But they had veterans like Robert Alford and Antonio Hamilton Sr., and a second-year man in Jace Whittaker, who knew the system. That was enough -- particularly for defensive coordinator Vance Joseph, who made them the only three cornerbacks dressed for the game.
"We knew the meat and potatoes were banged up when it came to the starters," Hamilton said. "So, they trusted a small group of guys they felt could go out there and perform. I think we did a great job."
Murphy and Wilson did not practice Wednesday to open the week of prep for the Browns, and coach Kliff Kingsbury said they would be day-to-day again with their ribs injuries. So the Alford-Hamilton-Whittaker trio may be up for full-time work yet again.
Their first effort was solid. The 49ers generated a season -ow 186 passing yards. Rookie quarterback Trey Lance completed just 51.7 percent of his passes and finished the game with a 58.4 passer rating, the third-lowest among Week Five starting quarterbacks behind Washington's Taylor Heinicke and Carolina's Sam Darnold.
None of the 49ers receivers had more than three receptions, including Deebo Samuel. Samuel went into the game leading the NFL in receiving yards, but against the Cardinals, Samuel had just 58 yards and just three catches on nine targets.
"Those guys competed their tails off and really helped us win that football game," Kingsbury said. "You can't say enough good things about them being ready to roll and prepared when their opportunity arose."
"Those guys are pros, and I love pros," safety Budda Baker added. "Guys who understand their job and do their job at a high level – no matter if they're starting, second string, third string – they're going to do their best. We're just blessed to have guys who can come in like that, and the standard never drops."
Sunday was Alford's best performance in 2021, after missing each of the last two seasons with a broken leg in 2019 and a torn pectoral muscle in 2020.
According to Pro Football Focus, Alford led the secondary with a 70.6 coverage grade on 34 coverage snaps, allowing just one catch for a yard – while targeted three times.
"It felt great," Alford said. "Just to be back on the field working with my teammates every day in our goal of winning the Super Bowl."
Hamilton, who played last season with the Chiefs (including the Super Bowl), didn't sign with the Cardinals until he was a practice squad addition as the regular season was about to start. He's appeared in every game as a key special teams player -- at least until he was needed on defense.
"It's a plug and play type of defense," Hamilton said. "If you're smart, relentless and compete – you can play in this defense as long as you know what you're doing."
The NFL is a passing league. Six quarterbacks, including Kyler Murray, have already thrown for at least 1500 yards in 2021.
Strong cornerback play has become a must for teams to win. The Cardinals have not allowed 100 yards to any single receiver this season, and Sunday showed they have reliable players capable of stepping up when needed.
"This is the NFL; injuries are going to happen during the season," Alford said. "Every team wants to minizine those injuries, but as you saw on Sunday when people go down – it's the next player mentality. And, as you saw on Sunday, there aren't any drop offs. That's why this team is very special."
LENGTHY INJURY LIST FOR BOTH TEAMS; KYLER LIMITED
Kingsbury already ruled center Rodney Hudson (ribs/shoulder) out for Sunday., and the injury list for the Cardinals was long -- although not as long as the Browns.
Not practicing, aside from Hudson, was linebacker Jordan Hicks (toe), wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins (illness), Murphy, Wilson, and linebacker Tanner Vallejo (hand). Corey Peters also had a rest day. Limited were quarterback Kyler Murray (right shoulder), running back Chase Edmonds (shoulder), tight end Darrell Daniels (illness), and tackle Kelvin Beachum (ribs)
For the Browns, not practicing were running back Nick Chubb (calf), defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (knee/elbow), tackle Jack Conklin (knee), defensive end Myles Garrett (knee/ankle), running back Kareem Hunt (wrist/knee), defensive end Takkarist McKinely (ankle/knee), tight end David Njoku (knee), linebacker Malcolm Smith (abdomen) and center J.C Tretter (knee). Limited were cornerback A.J. Green (shoulder/knee), defensive tackle Malik Jackson (knee), defensive tackle Malik McDowell (elbow/foot/neck), cornerback Greg Newsome II (calf), cornerback Denzel Ward (neck), cornerback Greedy Williams (shoulder/knee) and tackle Jedrick Wills Jr. (ankle).