• Jay Moore

Film Room: What Happened to the 49ers Defense on the Final Drive?

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann


The 49ers held a five-point lead late in the fourth quarter against an Arizona Cardinals team that has a rookie quarterback in Josh Rosen, and a rookie offensive coordinator calling his first game in Byron Leftwich. In theory the 49ers defense should hold the advantage. In reality the Cardinals offense stormed down the field for a game winning touchdown. What happened to the 49ers defense? Why were they so successful holding the Cardinals offense to 10 points all game, then turning into papier-mâché with the game on the line?


Third-and-10 on the third play of the game-winning drive for the Cardinals. The Cardinals new play-caller Byron Leftwich calls a simple concept, all curls. Four receivers run the same curl route at the same depth, with the back as a check down. Quarterback Josh Rosen has a clean pocket he can step up in to make the throw to future Hall-of-Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald. The throw is a tad late and behind but it doesn't matter. The cornerback, K'Waun Williams, slipped on his break when he saw it was a curl route. Fitzgerald did a nice job selling the go route. First down, Cardinals.

First-and-10 following the previous play: who else would you want to throw to when the game is on the line? Rosen finds Fitzgerald again for a long gain. Fitzgerald finds the soft spot in the zone and Rosen throws a perfect ball for Fitzgerald to go up and get. Would have loved to see the cornerback stay with Fitzgerald, recognizing there was no need for underneath coverage. Fitzgerald is clearly the go to guy; make sure he is well covered. The coverage on the outside was good, and the pass rush was close. If Fitzgerald would have been covered, Rosen would have either rolled out to throw the ball away, taken a sack, or found the open guy in the middle of the field for a short gain with the clock ticking. This play was the turning point in the drive.

On second-and-10 two plays later, Rosen goes after the 49ers’ best cornerback, Richard Sherman. Sherman made a rare mistake on this route, he guessed the receiver was running a post route but the receiver went outside, towards the boundary, instead. Rosen recognizes this, with not much inside pressure, steps up and throws a perfect pass outside for another big gain. 49ers defense has given up more than half the length of the field in just four plays.

Two plays later after a Cardinals penalty, it’s second-and-15. The 49ers defense needs a big play on this down. A sack would be a game-changer. Instead Rosen has plenty of room to step up into a clean pocket. Linebacker Fred Warner has the tight end one-on-one and just can’t run with him. Though he doesn't get the first down, this play was crucial. A sack or even just an incompletion would have brought up third-and-long, shrinking the playbook for rookie play-caller Byron Leftwich. Instead the Cardinals convert a short third down, bringing up first-and-goal.

The 49ers do a nice job on both first and second down, forcing the Cardinals into a third-and 9 situation with the game on the line.

Cardinals score the game winning touchdown with rookie quarterback Josh Rosen hitting rookie receiver Christian Kirk. The 49ers were on their third-string strong safety Tyvis Powell due to Jaquiski Tartt and Antone Exum both getting injured in the game. Powell hesitates in his zone coverage for just a split second, creating space for Kirk in the end zone. The Cardinals called a play that was designed to beat man coverage, which is what the Cardinals expected. Even though this play call was designed to beat man coverage, I would have liked to see the 49ers in man this deep in the red zone with the game on the line. Force Rosen to make a tight window throw.


This was a tough loss for a young 49ers team that needed a win in a big way. The 49ers should have beaten this team; they are a full year ahead of the Cardinals in their rebuild. Yet, when it counted late in the game, they couldn’t get it done. They better figure it out fast because they play four day later, though playing at home against regional rival Oakland Raiders -- who have their own issues -- may help this team finally get a win without franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.


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