The San Francisco 49ers before Sunday’s game in Arizona had not held an opponent to fewer than 24 points this season. So coach Kyle Shanahan knew 15 points likely wouldn’t be enough against the Cardinals.
He was right. San Francisco dropped its sixth consecutive game when Cardinals rookie quarterback Josh Rosen orchestrated two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, leading his team back from a 15-3 deficit to its second victory over the 49ers this month.
Offensive execution in key situations and the defense faltering late led to an 18-15 defeat. The 49ers had a chance to tie the score after the Cardinals took the lead with 39 seconds left. But the final offensive snap flew over quarterback C.J. Beathard and the 49ers ran out of time.
A key sequence carried from late in the third quarter into the fourth, when the 49ers put together their longest drive of the game. A touchdown would have made it 19-3. San Francisco went 73 yards in 11 plays, but the drive stalled at Arizona’s 2-yard line. The 49ers couldn’t punch it in despite having first and goal from the 4 and settled for Robbie Gould’s 20-yard field goal.
“We had a chance to put them away,” Shanahan said during a conference call Monday, “especially first and goal on the 4 where we ran it on first down, had a messed-up exchange between our quarterback and our running back, which made the quarterback have to run after that. So, we got nothing out of that. Then, on the next down, we ran the ball on second and goal from the 4, where we had a chance and missed it. I thought right there, just put it in the end zone could have put it away and not had it come down to later.”
Shanahan has been criticized as a play caller throughout his career for relying too much on the pass, particularly in situations where running the ball seems prudent because it has been effective and it chews clock. On the final drive against the Packers on Oct. 15, Shanahan called a pass on second and 3. It was incomplete before Beathard was intercepted on the next play, leading to a 33-30 loss as time expired.
A run might have given the 49ers a first down and left Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers with less time to lead another scoring drive.
During the goal-line sequence against the Cardinals, Shanahan dialed up three straight runs while needing a crucial touchdown. The first was the botched zone-read on which Beathard was stopped for no gain when he mishandled the exchange. Running back Matt Breida, who played through a sore right ankle, was stuffed for a 2-yard loss on the next play. A quarterback draw was snuffed at the 2-yard line, leading to the field goal.
It was a particularly frustrating sequence for the 49ers, as they came in with the league’s second-ranked rushing attack. And it proved an inability to execute late has been the team’s biggest hindrance, perhaps more than play calling, because even the smartest call can fail if players don’t do their jobs. The 49ers played to their strength by electing to run.
“There’s so many things you can go back and look at at each play,” Shanahan said. “When you come up short, whether it’s offense or defense, everything that you did that didn’t work, you want to do the opposite. But, there’s a risk-reward on everything you do.”
The 49ers went 0 for 2 in the red zone, a defining statistic for the outcome. They forced a rare turnover in the second quarter when Rosen was intercepted by Jaquiski Tartt, who returned it to Arizona’s 12-yard line. The offense couldn’t muster a first down and settled for a field goal.
The team’s only touchdown was a 55-yard catch and run by receiver Marquise Goodwin. That came well outside the red zone, where the 49ers rank 27th in the NFL, having converted 46 percent of their attempts leading into Thursday’s game against the Raiders.
It all points to a dearth of game-changing talent on the roster in Year 2 of a rebuilding project. Shanahan made it clear his team lacks players that can effectively finish games.
“It’s something we’ve got to do to get better and get over that hump,” he said. “It comes down to, you can do a lot of things throughout a game, but when it comes down to the end when we need to close people out, and we need some closers to do that.
“We obviously are getting opportunities, reps and experience at it, but the experience hasn’t paid off yet. We had an opportunity (Sunday) night to do it. I thought we would, I felt extremely confident in that the entire game until the last play.”