Cardinals running back David Johnson fights for yardage during his big night against the 49ers.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The Cardinals may have been playing in the shadow of Silicon Valley on Thursday night, but it didn't take a fancy algorithm to figure out their game plan.
With backup quarterback Drew Stanton thrust into the starting lineup with three days' notice, the hope was that David Johnson could dominate on the ground to put the offense in advantageous positions.
It worked to perfection, as the star running back carried the ball 27 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns in a 33-21 win over the 49ers. Coach Bruce Arians said the plan was to rotate in Andre Ellington more, but Johnson "was hot."
He wore down the San Francisco defense, which was clear on the Cardinals' final scoring drive when Johnson capped a 12-play, 76-yard march with a 2-yard touchdown plunge.
Asked how he feels when he gets rolling like that, Johnson said "I feel unstoppable, basically, especially with the help of the guys blocking."
Two of those blockers changed in the third quarter, as Pro Bowl guards Evan Mathis (ankle) and Mike Iupati (leg) left with injuries. Earl Watford and John Wetzel stepped in – it's unknown if Mathis and Iupati will miss additional time -- but there wasn't a noticeable dropoff.
"We lose two guards, and those two guys come in?" right tackle D.J. Humphries said. "That was impressive. That's a big deal."
The offensive line did a nice job in protection, as Stanton had a comfortable pocket on most passing plays and was only sacked once. It also created big holes consistently.
And once Johnson has room to run?
"It's over," Humphries said. "If you give him a crease, he's going to hit it. It's as simple as that."
SPECIAL TEAMS BOUNCES BACK
The Cardinals' much-maligned special teams unit was solid in all phases against the 49ers. There was no bigger moment than the opening kickoff of the second half when tight end Ifeanyi Momah punched the ball away from returner Chris Davis and recovered it.
The Cardinals scored a touchdown on their ensuing drive for a 14-7 lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"That turned the whole game around," Arians said.
Momah said he was still smarting over a missed tackle on kickoff coverage against the Rams on Sunday and wanted to make a play this time.
"I came with the intention of trying to strip the ball out, and it worked," Momah said. "I punched the ball out. Every time I'm on kickoff or special teams I just try to go full bore."
The Cardinals had their best kickoff return of the year when wide receiver J.J. Nelson returned the opening boot 39 yards to start the game with favorable field position.
Punter Ryan Quigley had a poor first punt but was impressive after that. He punted nine times with a net average of 42.4 yards, and landed six inside the 20. His long was 55 yards.
"I thought special teams, we won that battle," Arians said.
PETERSON LOCKS UP TORREY SMITH
Cornerback Patrick Peterson continued his standout season by holding 49ers wide receiver Torrey Smith to zero catches on only one target.
San Francisco quarterback Blaine Gabbert barely looked his way as Peterson locked up the 49ers' top deep threat.
According to Pro Football Focus, Peterson has only given up 89 yards all season, the least of any cornerback who has started four games or more this year.
HAKEEM VALLES MAKES NFL DEBUT
The Cardinals needed a third tight end for the game against the 49ers since Darren Fells sat out, so Hakeem Valles was elevated from the practice squad. He saw significant action as the team's second tight end, mostly for blocking purposes, but dropped a catchable pass in the second half.
Valles was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent in May. Running back Kerwynn Williams, who was signed on Tuesday, was cut to make room on the roster.