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49ers Defeated 21-19 in the Desert

Posted Dec 11, 2011

GLENDALE, Ariz. – According to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, you’re only as good your last performance in the National Football League.

If Sunday’s outing is the latest judgment on the San Francisco 49ers, the team will have to put together a strong showing in their next contest, following Sunday’s 21-19 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals.

Despite being the NFC West title holders with a playoff game looming, the 49ers know there are improvements to be made if they truly want to make noise in the postseason.

Sunday’s atmosphere was a lesson in how to handle adversity throughout a 60-minute game.

It was a tough test for the 49ers (10-3) from the onset, facing a Cardinals team that had won four of its last five contests, with its only loss coming at the hands of the 49ers in a 23-7 Week 11 defeat at Candlestick Park.

This time around, the Cardinals (6-7) received a stellar performance from backup quarterback John Skelton along with several timely defensive stands in the red zone on their way to evening the season series with the 49ers.

“It was a football fight out there today,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after his team dropped its first NFC West game under his watch. “I thought we were positioned to win really at all times of this game.”

Trailing 21-19 with 2:51 left in the game, the 49ers went on to turn the ball over on downs when Smith couldn’t complete an improvised fourth-down pass to rookie running back Kendall Hunter.

The points might not have been needed if the 49ers had converted a touchdown on any one of their three first-half trips inside the red zone.

“We can’t score field goals, we have to get touchdowns,” said left tackle Alex Boone, who filled in for Joe Staley who left the game early in the first quarter with a head injury. “We got to get those points. That’s the one thing we’re really regretting right now is leaving points on the board. Especially when we get down there close, we need to punch it in there.”

Dating back to their 26-0 Week 13 win over St. Louis, the 49ers had gone without a touchdown in their last seven trips inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

And with a 12-7 halftime lead over the Cardinals, the 49ers knew there were opportunities to be seized in the second half.  It seemed like the 49ers were on their way to finding offensive success with their opening drive of the third quarter.

The 49ers began the drive on the Arizona 37-yard line, thanks to a sack from rookie linebacker Aldon Smith and an 11-yard punt return from Ted Ginn Jr., which set the 49ers up in prime position to make good on their first-half miscues.

As is turned out, the 49ers didn’t need a red zone trip to score their first touchdown. Frank Gore scored from 37 yards out behind solid blocking from center Jonathan Goodwin, and a downfield pancake block from wideout Michael Crabtree.

It was the 49ers’ longest rushing score of the year, too.

Gore surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with a 20-yard run in the first half, giving him five 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his seven years in the league. The 49ers all-time leading rusher finished the game with 72 yards on 10 carries. Hunter added 20 yards on eight carries.

The 49ers, however, never really established the running game against Arizona to their liking. As a result, Alex Smith was under heavy pressure throughout the afternoon. He was sacked five times on the day, while completing 18-of-37 passes for 175 yards.

“We’re going to have to bounce back,” Alex Smith said. “I don’t know if we’re shrugging it off, we need to get better. We need to be honest with ourselves, no question. When we look at this film I don’t think it's something that we’re going to dismiss and move on. We’re in December now and have to continue to get better.”

By comparison, Skelton made timely throws while being called into action for injured starter Kevin Kolb in the first quarter. Skelton was especially effective in the second half, throwing two of his three touchdown passes. The second of which, a 3-yard pass to Andre Roberts, turned out to be the game’s deciding points.

Skelton finished the game completing 19-of-28 passes for 282 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Skelton targeted Larry Fitzgerald often, and as a result, the gifted wideout made the 49ers pay. He finished the day with seven catches for 149 yards and key third-quarter touchdown as a response to Gore’s long scoring scamper.

Following a 49ers fourth-quarter punt, the Cardinals got back into field-goal range when Skelton’s tipped pass was intercepted by cornerback Tarell Brown, who cradled the ball with both hands while falling to the ground. The 49ers could not capitalize on the miscue, nor did they score a touchdown after Dashon Goldson’s first-half interception of Skelton.

“You play like the way we did today, you won’t get that far into the playoffs,” receiver Kyle Williams said. “It’s not a question; it’s a necessity that we have to bounce back.”

In the second half, Fitzgerald and Skelton continued to make big plays for their team, including the star wide receiver’s catch and run that saw him break a few tackles on his way to a 53-yard gain down to San Francisco’s 20. Fitzgerald’s big reception set up Roberts’ touchdown with 11:50 left in the game.

The 49ers responded with a three-and-out, their fourth consecutive punt following Gore’s touchdown run. When the offense needed to give their defensive teammates rest, they couldn’t string drives together in the late stages of the game.

But despite not having Patrick Willis in the lineup at middle linebacker opposite of NaVorro Bowman, Larry Grant filled in nicely with nine tackles to lead all 49ers defenders.

“We’re a great team,” Grant said. “We’ll get better from this and bounce back from this loss. We’ll put this one behind us and get back to work.”

Besides their usual strong defensive play, the 49ers special teams also played a big role in the game’s outcome. Andy Lee netted a 62-yard punt and later had his second punt of the day downed at Arizona’s 1-yard line thanks to some nifty teamwork by C.J. Spillman, who tipped the ball back to Blake Costanzo to down the ball.

Special teams came up big once more as Ted Ginn Jr. returned a punt 50 yards down to Arizona’s 3-yard line. But three well-defended plays from the Cardinals defense forced another kick from Akers, this time from 22 yards out to make it 12-7 at the half.

The game’s first touchdown was negated when Arizona challenged a third-down spot. It just happened to come right before a fake field goal attempt that saw Lee fire a perfectly thrown pass downfield to, of all people, Goodwin.

Officials ruled that the challenge flag was thrown before the fourth-down snap. In a cruel twist of fate, the replay booth was malfunctioning and could not show the replay. As a result, Akers missed from 50 yards out, pushing his kick wide to the right.

And to make matters worse, on the very next play, the Cardinals took the lead with a 60-yard touchdown from Skelton to wide receiver Early Doucet, who cut back against the grain and received a huge downfield block from teammate Fitzgerald on his way to the end zone.

“It ended up being a 14-point swing,” Harbaugh said of the crucial first-half sequence.

Despite the disappointing outcome, the 49ers will be back to work soon for their Monday night matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“There’s no reason to hang our heads,” safety Donte Whitner said in a serious tone. “We have leaders in this locker room.”

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