There was plenty to dissect from the 49ers’ 19-13 loss to the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers held the top-ranked Cardinals offense to fewer than 20 points for only the second time this season. The 49ers’ defense bounced back with a strong effort, but committed far too many penalties, gave up too many third-down conversions, and did not take advantage of rare opportunities Carson Palmer gave them for takeaways.
The 49ers looked better on offense, but they still managed only 13 points and were 0-for-9 on third downs. Here is a look at the top five takeaways from the 49ers’ eighth loss in 11 games:
1) Gabbert making case as ‘16 starter
Through three games, this does not appear to be the same Blaine Gabbert who was run out of Jacksonville after three forgettable seasons. This Gabbert is confident, tough and has the clear support of his teammates. Gabbert threw for a career-high 318 yards. His passer rating through three games is 91.0. It's highly likely Colin Kaepernick has played his final game with the 49ers. So it’s hard to believe the 49ers can add a quarterback in the offseason who can step in next season and play as well as Gabbert has performed during this brief sample size. However, all is not perfect. The 49ers have lost two of Gabbert’s three starts. Gabbert has generally done a good job of avoiding sacks. He’s been dropped for losses only four times in three games. But two of those sacks on Sunday were killers. One moved the 49ers out of field-goal range in the first quarter. The other set up an almost-impossible fourth-and-20 situation with the game on the line.
2) Defense bounces back
After the pathetic showing against the Seattle Seahawks a week earlier, it was an accomplishment for the 49ers to limit the Cardinals to just two touchdowns. Seattle's Thomas Rawls had his way against the 49ers with 209 yards rushing. The 49ers on Sunday held the Cardinals to just 70 yards on 29 attempts (2.4 yard average). But, again, it could have been better. The 49ers had zero takeaways for the third consecutive game. Tramaine Brock dropped an easy interception in the end zone that would have prevented a Cardinals field goal in the first half. Jimmie Ward generally played well in coverage against Larry Fitzgerald, but he allowed the 34-yard pass to J.J. Nelson to the 1-yard line that set up the winning touchdown. Too often, the Cardinals converted on third downs (7 of 14), and that does not include three first-down-delivering penalties on third downs after it appeared the 49ers had made stops.
3) Bad teams lose games like this
The 49ers were called for 13 penalties, and the Cardinals had more first downs by penalty (seven) than by rushing (five). Obviously, some of the penalties were questionable. But many were justified. The 49ers are 3-8 on the season. Only Cleveland and Tennessee have worse records. And that is the bottom line. Good teams find a way to win. Bad teams find a way to lose. The 49ers have lost six of their eight games by two touchdowns or more. This was only the second winnable game that they let get away.
4) Draughn is a keeper
The 49ers will likely add to their depth at running back in the offseason, but it sure looks as if they have a player who is capable of serving as a backup to Carlos Hyde next season. Shaun Draughn has gotten an opportunity to play a lot since signing just five days before his first NFL start, which came Nov. 8 against Atlanta. On Sunday, Draughn played every offensive snap in the game. He caught five passes for 35 yards and added 51 yards on 15 carries. While those numbers aren’t going to make fantasy owners drool, he is proving to be a solid player who stepped into a difficult spot and was not fazed. As a No. 2 option, it’s difficult to believe Reggie Bush or Mike Davis can do better. Plus, if Draughn is not playing, he can be a core special-teams contributor.
5) Progress? We’ll see
The 49ers have played markedly better at home than on the road this season. Their loss to the Cardinals was another example. In Week 3, Arizona rolled to a 47-7 victory over the 49ers. The 49ers’ decent showing against the NFC West-leading Cardinals came one week after sustaining a beat-down at Seattle. On Sunday, coach Jim Tomsula was asked if the team has made progress. “Well, this week I will say our team did better,” he said. That’s the correct answer. It’s difficult to make a blanket statement about this team because it has been wildly inconsistent. The 49ers return to the road to face the Chicago Bears on Sunday. This will be a difficult matchup for the 49ers -- on the field and on the sideline. The Bears' offensive coordinator is Adam Gase, who was the runner-up for the 49ers’ head-coaching job. Their defensive coordinator is Vic Fangio, who served as Jim Harbaugh’s defensive coordinator the past four seasons and was passed over for the 49ers’ head-coaching job. It’s a road game, so it’s best to reserve judgment on whether the 49ers have made progress until we see how the group performs in its next game.