Cardinals outside linebacker Chandler Jones tackles 49ers quarterback Brian Hoyer on Sunday.
When crunch time came in past years, the Cardinals' defense was usually the one dropping the hammer.
But in fourth quarter losses to the Lions and Cowboys earlier this season, it was the one getting squashed. The Cardinals were determined to get back to their late-game ways, and did so in Sunday's 18-15 overtime win over the 49ers.
The defense didn't allow a first down in the fourth quarter to give the offense every chance to win the game, and even though that didn't happen, it didn't break. San Francisco got the ball first in overtime and put together an impressive drive, but the Cardinals forced a field goal near the goal-line when a touchdown would have ended it.
"That," linebacker Karlos Dansby said, "is how we're supposed to play."
The Cardinals led by two in the fourth quarter against Detroit but gave up a pair of touchdowns in just over five minutes as Detroit took control. Last week, the Cowboys broke open a tie game with 14 points in a seven-minute span in the fourth. The 49ers, meanwhile, scored three points in the final 29 minutes of this contest.
"We made it a big emphasis, that in that fourth quarter, that's when we've got to rise up," money linebacker Deone Bucannon said. "The first three quarters, we were lights out those first three games. … I'm happy we came out with the win. We played all four quarters."
The defense has to be the engine for the Cardinals right now because of all the injuries and inconsistency on the other side of the ball (though it did suffer one of its own when linebacker Markus Golden left the game late with a knee injury). Success has shown up in spurts throughout 2017 but there have been too many lapses.
Red zone woes were a big problem through the first three games, as the Cardinals were last in the league, allowing touchdowns on 87.5 percent of possessions inside the 20. They didn't allow the 49ers in the end zone at all on Sunday, allowing for the late-game heroics by Larry Fitzgerald.
"They didn't give up any touchdowns, so that's a pretty good day," coach Bruce Arians said.
The Cardinals only had one takeaway – an interception by safety Antoine Bethea – but came close to a couple others. Cornerback Justin Bethel couldn't corral a pass early in the game, and Dansby didn't see another heading his way until it was too late.
Safety Tyvon Branch forced a fumble that was recovered by 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, and a forced fumble by Bethel and recovery by Kareem Martin in overtime was reversed on review.
Bethea's pick was easy, as a pass by quarterback Brian Hoyer floated into his hands with no one around.
"Like a punt return," Bethea said.
San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan was furious with the officials on the play because safety Tyrann Mathieu collided with intended receiver Trent Taylor.
"We ran a double move to Trent and he got grabbed and thrown, is what I saw," Shanahan said. "That's why no one was there except for a safety playing over the top. They obviously saw it different. We'll see it tomorrow and I'll talk to them about it tomorrow."
In addition to the interception, the Cardinals finished with three sacks, one by Mathieu, one by defensive lineman Olsen Pierre and a combined sack for defensive linemen Frostee Rucker and Xavier Williams. The interior pressure by the defensive line was a welcome boost.
"It's huge," Williams said. "We always talk about production. You can't just be in there taking up space. Our D-line, the way we play, we attack, we get push. Everybody needs to get after the quarterback. And the better we play, the better (the back seven) plays."
The Cardinals' defense had its ebbs and flows in this one, much like the first three games. But in critical situations, it stood tall. The 49ers didn't pull away in the end like Dallas and Detroit, because they kept settling for field goals.
"That was supposed to happen the first three ballgames," Dansby said. "We pride ourselves on trying to keep people out of the end zone, but we've been having breakdowns in the red zone. Today, we held them out of the end zone, and we won the ballgame."