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To Beat 49ers, It's The Cardinals Defense That Carries The Day

Unit stops division rival on 4 of 5 fourth-downs in seven-point win

A host of Cardinals' defenders bring down 49ers QB Trey Lance during Sunday's 17-10 win.
A host of Cardinals' defenders bring down 49ers QB Trey Lance during Sunday's 17-10 win.

The Cardinals' explosive and dynamic offense has headlined and elevated the team into the Super Bowl conversation.

Sunday, though, it was the Cardinals' defense that earned the shine in a 17-10 victory over the division rival 49ers, keeping them as the only unbeaten team in the NFL.

"I think it was good for us to show the defense can win the game," said defensive lineman Zach Allen, who had a sack.

It was no more evident than on fourth downs. The 49ers went for it five times, the Cardinals stopped them on four. The biggest came early in the second quarter, when 49ers quarterback Trey Lance took the snap, sprinted right looking to pass, then wheeled towards the end zone looking for his second touchdown of the year.

Lance was stopped at the 1-yard line by linebackers Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo in a head-to-head collision. Simmons had to be evaluated for a concussion after the play -- he was cleared soon after -- but it kept the 49ers out of the end zone and set the tone for the game.

It is the first time in at least the last 40 years the Cards have had four stops on fourth down in a single game, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"He was going for it a lot, and we were surprised," safety Budda Baker said. "But we were excited to get another opportunity to be on the field and get those stops. And if I was in school right now and I got a one out of five, I would not be happy."

"It was incredible," coach Kliff Kingsbury added. "I've never seen four fourth-down stops and (49ers coach) Kyle Shanahan is one of the best offensive minds in football. To be able to slow that down was huge."

Lance completed just 50 percent of his passes for 192 yards and an interception – Baker picked it off in the first quarter. The rookie gave the Cardinals defense issues with his dual-threat ability, an element they had yet to face this season. Lance finished just 11 yards shy of the 100-yard mark rushing, averaging five and a half yards per carry.

"I thought Shanahan had a tremendous plan for that young kid to use his legs and let him play and show off his athletic ability, and he did," Kingsbury said. "He played tough. We needed every second to win that game."

The 49ers' offense, which ranked in the top 10 in points scored, was held to just 10 points. The Cardinals have held teams to 20 points or less in eight of its last 11 games and are tied with the Ravens with 12 such games dating back to the start of 2020.

Veteran defensive lineman J.J. Watt also had his best game for the Cardinals. He has yet to record his first sack as a Cardinal but was close several times Sunday. He was disruptive in putting heat on Lance and made crucial stops against the run. Watt had his most significant moment in the game when it mattered most. On fourth-and-4 and trailing by three, Lance dropped back in the shotgun for a pass, but Watt tipped the throw and forced another turnover on downs.

Watt proved once again that sacks don't explain the whole story regarding his level of productivity.

"I can't tell you how valuable that is to our defense," Kingsbury said. "He's such a massive presence in there; he's been tremendous. I think he's continuing to get comfortable in our system and how we do things, and I expect him just to get better and better."