GLENDALE — Through four games, it was clear the Arizona Cardinals had taken a collective step forward as a team.
After Week 5’s showing, the proof is in the pudding; this Arizona squad is just straight different.
Despite putting up their lowest scoring total of the season and dealing with a handful of injuries to key players before and during the action, the Cardinals did what was needed to pick up the 17-10 win over rookie quarterback Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Limiting a team to just one fourth down conversion in five chances will have that sort of effect.
“Incredible. I’ve never seen four fourth down stops and Kyle Shanahan is one of the best offensive minds in football,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the game. “To be able to slow that down at that point was huge.
“I thought he had a tremendous plan for that young kid (Trey Lance) to use his legs and let him play and show off his athletic ability, and he did. He played tough. We needed every second to win that game.”
The Cardinals defense gave the rookie little to no chance to settle in from the jump.
On just his second pass attempt of the game, Lance sailed one over the head of a semi-open Travis Benjamin in Arizona territory. He instead found Cardinals safety Budda Baker, who didn’t have to do much to snag his first interception of the year.
— Larry Fitzgerald (@LarryFitzgerald) October 11, 2021
The Cardinals turned the pick into points on the ensuing drive, going 66 yards on eight plays. James Conner capped off the drive with a one-yard touchdown run for the first points of the afternoon.
Lance’s confidence wasn’t shook, however, as the rookie answered back with what looked like the makings of a scoring drive.
Starting at their own 25-yard line, the 49ers pushed the ball down the field, eventually getting down inside Arizona’s 35-yard line and looking at a fourth-and-short opportunity.
But instead of opportunity knocking, it was rookie linebacker Zaven Collins, who met Lance near the line of scrimmage, halting any more forward progress for a turnover on downs.
Collins was out on the field much more than he was in Week 4’s win over the Los Angeles Rams, making four tackles throughout the night.
“He’s a guy who has continued to progress,” head coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the game. “He works hard at it, and we like his future. He’s just got to keep working.”
Little did anyone in attendance know, Arizona’s success on fourth down would only continue as the game wore on.
While the 49ers failed to put any points on the board in the first quarter, they were still threatening.
But just when it looked like the Cardinals were going to give up a score to the rookie signal caller, the duo of linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo, plus a helping hand from linebacker Chandler Jones, slammed the door shut.
After getting his team down to the Cardinals’ one-yard line, Lance stared at yet another fourth down attempt. Once again, he kept it, and once again, he got stuffed, with both Simmons and Vallejo earning a half-sack on the play.
Find a better goal-line defense. We dare you. pic.twitter.com/dFz8qrqFwe
— Arizona Cardinals (@AZCardinals) October 10, 2021
“Tremendous,” Kingsbury said of Simmons’ play. “He sold out. He’s a gamer. A nice kid, always laughing, smiling. But on Sundays, he shows up with an attitude, and that was a huge play in the game.”
The fourth-down clean sheet would finally come to an end in the third quarter, with the 49ers converting their third attempt of the afternoon. The drive was still a win in Arizona’s book, however, with San Francisco forced to punt yet again.
The fourth quarter presented two final fourth down attempts for the 49ers after finally finding the end zone late in the third.
Looking to covert a fourth-and-1 inside Cardinals territory, fullback Kyle Juszczyk was met head on by defensive lineman Zach Allen after taking the direct snap.
Allen turned in one of his better games this season, putting up five tackles, two of which were for losses, a sack and a QB hit.
“I think it was good for us to kinda prove that we could win a gritty game like that,” Allen said after the game. “The only real true test that we really had was probably that Minnesota game and I think we kinda lucked out with the missed kick. We’ll take it, but to prove that we can win a close game like that the way we did is definitely good.”
And last but not least, was defensive lineman J.J. Watt, who got in on the final fourth down conversion attempt of the day.
Looking to hit wide receiver Deebo Samuel in the middle of the field, Lance let one rip, but not before Watt was able to deflect the pass just enough to ruin the play.
It was arguably Watt’s best game as a Cardinal so far, with the lineman recording three tackles, two of which were for losses, the pass deflection and a team-high three QB hits in the winning effort.
JJ Watt approaching 100 career run/pass stuffs
this is number 99.5 pic.twitter.com/67zkZdHoe1
— ᑭᖇO ᖴOOTᗷᗩᒪᒪ ᒍOᑌᖇᑎᗩᒪ (@NFL_Journal) October 10, 2021
“I think he’s top 3 in QB pressures,” Kingsbury said. “I can’t tell you how valuable that is to our defense, to get those guys off the spot.
“He’s such a massive presence in there, so he’s been tremendous. I think he’s continuing to get comfortable in our system and how we do things. I expect him to just get better and better.”
While the 49ers did eventually find the end zone and knock in a field goal, the Cardinals defense allowed the fewest points in a game so far this season. The unit hasn’t allowed more than 20 points in all but one contest in 2021.
Dating back to last season, Arizona is now tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the NFL lead with 12 games of allowing 20 or fewer points.
That’s all you can ask for in a defense, especially when the offense wasn’t quite up to par.
“I think the defense played great, they held us down all game,” quarterback Kyler Murray said. “It’s a divisional game, these games are going to be tough. They aren’t always going to be sweet and pretty and flashy or have all the touchdowns or anything like that.
“You’re going to have to capitalize when you can. That’s a great team over there. It was definitely not to our standards an ugly one offensively, but we got it done and that’s all that matters.”
– Baker on the defense’s fourth-down success:
“If I was in school right now and I got a 1 out of 5, I would not be happy.”
#AZCardinals S Budda Baker on the 49ers going 1-for-5 on fourth down conversions:
“If I was in school right now and I got a 1 out of 5, I would not be happy.” pic.twitter.com/9X7P7blefU
— Tyler Drake (@Tdrake4sports) October 11, 2021