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Arizona Cardinals Defense Dominant On Fourth Down to Defeat San Francisco 49ers

The Cardinals got drawn into a war with the 49ers Sunday, but Arizona's defense was dominant and ultimately led them past their close rivals.

For the first time since the move to The Valley, the Arizona Cardinals are 5-0. Although maintaining their perfect start to the 2021 season, Sunday’s win against the division rival San Francisco 49ers was anything but routine. In the end, a 17-10 win was comfortable, but on offense, Arizona was held under 30 points for the first time this season. Fortunately, the rest of the team adopted a bend-but-d0-not-break attitude. Arizona’s defense was dominant on fourth down and held firm in the clutch against San Francisco.

San Francisco’s offense, helmed by rookie quarterback Trey Lance, had their own issues. Lance’s athletic talent flashed, but his inexperience showed up in the passing game. Subsequently, Arizona’s defense contributed an excellent performance that buoyed the Cardinals through their offensive struggles. With the defense playing lights out, the Cardinals went back to old faithful; Kyler Murray showed shades of 2020, leaning on DeAndre Hopkins on what ended up being a game-winning drive. It was a pretty ugly game, and the Cardinals allowed themselves to get drawn into a brawl with the 49ers. However, it’s a game the 2020 Cardinals would’ve lost; never apologize for winning.

Arizona Cardinals Defense Was Dominant on Fourth Down as Cardinals Improve to 5-0

Fourth Down Defensive Domination

Kyle Shanahan’s offense featured a much heavier dose of designed quarterback runs and read-option plays under Lance, and the quarterback subsequently led the team in rushing with 89 yards. Lance’s legs were not only arguably San Francisco’s most effective weapon but, after an early interception on a poor decision and throw from the rookie, running the quarterback was perhaps also the best strategy. Lance’s arm was inconsistent, as it was against the Seattle Seahawks, and some drops from the receiver corps didn’t help either. However, Lance’s dual-threat ability moved the sticks against Arizona. Shanahan will have a tough decision to make when Jimmy Garoppolo returns.

San Francisco’s offense, with a rookie quarterback and George Kittle sidelined, had a low ceiling against Arizona, but they moved the ball. Arizona’s defense rolled with the punches and held up when it mattered, limiting San Francisco to just a 20% success rate on fourth down. Four times the Cardinals refused San Francisco on fourth down, importantly stalling their chances to shift momentum, especially with DeMeco Ryans’ defense doing such an effective job against Murray and Arizona’s offense.

Isaiah Simmons made the defensive play of the game when he blew up Lance at the goal line on fourth down. The collision knocked Simmons out of the game briefly but kept a somewhat fragile Cardinals lead just out of reach of the 49ers. The sophomore linebacker continues to display his brilliance at the core of Arizona’s defense.

Arizona Cardinals Reinforced Defensive Line Was Excellent

Simmons’ goal-line play headlined a game where Arizona’s defense was dominant, but their defensive linemen contributed some of the finest performances of their Cardinals careers. Facing up against a power game upfront that has been at the core of Shanahan’s success in the NFL, the unit was disruptive, stifling, and effective. The group has been a focus for improvement over recent seasons.  Zach Allen, a 2019 third-rounder, filled up the stat sheet with a sack and two tackles for loss. Meanwhile, Leki Fotu, a 2020 fourth-rounder, got his gloveless hands on the ball twice for two tipped passes.

The most significant performance, though, came from arguably the brightest star in the group. Some have been critical of J.J. Watt’s short time in Arizona so far, citing his lack of production, particularly in sacks. That didn’t change; Watt didn’t get one against San Francisco but was the most dominant defensive player on the field.

No, Watt didn’t sack Lance. Yet he did lead the team in quarterback hits with three. He was a menace to San Francisco’s protection all day and disrupted the already jittery Lance on passing downs. Against the run, Watt was a similarly effective force, totaling two tackles for loss. His first sack in a Cardinals uniform still eludes him, but the bevy of holding calls against San Francisco’s offensive line indicated the threat Watt and Chandler Jones posed on Sunday. He led the Cardinals in PFF’s defensive grades with a pass-rush grade of 89.1 and an overall defensive grade of 81.7.

Injuries to Williams and Hudson Cast Shadow

It was a good win, but in a divisional war, it was a physically costly one. Arizona headed in with absences in an already threadbare secondary, but it was the offense that came out of the clash battered. Center Rodney Hudson left the game with an apparent rib injury midway through the game. The former Raiders All-Pro has been Arizona’s offensive MVP for many this season, and Cardinals fans will wait anxiously for news.

Unfortunately, anyone who saw the game probably won’t need to wait for an official confirmation on tight end, Maxx Williams. Williams has been enjoying a breakout year as a pass-catcher for the Cardinals. However, an ugly-looking collision with Emmanuel Mosely saw him carted off and ruled out immediately on Sunday. With images of the injury likely suggesting structural damage to Williams’s knee, Arizona may lose him for the season.

Arizona’s defense showed up when the offense needed them to carry some of the load. Eventually, Murray and Hopkins got it done, and the Cardinals won a tough one against the 49ers. Does defense win championships? Well, it certainly wins brawls with San Francisco. Cleveland is up next and possibly 6-0.

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