GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Never mind that the Cardinals offense looked as inept as ever Monday night -- that's old news.
The story of the Cards' 24-3 loss to the 49ers was a sloppy, porous defense that failed a big test and helped push the team's season another step toward the proverbial cliff.
"This was a big test for us tonight, and you saw how it went for us," coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We didn't get the job done, so it's disappointing, to say the least."
Make no mistake: The Arizona offense deserves the brunt of the blame for Monday night's loss, the team's fourth straight. Quarterback John Skelton was off target all night, throwing high, low, left and right of receivers. He finished 32 of 52 with 290 yards and an interception. Only 72 of those yards came in the first half as San Francisco took control of the game.
The Cardinals could not make much happen on the ground either, gaining just six yards in the first half and going almost exclusively to the air late in the third quarter. LaRod Stephens-Howling took eight of the Cardinals' nine carries, five of them in the first half.
With that kind of offensive incompetence, a good night from the defense might not have mattered much. But that's a moot point. The 49ers offense moved the chains with impunity, doing as it pleased and embarrassing a respected defense.
"We haven't played that way all year," linebacker Paris Lenon said. "It was definitely a step in a direction we don't want to go in. ... It's disappointing. We have the capacity to be so much better than that."
On the ground, the 49ers plodded away, marching down the field and eating away huge chunks of the game clock. Frank Gore led the way with 55 yards as the 49ers outrushed the Cardinals 113-7.
The 49ers outgained the Cardinals 226-87 overall in the first half, taking a 17-0 lead to the locker room, but the game was much further than 17 points out of Arizona's reach. It might as well have been 50-0.
The greatest damage was done through the air by a wickedly effective Alex Smith. The quarterback completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns. Smith picked apart a defense that entered the night allowing just 191.3 passing yards per game, fifth best in the league. He kicked back in the second half, attempting only four passes.
Receiver Michael Crabtree caught two of those touchdowns, both at the expense of Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. Crabtree practically walked into the end zone on the second as Peterson slipped and fell in coverage.
"We didn't make the correct adjustments at the proper time," Peterson said. "We missed a lot of tackles, so as a defense, we have to take more pride in making those tackles when the opportunities present themselves.
"We left a lot of plays out there on the field."
Peterson might have been picked on most by Smith, but plenty of other Cardinals defenders were regularly a step behind their man or missing key tackles. Perhaps the root of the overall defensive lapse, though, was the failure at the point of attack. The 49ers consistently beat the Cardinals' defensive front off the ball, leaving them on their heels much of the night.
"We had opportunities to get (the defense) off the field, and we didn't do that," Whisenhunt said. "We didn't tackle very well, and everybody has to be held accountable for that."
There was one defensive bright spot on the night, as the Cardinals got to Smith for four sacks, including two from linebacker Daryl Washington. Other than that, a defense that had been the team's greatest asset was missing in action.
To be fair, it was the defense's first real stinker of the season. The unit was undoubtedly the biggest reason the Cardinals got off to a 4-0 start, even with the now-injured Kevin Kolb playing well at quarterback. Monday's game was a frightening vision of what the Cards might be if not for their defense.
"San Francisco came in and executed their game plan, and we made mistakes," Lenon said. "We have to look at them. We have to eliminate those mistakes. We can't continue to make mistakes and put ourselves in bad situations."
Ultimately, it didn't matter that the defense had its worst effort of the season -- in points and performance -- because the offense could muster just three points. Not since Nov. 29, 2010, had the Cardinals played such an uncompetitive game at home. That was a 27-6 loss, also to the 49ers, that was followed up by then-quarterback Derek Anderson's infamous tirade.
Monday's loss served to underscore that the Cardinals' once-promising season has just about gotten away from them. A 4-0 start has turned into 4-4 at the midway point, and the schedule is only getting tougher.
With road games in Green Bay and Atlanta in the next three weeks, there is a very real possibility the Cardinals return home 4-6 to host the Rams Nov. 25. And with road games remaining against the Jets, Seahawks and 49ers and home contests with the Bears and Lions, it's hard to see where the Cardinals find the wins needed to reach the playoffs.
"On that kind of stage, you want to play better," Whisenhunt said. "You want to represent yourself for your fans better. We didn't do it. This team has bounced back before. Well see if we can do it now."