Jason O. Watson / Stringer
SANTA CLARA — The 49ers lost Sunday, but they were not necessarily beaten. Considering the circumstances defining the first four games of San Francisco’s season, Sunday’s 28-18 loss to the visiting Arizona Cardinals stings a little more than the other three defeats.
The 49ers (1-4) entered Sunday coming off two straight losses. Last week, they blew an early 14-point lead and committed untimely turnovers in their 29-27 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. In order to salvage the season, with a couple franchise players unavailable for the rest of the year, a win against the NFL’s only winless team seemed to be the perfect remedy. For a struggling defense, facing a rookie quarterback in his second professional start seemed to be the perfect confidence-booster.
But the 49ers didn’t get it done. The way they lost may be more troubling than the result itself.
They beat themselves.
The 49ers are the first team in NFL history to pick up 30 first downs, hold their opponent to 10 or fewer first downs, and lose by double-digits.
After today, NFL teams are 46-4 all time when they pick up 30 first downs and hold their opponent to 10 or fewer.
— Bobby Belt (@BobbyBeltTX) October 7, 2018
Look at the stat sheet, and you’d expect a blowout 49ers win. They gained 33 first downs to Arizona’s 10. They converted 10 of 17 third-down opportunities into first downs. Arizona converted just two of its 12. The 49ers more-than-doubled the Cardinals’ yardage — 447 to 220.
But the most telling statistic— focused upon during Kyle Shanahan’s postgame team speech and press conference— was the turnover disparity. The 49ers committed five turnovers to Arizona’s zero. They have committed 11 turnovers to their opponents’ three this season. The only game that they won the turnover battle came in Week 2 against Detroit — their only win of the season.
Those self-inflicted mistakes make this loss, with all of the favorable circumstances surrounding it, sting more than the rest.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “You go on like 15-play drives and you don’t score. Too many pre-snap penalties, too many post-snap penalties— it’s self-inflicted wounds. And those are the toughest ones to swallow. You don’t feel like it’s the opponent, you feel like you’re hurting yourself.”
Each of San Francisco’s first three losses felt a little different, but there were a couple common threads. The 49ers defense consistently dug too big of holes for the offense to overcome. The 49ers had not played a full 60 minutes of sound football, with each loss marred by slow starts or poor finishes.
Neither trait immediately applied to Sunday’s game. The 49ers scored a touchdown on the first possession of the game. They scored a touchdown on their final possession of the game.
The defense was San Francisco’s stronger unit. With exception to a 75-yard touchdown on Arizona’s first offensive play, the 49ers held the Cardinals to 145 yards Sunday. They held first-team All-Pro running back David Johnson to 55 yards on 18 carries. They contained Rosen, who looked every bit like an overwhelmed rookie, to 10 completions on 25 attempts. The 49ers defense did not force a turnover, and they produced just one sack, but they played well enough to win.
Yet there were few silver linings to be found in Sunday’s 10-point loss.
“It is kind of frustrating coming in here in the locker room and talking about what could have been,” Joe Staley said. “We just got to put it together and start doing what we need to do to win games.”
Despite the 49ers’ yardage, the five turnovers proved costly. C.J. Beathard threw two interceptions and fumbled twice. He held onto the ball too long at times, but the undermanned receiving corps failed to gain much separation.
The blend of issues, and collection of losses, have created an obvious reality in the 49ers locker room.
“The (locker room) feeling is just, we got to get better,” Juszczyk said. “It’s way too early in the season to just start going through the motions. We have 11 weeks. We have to come in and get better. (Shanahan) just stressed that to us. He stressed that it’s there, you see it in the numbers, the talent is there— we just have to take care of the ball.”
When asked whether he feels the 49ers are going through the motions, Juszczyk said he does not.
“But it’s something that is common in a team that is 1-4,” he added. “We can’t start doing that.”
Juszczyk said the margin for error shrinks whenever a key player is injured. The 49ers lost Matt Breida— the NFL’s third leading rusher and most efficient runner entering Sunday— in the second quarter with a sprained ankle. He did not return.
That means San Francisco’s starting quarterback, top two running backs, and two of its top three receivers are currently injured.
When Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a torn ACL in his left knee in Week 3, many dubbed the season as a wrap. The 49ers, of course, did not. But the reality of missing the playoffs has crept in more with each passing loss. The 49ers are 1-4, tied for the worst record in the league. The Los Angeles Rams, the NFL’s burgeoning juggernaut, sit atop the NFC West at 5-0.
The 49ers visit Green Bay in Week 6 and host the Rams in Week 7. They need some sort of miraculous turnaround to achieve their goals, but time is running thin. San Francisco’s best opportunity for a win slipped away Sunday.
“There’s still so much football to be played,” Alfred Morris said. “This happens. Sometimes, you slow down. Sometimes, you have stumbling blocks. You just have to find a way to keep fighting, keep getting back up. I know with this group of guys, we will do just that.
But we can’t drag our feet. We have to figure this thing out now before it gets too far out of hand. It sucks to be 1-4 right now. (It’s) definitely not the way we thought the season would be going, but that’s the hand we are dealt right now, so we have to find a way to make it work.”