GLENDALE, Arizona – The 49ers tried to win a key NFC West game on Sunday without two of their veteran mainstays on offense.
Tight end Vernon Davis was out with an ankle injury. And running back Frank Gore was relegated to non-factor status due to the team’s game plan.
The 49ers went with more multi-receiver formations than at any point in the Jim Harbaugh era, and Gore carried the ball just six times for 10 yards in a 23-14 loss to the unbeaten Arizona Cardinals.
“We did what the defense gave us,” said Gore, who added he did not know the 49ers would lean so heavily on the passing game on Sunday.
After less than a minute answering questions in front of his locker, Gore concluded, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now.”
A disturbing trend continued for the 49ers, who have outscored the opposition 59-13 in the first halves of their three games. The 49ers have been outscored 52-3 in the second halves.
The 49ers (1-2) fell two games behind the Cardinals (3-0) in the NFC West standings. Seattle improved to 2-1 with an overtime victory against the Denver Broncos.
Coach Jim Harbaugh was asked if he understands what has happened to the 49ers. The 49ers blew a 17-point lead to the Chicago Bears last week in a 28-20 loss. On Sunday, they scored touchdowns on their first two possessions and never scored again.
“No, I don’t (understand),” Harbaugh said. “We’ve just got to play better. We’re not playing good enough right now.”
Said 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, “I really can’t say one thing. We just haven’t executed the way we should.”
The 49ers went away from their usual power-running attack without Davis and backup tight end Vance McDonald available due to injuries. Instead, wide receivers Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and rookie Bruce Ellington got a lot of playing time in addition to starters Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Johnson had a particularly strong game with nine catches for 103 yards.
The 49ers’ no-huddle, spread offense seemed to catch the Cardinals off balance in the first half.
“Not knowing whether they were going to have their tight ends, it was a pretty tough week defensively to get prepared not knowing what they were going to do when they cam out no-huddle,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “Five wides, four wides, move the ball on this end . . . But we adapted and saw what was happening.”
Kaepernick attempted 18 passes and nine runs in the first half. In the second half, the 49ers offense stalled as they converted just one of six attempts on third downs. Still, Kaepernick attempted 20 passes (including a sack) and he ran four times. Gore had just one carry after halftime. But the 49ers threw the ball out of different personnel groupings – a strategy from Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman that Kaepernick could not explain.
“We hadn’t shown that before,” Kaepernick said of the team's no-huddle, spread attack. “It was something new. In the second half, we ran it here and there.
“I really can’t say why we didn’t. They were just the calls that came in.”
Kaepernick finished with 29 completions in 37 attempts for 245 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He also finished with 54 rushing yards on 13 attempts.
“(The Cardinals) always do a good job in the run game,” 49ers fullback Bruce Miller said. “We were hurting them with five-wide, four-wide, and moving the ball. I think self-inflicted wounds are what hurt us – stalled drives kept us from putting points on that board.
“Then, late, they made more plays than we did at the end of the game.”