Turnovers led to the demise of the 49ers in a 23-13 home opener loss to the Arizona Cardinals, certainly not the kind of beginning to a new year that Mike Nolan and his team planned for.
"We didn't do a good job of protecting the football," said tackle Joe Staley. "There were way too many turnovers to win the game, and it hurts because this was an important divisional game for us, and not how we expected to start off the season."
All in all the 49ers committed five turnovers, including four on offense and one on special teams.
"I know we are a better team than that," said running back Frank Gore. "We've got to start faster, eliminate our mistakes. We still played hard, and fought, but mistakes hurt us real bad. You can't win in this league with those types of mistakes."
Following a three and out to start the game and an Arizona opening field goal drive, Gore was the first to put the ball on the ground when he ran into the back of guard Tony Wragge. Fortunately Adam Snyder recovered for San Francisco, but on the next play fullback Zak Keasey caught a short pass over the middle and coughed it up when Darnell Dockett drilled him. This one was recovered by Arizona at the 49ers 11-yardline.
The Cardinals looked to have had a first down at the 1-yardline on a 3rd down play, until tackle Mike Gandy dove into the pile late for a 15-yard foul. Neil Rackers missed his 35-yard field goal, allowing the 49ers to dodge at least one bullet.
Wide receiver Bryant Johnson's 16-yard reception against his former team on the next offensive series moved the 49ers into Arizona territory, and Gore took it from there with an explosive 41-yard scamper to the end zone for the 49ers lead.
"The line did a great job, the receivers did a great job, and I read it pretty good," said Gore. "It was wide open and I hit it. We think as an offense that we are liable to make a big play like that at any time. I thought we were going to have a big day at that point."
Unfortunately, it was mostly Arizona making the big plays and enjoying a big day.
Safety Adrian Wilson picked off J.T. O'Sullivan on the next series, and then Bertrand Berry forced him to fumble in the second quarter, totaling three turnovers in the first half.
"When you have that sort of a turnover ratio, the percentage of winning goes down with each turnover," said O'Sullivan, who finished 14 of 20 for 195 yards in his first NFL regular-season start . "You can say it starts and stops with that, but our defense gave us the chance early in the game by getting stops. We have to go out there, obviously, and not turn the ball over and score touchdowns."
Like O'Sullivan said, Arizona didn't get any points off those first-half turnovers, but Kurt Warner and the Arizona offense eventually pieced together their own 6-play, 58-yard touchdown drive against the defense. Warner gunned one deep to Steve Breaston, who got behind safety Dashon Goldson at the 1-yardline for a 40-yard play. The veteran quarterback then lobbed one up for Larry Fitzgerald for a 1-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to regain a 10-7 lead.
Late in the first half, O'Sullivan commanded a 9-play, 69-yard field goal drive that stalled on a 3rd and 1 incomplete pass to Josh Morgan. Joe Nedney's 39-yard field goal managed to remarkably tie the game at the half at 10 apiece, despite the turnovers.
"We started off sloppy and then picked it up at the end of the first half, and the defense helped us out by stopping them after our mistakes," said Gore. "But, their offense kind of took control though in that second half on us."
There was no kind of about it. Arizona firmly took command of the game with a dominating second half of play, allowing the 49ers offense to possess the ball for a little over seven minutes in the final two quarters.
Receiver Anquan Boldin, who hadn't caught a pass in the first half, snagged three in the opening drive of the third quarter of 14, 15 and 18 yards to help advance the Cardinals to the 8-yardline.
"They made adjustments at the half and they found the way to get him the ball," said cornerback Nate Clements of Boldin, who finished with 8 catches for 82 yards. "It seemed like they were just able to feed it to him in the second half."
Linebacker Parys Haralson recorded his 2.5 sack of the day to deny Warner the end zone, but a 31-yard field goal by Rackers regained an Arizona 13-10 lead.
Rackers followed up his field goal with an intentional short kickoff out to his right that was muffed by linebacker Takeo Spikes and recovered by Arizona at the 33, the fourth turnover of the game.
"They kicked it and I dropped it. That's pretty much it, bottom line," said Spikes. "We had too many turnovers, and when you have a lot of turnovers and you're not able to take the ball back and create your own turnovers, it's going to be a bad day. Special teams wise, I have some things that I need to work on."
An innocent looking pass rush by Haralson and Ray McDonald that would have led to another field goal try after the turnover instead drew a roughing the passer penalty on McDonald, setting Arizona up with a fresh set of downs at the 11.
"I was surprised just like everybody else," said McDonald, referring to the strong boos that came from the fans upon the re-play. "I felt I pulled off on him but the refs said otherwise. That was a big change in the game. But, things like that happen in the NFL sometimes. You've got to respond to them."
Instead, Arizona scored on a 2-yard touchdown run by rookie Tim Hightower when they opted to go for it on a 4th and goal.
Trailing 20-10 and with 3:57 left in the third period, the 49ers offense finally got their first chance of the second half to get on the field. Wide receiver Arnaz Battle helped ignite a 13-play drive with a 16-yard catch in traffic and an acrobatic move to stay on his feet to convert the 3rd and 11 play. Gore and DeShaun Foster carried the 49ers on down to the Arizona 12 before stalling and settling for a 30-yard Nedney field goal to bring the game within a touchdown with 12:05 remaining.
Arizona answered with a ten minute plus drive that included a 4th and 1 and two 3rd down conversions before the defense stopped them at the 8-yardline. Rackers' 30-yard field goal just after the two-minute warning finished off the 18-play, 62-yard drive, and made it a two-score game.
"We didn't get off the field. They got turnovers, we didn't. They won that battle," said Clements. "We didn't help ourselves to get off the field on third downs. They did what they wanted to do, and took time off the clock. Their defense made plays, we didn't."
Hopes to mount a comeback swiftly ended with a Travis LaBoy sack and forced O'Sullivan fumble.
"We had another chance to do something at the end and we gave up another turnover," said Staley. "That was disappointing because when you get an opportunity, you've got to do something with it."