Darnell Dockett (90) and the Cardinals' defense celebrates a fourth down stop in Sunday's 23-20 loss.
The 49ers' powerful running game usually starts with handing the ball to workhorse back Frank Gore and dominating the line of scrimmage.
In Sunday's first quarter they were anything but, using end arounds, quick passes and other means to put up 17 points and leave the Cardinals momentarily flummoxed in what eventually was a 23-20 49ers win.
"They came out in the first 15 plays and were doing things we totally weren't expecting," defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. "Everybody, and I am including all of you and my 7-year-old son, thought San Francisco was going to come off the bus running power, because that's what they did their last 18 plays against us (in the first meeting). They came out running reverses and throwing passes to the tackle. It kind of got us all off balance."
Gore didn't carry the ball once on the opening possession, as consecutive hand-offs to in-motion receivers Anquan Boldin and Quinton
Patton went for 11 and 26 yards. The 49ers got a field goal from Phil Dawson on that drive and added touchdown receptions by Boldin and Vernon Davis for the 17-0 lead. San Francisco racked up 152 total yards in the quarter and only six came from Gore.
"They came out with a good game plan," coach Bruce Arians said. "A lot of reverses, a lot of things early in the game to try to keep us off guard from stopping the run because they knew we would be very aggressive, and we were."
Late in the second quarter, quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw a pass to tackle-eligible Joe Staley for 14 yards to get inside the red zone, but Dawson missed a field goal to keep it a 17-7 game at halftime. From there, the Cardinals' defense stiffened.
Gore's pedestrian first quarter got only worse the rest of the way. He finished with a season-low 14 yards on 13 carries, and soon the 49ers could not find other ways to move the ball. The Cardinals finished the season with the NFL's top-ranked rush defense.
They only scored six points in the final three quarters on a pair of field goals by Dawson in the game's final two minutes. The Cardinals' defense continually made stops on third- or fourth-down-and-short plays, allowing the offense to rally.
"They did what they did because they knew we were going to be ready for everything else," Dockett said. "We have been in that situation before. We knew it was going to be some punches thrown left and right. They hit us with three other punches and got up on the board fast. We came back in the second quarter and regrouped."
The Cardinals almost did enough to win the game, but the 49ers put together a pair of late drives to squeak out the victory. San Francisco went 41 yards on seven plays to set up a 56-yard field goal by Dawson with 1:45 left, and then went 42 yards on three plays in the final 29 seconds. Dawson hit the 40-yard game-winner as time expired.
Patton had a 29-yard catch to get the 49ers in field goal territory on the final drive. The rookie wide receiver finished with two catches for 34 yards after totaling just one reception for zero yards heading into the game.
"On both sides of the ball, we made plays," linebacker Daryl Washington said. "They just made more."