SANTA CLARA — The San Francisco 49ers bested the Arizona Cardinals in first downs (33 to 10), time of possession (40:11 to 19:49), third down efficiency (59 percent to 17 percent), total yards (447 to 220) and plays (a franchise-record 92 to 49) on Sunday.
By nearly every significant statistical measure, San Francisco should have broken a seven-game losing streak to the Cardinals, kept Arizona winless on the season and given general manager John Lynch a happy 47th birthday.
Emphasis on the nearly. The single number most determinative of a win or loss at every level of football — turnovers — was decidedly not in the 49ers’ favor. San Francisco coughed the ball up five times — the most by the team since Sept. 15, 2013 — leading to 21 Arizona points, and the already-heavily-injured 49ers lost electric running back Matt Breida to an ankle sprain in a 28-18 loss.
“You look at a lot of those things, it’s hard to find how you lost a game,” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “Then, it’s very easy when you look at the turnover column. I haven’t been a part of any game — I don’t think many people have — where five turnovers to zero leads to a win.”
Four of those turnovers were committed by quarterback C.J. Beathard, starting his first game at home after $137 million QB Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Kansas City two weeks ago.
Without Breida, preseason starting running back Jerick McKinnon (ACL) and top vertical threats in injured Marquise Goodwin and Dante Pettis, Beathard had to rely on short and intermediate passes and check downs instead of a strong run game and vertical options. He paid for it, taking three sacks and fumbling twice — including the back-breaking strip sack for a score in the fourth quarter.
“It’s on all of us to block better for him,” said fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who had six catches for 75 yards. “We’ve got to get open quicker for him. We’ve got to make things easier on him. We keep talking about how tough C.J. is, and he’s one of the toughest guys I know, toughest guys I’ve played with, but your quarterback, his No. 1 attribute shouldn’t be that he’s tough. Shouldn’t have to do that.”
Of the 349 passing yards Beathard piled up through the air, 242 came after the catch because of the lack of downfield speed. Furthermore, the Cardinals (1-4) didn’t have to respect the run. Outside of Breida’s 56 rushing yards on eight carries in the first quarter, San Francisco (1-4) rushed 26 times for 91 yards. At 3.5 yards per carry, that was half of Breida’s in-game average, and far below his NFL-best 7.6 ypc for the season.
“The more guys you have out there, the easier it is,” Shanahan said. “You try to balance it all out … The more guys go down, the harder it gets.”
Though Beathard went 34-of-54 passing, outside of the first drive, there was little to no offensive rhythm.
Instead of relying on the ever-thinning receiving corps, on seven of eight plays during that opening drive, the ball went to a running back (two carries) a tight end or a fullback. The drive ended with a left-handed five-yard shovel pass from Beathard to Breida off the play fake for a touchdown. It was a masterful bit of playcalling, but a botched hold by Bradley Pinion cost the 49ers the extra point.
Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen and the Cardinals answered right back on the first play of their first drive. Rosen had time against a four-man rush, as Christian Kirk burned Ahkello Witherspoon and Adrian Colbert took the wrong angle over the top — he watched Larry Fitzgerald flash over the middle. The former UCLA quarterback found Kirk for a 75-yard touchdown to take a 7-6 lead.
After San Francisco’s obligatory penalty on their first drive after the long Arizona touchdown, a Beathard play action slant over the middle went off the hands of Pierre Garçon and right into the waiting arms of Tre Boston for an interception. It was one of Garçon’sthree dropped passes on the day.
The 49ers saw their next drive, too, sputter. Garçon dropped another catchable ball — injuring his left shoulder while doing it — and Beathard took a sack, forcing a punt in the shadow of San Francisco’s own end zone.
With Garçon off the field, San Francisco went back to what worked early. A nine-yard burst by Breida and a knifing 12-yard run by Alfred Morris set up a 15-yard pass to Morris. A false start, though, dragged that back. On the next play, Breida tried to gain another two yards after contact, but Budda Baker dragged him down from behind, twisting his right ankle. X-Rays after the game were negative, and Breida said he will get an MRI on Monday morning.
“It definitely hurt,” Juszczyk said. “Matt’s one of our best playmakers, extremely explosive. When you lose a guy like that, and you’re not anticipating losing him, it makes things tough. Other guys got to step up, and maybe we just didn’t step up enough today.”
Once Breida was helped off the field, Beathard completed a 17-yard slant to former Iowa teammate George Kittle to open the second quarter. It was one of the five times they hooked up, for 83 yards on the day.
On the next play, Raheem Mostert fumbled as he was brought to the ground. Cornerback Patrick Peterson scooped it up and returned it 49 yards, setting up a two-yard David Johnson touchdown, which gave Arizona a 14-6 lead with 11 minutes to go before halftime.
With the third quarter winding down, the 49ers ran nine of their 11 plays through the running backs, fullbacks and tight ends, but a drop by Kendrick Bourne brought up a 45-yard Gould field goal attempt. He missed for the first time since last season, breaking a string of 33 straight makes.
San Francisco’s next drive again relied on anyone but the receivers, at least until the end. After the 49ers had gone 74 yards on 12 plays — including a 45-yard hookup from Beathard to Kittle — a gift touchdown pass in the front of the end zone to Cole Wick was dropped.
With Shanahan running on the field to call a time out, the next play went off anyway, with Beathard rolling right and finding a diving Trent Taylor in the front right corner of the end zone with 6:59 to go in the game, getting San Francisco within two points.
Arizona took up less than a minute of game clock as it went three-and-out, but on the first play of San Francisco’s ensuing drive, Beathard was stripped by Haason Reddick off a safety blitz, enabling Josh Bynes to scavenge the fumble recovery touchdown with 4:41 to go.
Forty-one seconds later, Beathard’s deep middle pass to Victor Bolden Jr. — activated Saturday to take the place of Goodwin — fell into the hands of Bené Benwikere, who returned it 21 yards to the 49ers 26. The Cardinals scored five plays later.
The San Francisco defense was sterling, save for the 75-yard bust on the first play. They held Rosen to 10-of-25 passing for 164 yards, and held Arizona to just 220 yards of total offense.
“We gave them 75 yards to start and I think they had 200 in the game, and 30 rushing,” said cornerback Richard Sherman. “We have to find a way to get that out of there.”
The 92 offensive plays run by the 49ers on Sunday were the most in franchise history. The previous high was 88, set Nov. 1, 1953. The last time San Francisco ran as many as 80 plays was Nov. 20, 2011, when the 49ers ran 87.
Their 33 first downs were tied for the second-most in franchise history, equaling what was then a franchise record set on Nov. 8, 1987. The Steve Young-led 49ers set the franchise record on Oct. 18, 1998 with 36 first downs against Indianapolis.
San Francisco converted 10 third downs for the fifth time since 2002, and 19th time in franchise history.
Only 13 times in franchise history before Sunday had the 49ers held the ball for 40 minutes or more. They’d only lost one of those games — a 37-34 overtime decision on Jan. 3, 1994 against Philadelphia.
San Francisco had only recorded a 40-minute time of possession four times this century. Sunday was the fifth. Their 40:11 time of possession ranks 14th in franchise history.
Entering Sunday, teams since AFL-NFL merger were 10-136 in games in which they rushed for fewer than 60 yards and completed 40 percent or less of their passes. Arizona rushed for 54 yards, and Rosen completed exactly 40 percent of his passes. The Cardinals became the first team to win since the Chicago Bears did it to Arizona in 2006.