The Niners were all over Peterson on punt returns
Here’s how the 49ers fared on Sunday in keys to the game identified by NinersDigest before San Francisco’s sloppy 23-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, giving the Niners their first 9-1 start and eight-game winning streak since 1997 while solidifying their No. 2 status in the current NFC playoff pecking order and taking them another step closer to their first NFC West title since 2002.
Get Gore and ground game rolling again
YES: The Niners ran on the Cards from start to finish. Gore looked much closer to his standard form and didn’t appear hampered by the ankle and knee injuries that bothered him the past two weeks. He ripped off several runs into the second level as San Francisco established control early in the game despite not putting many points on the scoreboard. Gore had 64 yards rushing in the first half, then grinded it out after that before resting the entire fourth quarter and finishing with 88 yards on 24 carries. Kendall Hunter and Anthony Dixon took over from there, combining for 59 rushing yards as the Niners finished with 164 yards on the ground, tying for their fourth-highest total of the season.
Gang up on Larry Fitzgerald
YES: The 49ers completely took Fitzgerald out of the game when it was still a game. Fitzgerald had one reception for zero yards entering the second half, and his 23-yard reception that gave the Cardinals their only touchdown midway through the final quarter came only after cornerback Carlos Rogers – who had position on the play – allowed Richard Bartel’s pass to slip right through his arms and into the hands of Fitzgerald in the end zone. The Cardinals targeted Fitzgerald nine times in the game, but he finished with a pedestrian three receptions for 41 yards as the San Francisco defense quickly reduced him to nonfactor status early in the game.
Keep mixing it up with Alex Smith and passing game
YES: The 49ers couldn’t have mixed it up much more on offense with their passing game than this as Smith went to the airwaves with a season-high 38 attempts, throwing passes to eight different targets and completing throws to six of them. Smith threw 26 passes in the first half alone, compared to 19 first-half running plays by the Niners, and he got yet a new face regularly involved as second-year player Kyle Williams matched his previous career total with five receptions. Smith threw to his two favorite targets – tight end Vernon Davis and wide receiver Michael Crabtree – 10 times each, and they combined for 12 receptions for 187 yards. Crabtree abused rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson throughout the day, and he wasn’t the only one. Smith also threw a combined nine times to two of his other top targets – tight end Delanie Walker and wideout Braylon Edwards – but the downside of that was none of those passes were completed.
Contain Patrick Peterson in punt coverage
YES: Peterson, the rookie first-round draft pick who had returned three punts for touchdowns in his first nine NFL games, had a rough first of what figures to be many career games against the 49ers. And that includes at what he does best, as Peterson coughed up the football on his second punt return in the third quarter for one of Arizona’s five turnovers on the day. It was a killer turnover for the Cards as four plays later the Niners scored the touchdown that put them ahead 23-0 and effectively erased any smidgen of remaining hope for any kind of Arizona comeback. Peterson actually got 10 yards on that return before he fumbled, giving him an 11-yard average on his two punt returns for the day. The only impact Peterson had returning punts for the Cardinals in this game was a bad one.
Bang on Beanie
YES: Chris “Beanie” Wells had 12 yards rushing on his first two carries, then was stripped of the football by Patrick Willis on his third tote, setting up a San Francisco field goal and pretty much putting Wells in the tank for the rest of the afternoon. Wells finished with 33 yards rushing on eight carries and carried only twice after halftime. Wells – who has rushed for 531 yards more than any other Arizona player this season – didn’t even finish as the Cardinals’ leading rusher. Backup Chester Taylor needed only one carry to take that distinction from Wells, gaining 34 yards on his only touch in the ground game midway through the fourth quarter.
Justin Smith vs. Levi Brown
YES: Smith didn’t embarrass Brown by any means, but he did apply consistent pressure against Arizona’s struggling left tackle that contributed to starting quarterback John Skelton’s quick trigger and several poor throws that resulted in interceptions by linebacker Patrick Willis and safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson. Smith did finish with two of San Francisco’s five quarterback hits, and he was in quarterback Richard Bartel’s face on Arizona’s final offensive play of the game, forcing the backup to throw a short dump-off pass on a fourth-and-10 snap from the San Francisco 16-yard line with 3:27 remaining to play.
Win in the red zone
NO: This was a considerable concern for the 49ers entering the game, and it is even more so coming out of the game. San Francisco scored touchdowns on just two of its six trips inside Arizona’s 20-yard line, even worse than the Niners’ 43.75 percentage of scoring TDs in the red zone entering the game that had them ranked 24th in the NFL in that category. The Niners were particularly bad in the first half, having to settle for field-goal tries three times after driving inside the Arizona 12, with one of those kicks getting blocked. The Niners, in fact, settled for field-goal tries at the end of all six of their first-half possessions, with two getting blocked and David Akers missing a third. Two other field-goal attempts came after the Niners had bogged down close to the red zone at the Arizona 28 and 25. “We’re definitely moving the ball, but in the red zone was just bad, no other way to say it,” quarterback Alex Smith said.