backs like he did in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, I see myself doing those kinds of things. For me, I feel like the scheme is right. The fit was just perfect for me. I feel like I can’t be in a better situation as a player.”

Shanahan said he liked McKinnon as a draft prospect in 2014 out of Georgia Southern but it was more difficult to evaluate him because he mostly played quarterback in college.

But in studying McKinnon while with the Vikings, he saw a runner who has speed and elusiveness while also exhibiting the strength to break arm tackles. He set the record at the NFL Scouting Combine for running backs with 32 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press in 2014. But McKinnon's best asset might be his ability to be a factor in the passing game in blitz pickup, while also being a dependable receiver out of the backfield or in the slot.

“When it comes to separating and beating linebackers and safeties in man-to-man coverage, I definitely think he’s an issue for teams,” Shanahan said. “I think this league, when it comes to third downs and things like that, you move the chains based off of matchups, which allows you to get points in the long run. I think Jerick is very versatile and we can do a lot of things with him.

“He’s good enough to make it as a runner alone in this league. He’s good enough to make it in the pass game as just a third down threat alone, but when you can do both of those, it gives you a lot of freedom as a coach.”