Standout performances from 49ers dominant 20-12 win over Cardinals

Marc Delucchi
·5 min read

After the Dallas Cowboys eliminated the San Francisco 49ers from postseason contention last week, the team had nothing in the standings to play for. With all the incentive in the world to mail it in for the final two games of the season, head coach Kyle Shanahan did everything in his power to stay competitive.

On Saturday, already depleted by injuries and a chance at the playoffs, the Niners showed why they were NFC favorites coming into the season. The Arizona Cardinals entered the contest in position for a playoff spot, however, after falling on their home field in a 20-12 loss, it’s now out of their hands.

Good: George Kittle

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk got more attention from the Cardinals defense, but George Kittle proved why, when healthy, he's the best tight end in the league. With his collegiate teammate CJ Beathard under center, Kittle caught four of his five targets for 92 receiving yards and was a ferocious blocker in the run game. Poor quarterback play and other mishaps have been the primary driver of the 49ers sputtering offense, but Kittle's extended absence only made things harder. Back on the field on Saturday, he made an obvious impact.

Bad: Robbie Gould

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

One missed extra point and two missed field goals, including one that would have sealed the game in the fourth quarter, will land any kicker on this list. Robbie Gould has been exceptional all-season, missing just one kick inside 50 yards prior to Saturday's game and one extra point. Still, his leg has been limited for some time and the 49ers must decide by Saturday whether to guarantee his salary next season. Shanahan seemed to imply they plan to keep him around, but set to be the second-highest-paid kicker in the league, Gould's play on Saturday should force them to consider saving nearly $4 million in cap space by letting him go.

Good: Robert Saleh

(AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

There's still no good reason that 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was not given a head coaching opportunity last offseason. Back in San Francisco for another year, Saleh has shown over and over again why he deserves a promotion to run a team. The 49ers have lost their best pass rushers, cornerbacks, and safeties throughout the season but, with the exception of a blowout loss to the Miami Dolphins, the unit has remained competitive. Head coach Kyle Shanahan gets plenty of credit for his innovative play design, but the 49ers have arguably suffered more premium losses on the defensive side of the ball throughout the season and Saleh has kept his unit far more productive than Shanahan. That's not a knock on the 49ers head coach, but a credit to Saleh.

Bad: Marcell Harris

(Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports)

Saleh was working without his two best safeties (Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt) to contain Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray. While the defense did a commendable job shutting down the dual-threat weapon, safety Marcell Harris gave Arizona multiple opportunities for big plays. A drop and some poor execution by Murray ultimately limited the damage, but it could have been much worse. He did make a couple of strong tackles against the run, especially on the goal line, but on a unit that played exceptionally well, Harris stood out.

Great: Cornerbacks

(Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

Ahkello Witherspoon has been dunked on consistently by 49ers fans for some time. He's undeniably had his struggles but quietly has become a solid contributor in the secondary in recent weeks. Murray beat him on a deep pass early and he committed a hold on DeAndre Hopkins in the endzone but was playing well before he made an incredible game-clinching interception in the endzone. Jason Verrett continued looking like a lockdown corner and the 49ers secondary showed that the team had the talent to have an elite defense even without an elite pass rush. With nearly all major contributors heading to free agency, the front-office will face a series of difficult decisions, but outside of quarterback, none are more pivotal than how they handle the secondary.

Great: Jeff Wilson Jr.

(Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

No Raheem Mostert. No problem. The 49ers offensive line, especially Mike McGlinchey, has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism this season, but they completely controlled the line of scrimmage against the Cardinals. Backup running back Jeff Wilson Jr. had massive holes every time he touched the ball and he took advantage. On 22 carries, Wilson amassed 183 yards, good for 8.3 yards per carry. He also caught a 21-yard touchdown pass out of the backfield. Set for restricted free agency, Wilson seems in line to receive a second-round tender to ensure he returns to the Niners next season. Paired with Mostert, the 49ers would have one of the best running back duos in football.

Good enough: CJ Beathard

(Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

I've been quite critical of quarterback Nick Mullens over the past few weeks and openly called for CJ Beathard to get an opportunity. With Mullens out for the season with an elbow injury, Beathard got his first extended opportunity of the season Saturday. He played well enough to win, but don't get it twisted, Beathard's flaws were on display. While a fumble at the end of the first half was his lone turnover on the day, he nearly threw a pick-six the play before that was dropped by Cardinals linebacker Jordan Hicks. A couple of catchable throws were dropped, but Beathard also took multiple unnecessary sacks because he held onto the ball too long. He has the arm strength and can make plays that Mullens cannot, but this win goes to the offensive line, run game, and defense more than anything else.