Jim Harbaugh has handed Alex Smith the keys to his offense. (Getty Images)For the second straight game, the San Francisco 49ers took their supposedly stodgy, unexciting offense and beat the excellent defense of an NFC West opponent over the head with a surprising number of strategic wrinkles. Two Thursdays ago, Jim Harbaugh's power running game beat the Seattle Seahawks into submission, and on Monday night, the Arizona Cardinals were helpless to stop a very interesting set of play concepts.
The 49ers demolished the Cards, 24-3, in a game in which the score indicated a closer game than did the results on the field. The win put San Francisco at 6-2, in firm control of its division for the second straight season.
Instead of mashing Arizona's defensive line with pure power blocking as they did against the Seahawks, the 49ers went with a series of inside and outside runs designed for quick and sustained strikes against the Cardinals' fast and blitz-happy front. Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton was able to apply pressure to 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, but the San Francisco plan seemed to account for that -- many times, blitzing Arizona defenders were washed out by the 49ers' multiple sweeps and traps.
The real problem for the Cards' defense was its complete and total inability to stop San Francisco's passing game. Alex Smith completed 14 of 15 passes for 147 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, and ended the game with an amazing 18 completions in 19 attempts for 232 yards and three scores. Had Smith thrown one more pass and completed it, he would have qualified for the NFL record for completion percentage in a single game. In 2009, Arizona's Kurt Warner completed 24 of 26 passes for 243 yards in a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, setting the official league record.
This time, it was the Cardinals' turn to suffer the effects of that ruthless efficiency.
When asked about reports that Smith had lost confidence during rockier moments earlier this season, Harbaugh put it as perhaps nobody else could.
"I think it was just a lot of gobble-gobble turkey from jive-turkey gobblers."
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Smith said before the game that the 49ers' passing attack was "schizophrenic," but said that the good personality showed up in this game. It was hard to argue.
"The guys did a great job outside all night, making me look good," Smith told ESPN's Lisa Salters. "Guys protected up front. We got off to a good start, and penalties kind of hurt us in the first half, but it came together in the second quarter and the third quarter as well.
"It was just one of those nights. There's no magic to it -- just going out and executing and making good decisions."
Michael Crabtree caught Smith's first two touchdowns, beating All-World cornerback Patrick Peterson on both plays. And in a blast from the past, Randy Moss caught a short pass from Smith, made several Arizona defenders miss, and scored a 47-yard touchdown in the third quarter. It was Moss' 18th touchdown in 19 "Monday Night Football" games.
"I think everybody loved it," Smith said of the Moss touchdown. "It was a new little personnel for us, and Randy made a great play on the cornerback out there, just to get the first down. Then, all of a sudden, he broke a couple tackles and took it to the house. He's still got it, and we talk about it around the facility. He's shown flashes of it here and there, and it was great to see tonight."
Arizona' quarterback situation has been a disaster since Warner retired after the 2009 season, and Monday night's game was no different. Behind an extremely porous offensive line, John Skelton completed 32 of 52 passes for 290 yards and an interception. Especially in the second half, when the game was clearly out of hand and the Cardinals had to pass pretty much all the time, San Francisco's defense teed off on Skelton. He was sacked four times and was affected constantly by pressure, especially from end Aldon Smith, who picked up two of those quarterback takedowns and proved to be unblockable on inside stunts. San Francisco's defense also amassed nine tackles for loss and 13 passes defensed.
The Cardinals are the only NFL team to allow at least 50 sacks in each of the last two seasons, and they have given up 39 through eight games in the 2012 season.
"This was a big test for us tonight, and everyone saw how it went for us," Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt said in his postgame press conference. "We didn't get the job done. It was disappointing, to say the least, and we've got a lot of things we've got to work on and get fixed."
That's for sure. After a 4-0 start this season, Whisenhunt's team has dropped four straight games, and they look like the team in the ultra-physical NFC West least equipped to handle that type of game. Receiver Larry Fitzgerald went out of the game early with what appeared to be a concussion, though he came back in, and receiver Early Doucet was absolutely blown up by safety Dashon Goldson in the fourth quarter when he went over the middle on a short crossing route. Fitzgerald caught five passes for 52 yards, but he paid for every one.
This was football exactly the way the 49ers like to play it, and they set the tone from the start. That's why they're in the division's pole position once again, with a football paradigm no opponent (except for the New York Giants) can seem to figure out on a consistent basis.
Of course, it's hard to figure anything out when you're getting your clock cleaned.
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