The Cardinals’ passing game is supposed to revolve around Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin, but quarterback Kurt Warner’s main target Sunday was running back Tim Hightower.
Hightower set career highs in receptions (12) and yardage (121) in the Cardinals’ 20-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. It was the first time in 13 years that an Arizona running back had double-digit receptions in a game. Larry Centers did it against Indianapolis in 1996.
Both Warner and coach Ken Whisenhunt said Hightower benefitted in part by the extra attention San Francisco was paying to Fitzgerald. The 49ers played their safeties deep in an attempt to take away Arizona’s vertical passing game.
The strategy worked: Fitzgerald’s longest catch was 25 yards.
“We saw in the film that there were opportunities for our backs,” Whisenhunt said … “We knew that if we were disciplined we could get some yardage.”
Fitzgerald, who had just one catch in the first half for 10 yards, was diplomatic after the game although he could be seen asking for the ball during the contest.
“We aren’t going to force the ball into bad situations,” he said … “Kurt Warner does a good job of getting the ball to the open man. They (the 49ers) were taking some things away from us down field but we were able to check down to Tim for some positive yards.”
Another explanation for Hightower’s big day: Warner’s pass protection often let him down, forcing him to get rid of the ball earlier than he’d have liked. San Francisco had three sacks and Warner was hit another eight times.
In a bit of a surprise, wide receiver Anquan Boldin (hamstring) was active for the game while fellow wideout Steve Breaston (knee) was on the inactive list.
Breaston had practiced all week and was listed as probable, but Whisenhunt said his knee acted up early Sunday.
Boldin, listed as questionable, gave it a go but he wasn’t much of a factor, catching just two passes for 19 yards.
“I thought Anquan was a warrior,” Whisenhunt said.
The Cardinals’ offensive line struggled for much of the afternoon. Right tackle Levi Brown couldn’t handle the speed of linebacker Parys Haralson, who had a sack and four hits on Warner, and guard Reggie Wells struggled to keep Justin Smith out of the backfield.
The line’s worst moment, however, belonged to veteran left tackle Mike Gandy after the Cardinals got the ball at the 49ers 38-yard line with 3:11 left.
After tight end Stephen Spach was whistled for a false start, Gandy was called for holding, putting the Cardinals into a 1st-and-25 from their own 47-yard line.
“What I’m most upset about is getting the ball late in the fourth quarter and going backwards 15 yards,” Whisenhunt said. “That’s horrible. That’s unacceptable.”
SOLID AGAINST THE RUN
The Cardinals stoned 49ers running back Frank Gore, limiting him to 30 yards on 22 carries, an average of 1.4 yards per rush.
Middle linebacker Gerald Hayes had a terrific game with 10 tackles, including four for loss, second-year pro Calais Campbell had six stops and Darnell Dockett seemed to be in the 49ers backfield all day.
“Overall our defense played well,” Whisenhunt said. “They rose to the challenge.”
Warner’s right hand and arm went numb when he suffered a stinger late in the first half, but he said he was OK the rest of the game.
Safety Matt Ware also suffered a shoulder stinger.
Defensive end Kenny Iwebema injured his ankle; X-rays didn’t reveal a break but he’ll be examined again Monday.