SANTA CLARA, Calif. — D.J. Reed was just numb.
Having just scooped up a fumbled lateral and scored with zeroes on the clock, the San Francisco 49ers defensive back stood in the end zone as a relieved crowd cheered, and Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murry stood at the 25-yard line, stunned.
It was a jarring, wacky ending to a 36-26 San Francisco win that featured five second-half lead changes. On a short week, after a bruising, deflating overtime loss last week to the Seahawks, the 49ers overcame two Jimmy Garoppolo third-down, red zone picks and found confidence in the passing game despite an inconsistent receiving corps missing two of its most potent weapons.
“It’s exhausting,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “It’s exhausting for me. I’m sure it’s exhausting for our players. I know it’s exhausting for my wife watching it and I’m sure it’s exhausting for all the fans. That’s an intense game.”
With the run game gaining just 34 yards on 19 tries, Garoppolo threw for 424 yards on 34-of-45 passing for four touchdowns — all to undrafted players — to join Joe Montana and Steve Young as the only 49era quarterbacks to throw for 400 yards and four touchdowns in a single game, while rookie Deebo Samuel caught eight balls for 134 yards — his second straight 100-yard game. It was the first time a 49ers receiver turned that trick since Marquise Goodwin in 2017.
With George Kittle watching the game from a suite due to knee and ankle injuries, and Emmanuel Sanders in and out with a rib injury, Garoppolo had to depend on Samuel, fullback Kyle Juszczyk (seven catches on seven targets for 63 yards) and backup tight end Ross Dwelley (four catches on five targets for 14 yards and his first two career touchdowns). While they proved themselves to be dependable targets, they were absent early, as the 49ers generated just 11 yards of offense in the first quarter to Arizona’s 108.
“There were definitely some good things,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “There were some really bad things. It actually reminded me of Monday night.”
Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury schemed around the 49ers’ vaunted pass rush, calling for a flurry of option plays and quick screens. When the Cardinals (3-7-1) weren’t playing the quick game, Murray’s arm strength allowed him to drop deep in the pocket and deliver the ball down field. When he wasn’t throwing, he was scampering, exploiting the run-game weakness in a pass-rush-focused San Francisco defense.
Without the pass rush getting home — the 49ers finally sacked Murray with 6:23 left in the first half, courtesy Dee Ford — the secondary struggled. Richard Sherman was tagged with three pass interference calls, after he hadn’t been called for so much as one since the first week of the season.
The 49ers (9-1) were able to weather that first call — made on review as Jimmie Ward lay on the turf injured — with a goal-line stand and a lucky pick play call, holding Arizona to just a field goal. Sherman, though, was flagged again on the next drive, as he tripped up Christian Kirk at the five. Two plays later, linebacker Elijah Lee left Larry Fitzgerald wide open for a touchdown.
San Francisco trailed 16-0 through the first seven minutes of the second quarter, before a 57-yard screen to Tevin Coleman sparked a scoring drive capped by Dwelley’s first career touchdown with 7:54 to go in the half.
“The offense couldnt get anything going until that touchdown,” Shanahan said.
A holding call by center Weston Richburg nullified what would have been Dwelley’s second touchdown on the next drive, and the 49ers settled for a 43-yard Chase McLaughlin field goal as the half expired.
Dwelley, though, would soon get that second touchdown. His five-yard scoring grab to open the second half capped a six-play, 84-yard scoring drive as Garoppolo — who had stepped into pressure and delivered strikes while being hit in the first half — threw 14- and 15-yard balls to Sanders, a 19-yard scheme-him-open pass to Juszczyk and a 37-yard screen to Coleman.
The first of Garoppolo’s two red zone picks — an underthrown ball to Sanders — led to an Arizona field goal, but on the next drive, Garoppolo — who’d seen at least three drops by his receivers on the evening — hit Samuel on a 26-yard third-quarter out route, where Samuel got his hands on the ball behind corner Patrick Peterson, batted it up, then caught it again between Patterson and another defender, as the crowd chanted his name.
Though Samuel went out with a jammed shoulder (he would return later and fees fine), that catch was the first of six straight completions for Garoppolo — including two to Juszczyk and a touchdown to Kendrick Bourne — to give San Francisco a 23-19 lead at the start of the fourth quarter.
“Jimmy’s confidence never waivers,” Juszczyk. “Any time he’s made a mistake, there’s no letup on him.”
Murray responded with a 22-yard touchdown run with 6:30 to go, but Samuel re-entered for the ensuing San Francisco drive and caught a 23-yard dig to get the 49ers across midfield. Three plays later, Garoppolo threw behind Dwelley trying to force a ball over the middle, and it tipped off his hand and into the arms of strong safety Jalen Thompson with 4:32 to go.
Arik Armstead, though, burst through the middle three plays later and spun Murray to the ground, giving the 49ers the ball back with 2:32 to go and two time outs.
Garoppolo completed three straight passes before a Goodwin drop. He then found Samuel for seven, and Dwelley for three for a first down at the 25. A review of the play — which looked like Dwelley was beyond the first down marker, but the ball was not — could not overturn the first-down call.
Short-yardage back Jeff Wilson — already on the field in case a fourth-and-one needed to be converted — stayed on for the first-and-10. Instead of running, he went out in a pattern, completely uncovered up the seam. On his only snap of the game, he scored a 26-yard touchdown.
“I don’t know how to feel, what to say, what to do,” Wilson said. “I’m just happy.”
Two drives later, trying for a 1982 Big Game-type lateral fest, Murray threw to Fitzgerald on a middle screen.
Fitzgerald lateralled the ball back to lineman D.J. Humphries, but he dropped the ball. Humphries then dove for it along with safety Marcel Harris at the 26. As players piled up, Cardinals guard J.R. Sweezy, on his back, flipped the ball free and sent it skittering to the end zone. San Francisco safety Jaquiski Tartt tried to grasp it, but stumbled. That’s when Reed scooped it and scored, as time expired.
“He gave me a late birthday gift, and I appreciate that,” said Reed, whose birthday was Monday, when San Francisco fell to Seattle.
“We were able to finish out the right way,” Shanahan said. “Unlike we did last week.”