San Francisco 49ers

Upon further review: 49ers flag-filled season; defensive lapses; Carrier No. 2?

The first reaction to watching the game is that all of the Cardinals scoring drives either were aided by big plays or big penalties.

First the penalties, the two biggest being the back-to-backing roughing-the-passer calls against Dan Skuta and Patrick Willis in the decisive third quarter. I didn't think either was an infraction. Skuta certainly gave Cardinals quarterback Drew Stanton a big shot after a scramble. But it was shoulder to shoulder and Stanton wasn't sliding on the play. He was diving for extra yardage.

A quarterback is afforded protection if he slides feet first. If he doesn't and is aggressively trying to pick up extra yardage, he should be treated like any other ball carrier. The officials on Sunday treated Stanton differently. Willis, meanwhile, appeared to hit Stanton with a textbook tackle as he blitzed up the middle. It will be interesting to see if either man is fined this week.

Both plays were symptomatic of officiating crews who appear far too eager to pull flags out of their pockets. This has been the case for several years but seems to be even more rampant this season. San Francisco, for instance, has drawn 36 flags for 303 yards, both tops in the league. Last year neither Willis nor Eric Reid was called for a single penalty throughout all 16 games. On Sunday they combined for six penalties, though one on Willis was declined.

I thought the personal-foul penalties on Anquan Boldin and Chris Culliver were ticky tacky, too. The difference is that by that stage in the game, after all the flags that had been thrown, those players should have taken the temperature of the room and known that even a chest bump or mashing face masks together (That's what Boldin did; it wasn't a head butt) would draw a penalty. They got – as Jim Harbaugh would put it – emotionally hijacked.

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Meanwhile, the 49ers' defensive prowess the last three years has been predicated on two things: stopping the run and not allowing big pass plays. Last year, for example, they have up 43 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which was Top 5 in the league.

Against the Cardinals, they gave up six such plays as well as a 20-yard running play to Andre Ellington. The 49ers' lack of a pass rush and miscommunication in the secondary contributed to that total.

What's notable is that defensive coordinator Vic Fangio heeded the fans' call for more blitzing. The 49ers blitzed more frequently and used more blitzers than I can recall in the Fangio era. The problem is that it didn't work. Stanton wasn't sacked at all on Sunday and often made the 49ers pay for blitzing.

A case in point: The 49ers got caught on a critical third-and-long play in the fourth quarter when Stanton read the blitz and dumped the ball to tight end John Carlson. Patrick Willis, Michael Wilhoite and Jimmie Ward all blitzed, and with no one in the flat to stop him, Carlson had plenty of space and ran for the first down.

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Derek Carrier didn't have the coming-out party some were expecting largely because the 49ers used multiple-receiver formations instead of their traditional tight end-based system. He caught one of the two passes that went his way.

Still, Carrier handled himself well as a blocker, including on Carlos Hyde's touchdown, which begs the question: When Vance McDonald is healthy enough to return, who is the team's No. 2 tight end?

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Colin Kaepernick nearly threw an interception in second and third quarters. (The one in the second would have been canceled by a defensive penalty). The target on both throws was – guess who? – Michael Crabtree, more evidence that Kaepernick is over confident in that particular receiver.

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I thought it was odd at the time that Hyde, not Frank Gore, was on the field for the 49ers' all-important fourth-down possession after they had taken over following Larry Fitzgerald's fumble. Gore, after all, excels at pass protection. It's still a puzzling decision, but to be fair, Hyde did an excellent job in pass protection during that possession.

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Despite the long run at the end of the game by Ellington, the 49ers were very good on run defense with Ahmad Brooks, Wilhoite and Ian Williams standing out. … Again, I'm not sure what Tony Jerod-Eddie and Demarcus Dobbs are adding defensively. I have to imagine that Quinton Dial and Tank Carradine would be better at the two backup positions.

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