There haven’t been many bright spots during the 49ers’ rough start to the 2018 season. Second-year running back Matt Breida has been one of them.
Breida entered Sunday’s game against the Arizona Cardinals averaging 7.6 yards per carry to lead the NFL, helping San Francisco piece together the league’s sixth-ranked rushing attack even after expected starter Jerick McKinnon was lost for the season a week before it began.
By adding McKinnon, the plan was to make Breida a complementary piece, maximizing his value as a sub-200-pound back known for his speed and one-cut running style.
With McKinnon out, the 49ers were forced Sunday against the Cardinals to rely heavily on Breida. He logged eight rushes in the first quarter alone after not logging more than 11 during the previous four games.
His eighth carry proved costly. He sprained his left ankle while getting tackled on a 3-yard run, giving him 56 yards on the afternoon. He left and didn’t return as the 49ers went on to lost 28-18 to the Arizona Cardinals.
“I didn’t know what happened at first,” Breida said. “It was nothing too serious. It was just a little tweak. I have been battling through injuries the past two weeks. I was just trying to get out there and play. I will be all right.”
Breida was on pace for a career game after posting runs of 17, 17, 9 and 19 yards. That didn’t include his 5-yard touchdown reception on C.J. Beathard’s left-handed shovel pass to cap the team’s first drive.
But San Francisco lost even after out-gaining the Cardinals in yards 447-220. The outcome was defined by losing the turnover battle 5-0 despite San Francisco limiting Arizona’s offense, led by rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, to just 2 of 12 on third-down conversions.
The 49ers were averaging 6.6 yards per play with before Breida’s exit. That fell to 4.3 yards over the final three quarters.
Breida looked spry despite suffering a shoulder injury last week, his second since the preseason, while being two weeks removed from an ugly hyperextended right knee in Kansas City in Week 3.
The former undrafted rookie worked with the training staff throughout the second quarter before hitting the locker room. He had both ankles taped and did a light workout on the sideline, but didn’t emerge with his teammates at the start of the second half.
“If Breida can’t go back in the game, then no one can go back in the game because he works as hard as anyone at that,” coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s been one of our better players and obviously when he’s not in there it’s definitely not easier.”
Breida’s replacements, Alfred Morris and Raheem Mostert, combined to rush for 72 yards on 23 carries (3.1 average). Mostert’s second-quarter fumble proved to be one of the biggest plays of the game.
The Cardinals scored their second touchdown immediately after, making it 14-6, before it spilled out of control late in the fourth quarter. Mostert had eight rushes in 29 career games coming in.
The game took a significant turn once Breida left the game.
“It’s always next man up,” Morris said. “We have to find a way to continue to say in the flow. I don’t think we did a good job of that today.”
Receiver injuries keep piling up — The 49ers were without receiver Pierre Garçon for most of the first half. He left the game with an apparent injury after reaching for an incompletion on a Beathard slant pass.
It left San Francisco without their projected top three wideouts. Marquise Goodwin (quad, hamstring) and Dante Pettis (knee) were ruled out before the game, leaving San Francisco with Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor, Richie James and Victor Bolden Jr. as their healthy receivers. None of those players have been in the league longer than two seasons.
But Garçon wound up returning in the second quarter before finishing with five catches (on 12 targets) for 47 yards. He was the culprit of C.J. Beathard’s first interception, when he couldn’t haul Beathard’s pass while running a post route. The pass bounced off his hands and to safety Tre Boston for Arizona’s first of two picks.
Richburg’s knee acts up — After the game was decided late in the fourth quarter, Weston Richburg exited the game with a knee injury and didn’t return. The $47.5 million center sustained a knee injury that caused him to exit for one play last week against the Los Angeles Chargers. The severity of the injury is unknown.
Tight end George Kittle, who led the team with 83 yards on seven receptions, suffered a knee injury but stayed in the game. He looked banged up until his 45-yard screen pass that led to Trent Taylor’s fourth-quarter touchdown. Kittle has led the team in receiving in four of five games in 2018.
Adding up the plays — San Francisco’s 92 plays were the most by any NFL team since Nov. 3, 2013, when the Raiders had 92 against the PhiladelphiaEagles. The 49ers haven’t run more than 92 plays since the merger in 1970.
The 49ers had 33 first downs, the most by the club since 1998.