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As head coach Chip Kelly accurately pointed out after the 49ers 23-20 loss, "They aren't handing out participation trophies in the National Football League." Still, it was hard not to feel good about the performance of the 49ers on the road against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday.
In this article, I originally wrote that the Cardinals boast the league's number 2 overall defense, as well as the #2 defense against the pass. Actually, going into the game, the Cardinals were the league's top-ranked defense. The 49ers actually bumped them down to number 2 after yesterday's game. The struggles of the 49ers' running backs was a clear indicator of how formidable the Cardinals' defense is. Carlos Hyde finished with 14 yards on 13 carries, and backup DuJuan Harris equaled that total on 5 carries. Time after time, Arizona's front seven swallowed up the real estate near the line of scrimmage making it impossible to gain yardage on the ground. The Niners' defense, for its part, played arguably its best game since the opening week win against the Los Angeles Rams, holding dynamic Cardinals running back David Johnson to 55 yards rushing after allowing seven consecutive 100-yard rushers.
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Kaepernick returned to the scene of the worst game of his career, exorcised a few demons, and nearly helped his team walk away victorious. Last season's 4-interception performance has been well-documented, frequently analyzed and consistently cited as evidence of Kaepernick's inability to play the quarterback position at a high level. If Kaepernick's career turns into a story of redemption, whether with the 49ers or elsewhere, we may have witnessed the beginning of it these past couple of weeks.
Kaepernick's numbers were not gaudy. He completed 17 of 30 attempts for 210 yards, with 1 touchdown, and no interceptions. There were several drops by 49ers receivers factored into those numbers as well. Against an Arizona Cardinals team that gives up 195.2 yards on average to opposing quarterbacks, Kaepernick was efficient. In the previous two games, Arizona held Russell Wilson to 225 yards on 37 attempts and held Cam Newton to 212 yards. Kaepernick's performance against the Cardinals was comparable to the two quarterbacks he was most compared to before his decline.
RELATED Recap: Cardinals' game-winning drive lifts them past struggling 49ers 23-20
More than the numbers, the more impressive part of Kaepernick's day was the fact that he often made plays when they needed to be made. The 49ers converted 7 of 17 third downs, good for 41%. Converting at that clip over the entire season would be good for number 12 in the league. Again, that's not great, but it's a vast improvement. The 49ers currently rank number 25 in 3rd down conversion percentage.
Kaepernick made a number of impressive throws and kept the ball out of dangerous spots when he didn't have an open receiver. On his touchdown pass to Jeremy Kerley in the second quarter, he did a good job of keeping his eyes down the field when he was flushed from the pocket, rather than trying to take off and run. Kerley finished with 7 receptions for 71 yards. He also found tight end Vance McDonald four times for 50 yards. He did a good job of hitting McDonald in stride allowing him to accumulate yards after the catch.
When the Niners were backed up to their own 5-yard line facing 3rd and 19, after a 4-yard loss by Hyde, and a false start penalty on right guard Joshua Garnett, it seemed likely that Kelly might run a safe play just to get out of the shadow of the end zone for a Bradley Pinion punt. Instead, Kaepernick delivered a strike to Torrey Smith on the sideline for 21 yards and a first down. That drive resulted in a field goal.
Early in the third quarter, Kaepernick also displayed good touch on the deep ball to Quinton Patton for 45 yards. The pass dropped just over the outstretched hands of cornerback Justin Bethel and set up another Phil Dawson field goal.
He capped his day off with the game-tying 4-yard touchdown run around the right end with 1:55 left in the game, before watching from the sidelines as Arizona drove down the field for the game-winning field goal. Overall, his day was not perfect, but it was an impressive performance in which he displayed more consistent poise and accuracy than we've seen from him in a while.