By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SANTA CLARA — On paper, the 49ers looked like the clear-cut winners of Sunday’s Week 5 matchup against the visiting Arizona Cardinals.
With a strong effort defensive effort and resourceful offensive attack, San Francisco would have surely left Levi’s as winners had it not been for five incredibly costly turnovers that ultimately swung the game in favor of Arizona.
Along with that, here are five takeaways from the 49ers 28-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Losing the turnover battle translates to losing games
Giving the other team extra possessions is never a part of a winning formula in the football. In 2017, 78 percent of NFL teams that lost the turnover battle in a game also lost the game itself.
While the 49ers were able to mitigate some of the damage caused by the barrage of turnovers with timely defensive stands, the Cardinals came away with 21 points directly off of takeaways.
Two David Johnson touchdown runs were set up by short fields off of a C.J. Beathard interception and a Raheem Mostert fumble, and the Cardinals got a 23-yard scoop-and-score by Cardinals safety Josh Bynes off of a Beathard fumble.
In total, Beathard was responsible for four of the five turnovers as the second-year quarterback was stripped twice and threw two interceptions.
“He’s a quarterback and there’s a lot of responsibility on the quarterback to protect the ball,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “But there’s ten guys out there that can make it easier on him, too.”
In Beathard’s case, one of his interceptions came as a product of a pass that bounced off of the hands of Pierre Garçon in the first quarter. But the other three were a product of waiting too long to get rid of the ball in the pocket.
Moving forward, the 49ers will have to clean up the sheer sloppiness if they have any hope of being competitive for the rest of the season, which include five prime-time matchups against some of the league’s best teams.
The defense can’t do it all
Despite the poor circumstances they were put in by their offense, the 49es defense had one of its best performances of the season.
Holding the Cardinals to 220 total yards of offense, 10 first downs and only 19:49 of possession, San Francisco’s defense did all but win the game for the 49ers on Sunday.
“Oh my gosh, the defense kept us in the game. They played great today,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk. “We appreciate the hell out of them because we did not make it easy for them either.”
For most of the afternoon, the defense faced short fields and quick changes of possession thanks to the offense’s five turnovers. San Francisco was still able to hold Arizona to a 17 percent conversion rate on third down, forcing eight punts. In more impressive fashion, two of said punts came directly after 49ers turnovers.
The one moment that the San Francisco defense will surely want back is the opening offensive play for the Cardinals, where rookie quarterback Josh Rosen threw a 75-yard strike to wide receiver Christian Kirk for a touchdown.
“It was a simple play,” said 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman. “It was easy to get stopped and we just didn’t execute it like we needed to. That’s where you need to [be better] because after that, they didn’t have much.”
For all that San Francisco’s defense was able to do, however, it would not be enough as the 49ers eventually succumbed to their own mistakes.
“It’s frustrating,” said Sherman. “We have to be better than that.”
These corners and safeties need some help
Like Sherman alluded to, the one play that the 49ers secondary will be kicking themselves over will be the 75-yard bomb in the first quarter.
But while that singular play only exposed the 49ers secondary for a moment, it reminded everyone watching of the underlying problem within the secondary.
“You feel bad,” said 49ers free safety Adrian Colbert. “Some of the plays that you missed were some of the plays that you go over in practice throughout the week.”
Mistakes have plagued the 49ers secondary through the first five games of the season. Giving up 276 yards per game through the air, San Francisco has also allowed 11 passing touchdowns this season (T-3rd most in the league).
Much of the porous play can be attributed to the fact that the 49ers have one of the youngest secondaries in the league with an average of 2.5 years of experience excluding Sherman, who’s in his eighth season.
On the 75-yard score on Sunday, it was two of the youngest players — second-year corner Ahkello Witherspoon and the second-year safety Colbert — who got beat deep.
“It was just an undisciplined play by me,” said Colbert. “I saw [Cardinals WR] Larry [Fitzgerald] flash and it was just a bad play on my part.”
The question now is how the 49ers plan to address the holes in their defense moving forward.
“It’s one week at a time regardless of what your record is,” said Sherman. “You have to learn from it and move on from your mistakes.”
Lack of wide receiver depth is limiting the 49ers offense
The 49ers entered Sunday’s game without their No. 1 target Marquise Goodwin and speedy rookie Dante Pettis.
Without two players who can undoubtedly stretch the field, San Francisco was forced to deploy a limited offense filled with short passes, screens and check downs.
“The more guys you have out there, the easier it is,” said Shanahan. “You try to balance it all out. You go where they’re not defending and when they defend, you try to go to other spots.”
The 49ers opened the game with a masterfully-orchestrated, eight-play drive that featured three screen passes to Juszczyk and tight end George Kittle.
Juszczyk was able to break off a 25-yard gain on a screen, putting the 49ers on Arizona’s five-yard line less than five minutes into the game. That drive would be capped off by a five-yard shovel pass from Beathard to running back Matt Breida for the first touchdown of the game.
After Breida left the game at the end of the first quarter due to an ankle injury, Shanahan’s playbook shrunk even further without his leading rusher.
Shanahan looked to Kittle to pick up some of the slack, and he finished as the team’s leading receiver with five catches on seven targets for 83 yards. Similar to Juszczyk, Kittle was the beneficiary of screen passes. In the fourth quarter, Kittle picked up 45 yards on a screen to the right side of the field, which he took up the sideline.
In Kittle’s case, most of his yardage, including the 45-yarder, came from yards after the catch (YAC). According to NFL.com, Kittle entered the afternoon with the 16th most YAC (130) in the NFL, and he posted an additional 68 against Arizona.
While Shanahan’s offense may have been limited considering his lack of personnel at wide receiver, it didn’t stop the unit from posting strong numbers. With 447 total yards of offense, San Francisco was no slouch as they threw for 300 yards and ran for another 147.
Can the 49ers make it out of a game without injuring a starter?
The 49ers have played five games of their regular season and in each one, they have left the stadium with at least one injured starter. Mike Person and marquise Goodwin went out in Week 1, starting quarterback Garoppolo went down in Week 3 and four 49ers linemen — right guard Mike Person, right tackle Mike McGlinchey, left tackle Joe Staley and center Weston Richburg went down in Week 4. Richburg also went down with a knee injury in the fourth quarter on Sunday.
At the end of the first quarter, San Francisco lost Breida to an ankle injury that kept the second-year back out for the remainder of the game.
“He’s been one of out better players,” said Shanahan. “Obviously when he’s not out there it’s definitely not easier.”
Breida entered the game on Sunday as the third-leading rusher in the NFL with 313 yards, and has been one of the lone bright spots on team this season, rushing for an NFL-best 7.6 yards per carry headed into the game.
Already battling a knee injury, Breida was rolled up on a tackle, twisting his right ankle in the process. As a result, he was helped to the 49ers locker room and did not return to action for the rest of the day.
For the 49ers, who are already without former Minnesota Vikings back Jerick McKinnon due to a torn ACL suffered in the preseason, an injury to Breida is the last thing they need.
Breida fills a versatile role within Shanahan’s offense that includes the ability to run in and outside of the tackles while also being able to catch passes out of the backfield. It’s a skill set that San Francisco needs, considering their current situation at wide receiver.
“It was tough losing him,” said Beathard. “He was running the ball really well. Obviously [RB Alfred] Alf [Morris] did a good job when he got in there but they’re two different kinds of backs. In the pass game, Breida is a little bit quicker and whatnot.”
According to the 49ers, X-rays on Breida’s ankle came back negative, meaning that there are no broken bones. Rather, the Georgia Southern product says he “tweaked” the ankle and will work to be able to play next week.