Safety Tony Jefferson (22), cornerback Patrick Peterson (21) and defensive end Tommy Kelly (95) tackle 49ers running back Frank Gore on Sunday.
The 49ers hung a pair of 80-yard, clock-eating touchdown drives on the Cardinals to open the game Sunday and the Cardinals' defense was reeling.
At halftime, the king of adjustments – defensive coordinator Todd Bowles – went to work.
"He came in at halftime and said, 'You know, we are going to tighten our coverage up and bring pressure and we are going to make them beat us over the top,' " safety Rashad Johnson recalled Monday, the day after the Cardinals shut out the Niners in the second half of a 23-14 win. "That shows the kind of confidence he has in the secondary that he said tighten up because we're not going to let them dink and dunk us the rest of the game.
"It's just the confidence level he has in us and the trust we have in the plays he's calling. They had two good drives but we have such a mature group, we didn't even blink. We knew we would figure out what they were doing to us."
Bowles has downplayed his adjusting abilities, but there's little question the Cardinals benefit from having him put all the right pieces together with the right players both game-planning and then at the half after seeing what the opponent has brought.
The Cardinals have yet to allow a point in the fourth quarter through three games, an obvious yet crucial part of the equation in three come-from-behind wins.
Against San Francisco, the Cards believed tight end Vernon Davis – and second tight end Vance McDonald – would play and prepared as such. When injuries sidelined both and the 49ers went to a hurry-up, spread offense, it took its toll early.
But Bowles shrugged his shoulders and went to work, afterward saying the Cardinals missed tackles and just needed to settle down.
"There's a chess match before the game, during the game, and at halftime," Bowles said. "We made some minor adjustments. We just made more plays than they did. In the first half they made more plays than we did."
That's simplifying it a bit too much, however.
"He doesn't do a lot of yelling and screaming like a typical coach," defensive end Frostee Rucker said. "He's an educator. They always say it trickles down, and the captain, the quarterback of our defense, is Todd.
"He can dial the game up and make sure we are technically sound, and before you know it, we're right where we need to be."
Bowles already showed his abilities to maneuver on the fly last season, when the defense often upped its play in the second halves of games. But the pieces have changed, often drastically, this season, and Bowles keeps finding ways to make it work.
Darnell Dockett goes down for the season, and Frostee Rucker and Tommy Kelly are inserted as a combo package to fill in. Daryl
Washington gets suspended for the year, so Bowles takes hulking rookie safety Deone Bucannon and plugs him into the dollar linebacker spot in the nickel defense. Tyrann Mathieu wasn't ready yet from knee surgery, so he adjusted the scheme to allow Tony Jefferson and Johnson to excel at safety.
"He's a great teacher," head coach Bruce Arians said. "The whole defensive staff is putting the guys in position to be successful. (Defensive end) Kareem Martin had a heck of a game. Tommy Kelly had a heck of a game. I thought Patrick (Peterson) had one of his best games. All those guys are being put in a position to be successful."
Added Rucker, "you don't ask people to do things they can't do, and that's why he is so special."
Arians joked after Sunday's game that the point of the first half was simply to find out what the other team was doing so adjustments could be made to go and win in in the second half. There's more to it than that, of course, but the way Bowles is orchestrating his unit, it might be close to the truth.
"He has a really good insight of seeing the next play, seeing what they are about to run," Johnson said. "He always gets us in the right calls and the right personnel. And if he doesn't know what's coming, like early in the game, he trusts us enough that he sits back in the zone and lets us play ball."
Arians said cornerback Antonio Cromartie ended up with only a bone bruise on his injured knee, while safety Deone Bucannon has a mild foot sprain. Both are expected to be Ok by the time the Cardinals play in Denver.
The top 10 photos of the Cardinals-49ers game