Defense Dominates on 4th Down to Keep Cardinals’ Unbeaten Season Alive

Arizona Cardinals - 4th Down

Getty San Francisco 49ers QB Trey Lance is stopped at the 1-yard line on fourth down against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, October 10, at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

The box score shows just one turnover, but Arizona Cardinals defensive end Zach Allen insists there were five.

On a day when the Cardinals’ typically high-scoring offense often sputtered, the defense stepped up when it mattered most, denying the San Francisco 49ers on fourth down four times — including a touchdown-saving stop at the goal line — as Arizona remained unbeaten with a 17-10 victory.

“When you stop them on fourth down, it’s like a turnover,” Allen said after the game. “That’s five total turnovers. That’s a pretty good defensive performance.”

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Those four fourth-down stops, along with an early interception from safety Budda Baker, helped the Cardinals survive a shaky offensive showing to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 1974, back when they were known as the St. Louis Cardinals.

In all, the 49ers went for it on fourth down five times. After the game, Baker did the math:

“If I was in school right now and I got one out of five, I would not be happy,” he said.

The most critical of those fourth-down denials came at the Cardinals’ 1-yard line early in the second quarter, when Isaiah Simmons and Tanner Vallejo leveled 49ers quarterback Trey Lance and stopped him a few feet short of the goal line.

“That was huge,”  Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said after the game. “We talk about making the big play in critical situations, the heads-up play, and that’s what those guys are doing.”

Arizona’s defense repeatedly responded when the 49ers (2-3) opted to keep their offense on the field on fourth down.

“He was going for it a lot,” Baker said of 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. “We were surprised, but, hey, we were excited to get another chance, another opportunity to be on the field and go get those stops.”

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Cardinals’ D Had Something to Prove

Kingsbury said he can’t recall a game where a team made four fourth-down stops. Neither could Allen.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had that many fourth (down) stops at any level in any game I’ve played in,” said Allen, who had five tackles and a sack against the 49ers. “To hear the numbers, it’s crazy. But for us, we want to stop them on every down.”

It hasn’t happened for a Cardinals team in at least 40 years, according to team officials.

Allen came up with a huge stop on one of those fourth-down plays, when 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk took a direct snap and tried to plow ahead on fourth-and-1 near midfield in the fourth quarter.

Allen knew what was coming, he said, and stuffed Juszczyk for no gain.

“They did that last year, and they got us,” he said. “They’ve done that a couple times.”

Allen also showed off his dance moves after sacking Lance in the third quarter:

The Cardinals did a good job keeping pressure on Lance, who made his first start in place of injured starter Jimmy Garoppolo. The rookie QB finished 15-of-29 passing for 192 yards and an interception, while rushing for another 89 yards on 16 carries.

“I think it was good for us to kind of prove that we can win a gritty game like that, that the defense could win the game,” Allen said.

The Cardinals entered the game leading the league in points (35) and yards (440.5) per game, but they struggled to move the ball against the 49ers, who pressured quarterback Kyler Murray throughout the game.

Murray completed 22 of 31 passes for 239 yards — his lowest total of the season — but engineered a fourth-quarter drive that ended with a 9-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins to give the Cardinals a 17-7 lead with about five minutes left in the game.

“The defense played great,” Murray said after the game. “It was definitely, to our standards, maybe an ugly one offensively, but we got it done and that’s all that matters.”

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