Anatomy of defeat: The four final plays that cost the 49ers
Give the Ravens credit for a winning goal-line stand, but Pat Kirwan says it's fair to question the play-calling of the 49ers on the critical final series. He examines what went wrong.
Love him or hate him, we'll all miss Lewis
When the power failure struck the Superdome early in the third quarter it turned all the momentum in favor of the 49ers. After the lights went back on, Frank Gore rushed eight times for 78 yards (9.75 per carry) and a touchdown. Colin Kaepernick rushed five times for 46 yards and a touchdown, yet neither player carried the ball in the four-play goal-line series. Vernon Davis was unstoppable in the first half with four receptions for 72 yards (18 yards per reception) yet he wasn't targeted once in the goal-line series. LaMichael James got the only carry, and he hadn't run the ball since three minutes into the second quarter when he fumbled. Michael Crabtree was the target of all three passes in the final drive and Ed Reed lined up to that side every time. The 49ers had a timeout left as they entered the fourth and final play of the drive and some would say they should have used it at least for their rookie QB in his 10th start.
The Baltimore Ravens have been a great red-zone defense all year and played the goal-line stand like they finally got San Francisco in the right place. Earlier in the week I discussed the Ravens' red zone/goal line defense with Ray Lewis and he pointed out the lack of field to work with actually helped him. Zone drops in the open field aren't what they used to be for the 17-year vet, but Lewis said "down there by the goal line I can play with my mind and be aggressive." Aggressive is exactly what the Ravens were in the four plays that locked up the win.
Let's look at each one
1st and goal from the 7: San Francisco puts LaMichael James at the running back spot because Frank Gore just completed a 33-yard run to set up the first down. Keep in mind Ed Reed's touchdown-saving tackle at the 7-yard line or this drive never takes place. The 49ers elect to go with power personnel, putting two blockers in the backfield as well as Kaepernick in the 'pistol' and James behind him. The play choice is an inside I lead play at Ray Lewis which is quickly stuffed by defensive linemen Terrence Cody and DeAngelo Tyson. The outside defender on the line of scrimmage crashes down, forcing James back inside, but if Kaepernick pulls that ball and keeps it he has Delanie Walker one-on-one with Ed Reed and should have a touchdown. The result of James' run is a 2-yard gain.
2nd and goal from the 5: Randy Moss enters the game and the Niners come to the line of scrimmage in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). The 49ers have three receivers to the right: Walker, Davis, and Crabtree. Moss is all by himself on the left side. Kaepernick sprints out to his right probably with a run/pass option but OLB Courtney Upshaw mirrors Kaepernick and makes the run option disappear. There is a brief moment when Davis is open but the sprint-out action by the QB eliminates him. An incomplete pass leads to third down. It's a shame Kaepernick doesn't stay in the pocket because Moss releases outside like he is running a fade and quickly comes back inside on a slant and is open for a touchdown. A missed opportunity.
3rd and goal from the 5: A late timeout by Jim Harbaugh saves the team from a five-yard delay of game penalty, but the 49ers still have two left, so it's a good move. But it also points out the indecision going into the play. This time the Niners stay with the 12 personnel but mix up the formation. Davis is all alone on the left as a wide receiver; Crabtree is lined up in the backfield on the left side away from Reed. It's a perfect opportunity to send him out the left side, but instead the Niners motion Crabtree to the right near Walker and Moss -- and Reed as well. The Ravens decide it is time for a pressure call and send six rushers. The safeties both come and Reed has a chance to jump up and affect the vision of Kaepernick. Kaepernick's pass looks like a completion to Crabtree but the Ravens' Jimmie Smith makes a textbook break and separates Crabtree from the ball with a big hit. I think I might have taken my chances throwing a fade route to Davis with a corner on him and no help.
4th and goal from the 5: Now it's time for a timeout to just settle everyone down, but no timeout is called. Baltimore decides to pressure again and sends six. Niners center Jonathan Goodwin says afterward that they had trouble blocking everyone inside. The Niners are in 12 personnel once again in the pistol and with the running back behind the QB made it's difficult, if not impossible, to pick up a blitzing linebacker. Kaepernick has to throw fast with the pressure coming and it's a throw to the back of the end zone, but Crabtree can't reach the ball because he is jammed by Jimmie Smith. Smith has every right to contact on Crabtree all the way to the goal line because of the 5-yard rule. Some will say he held Crabtree, but once again Reed is floating on that side and is in position to make one of his famous plays on the ball. I didn't think the officials were going to make a call in that situation, but if the ball had been on the 7-yard line instead of the 5 then maybe the call is made if Smith keeps the contact up for 7 yards. The linebacker over Davis gets just enough of a jam on him to possibly eliminate him from the read, but in the end Kaepernick has to get rid of the ball.
Not once in the three pass plays does Kaepernick look to his left, and even on the final play there is a chance Delanie Walker is available when he turns around right on the goal line.
Finally, when the 49ers scored to make the score 34-29 they went for two points with four minutes left in the game. I would have done the same and most coaches I interviewed agree. They missed on the play, and the Ravens' lead stayed at five points. You have to wonder if John Harbaugh would have elected to take the safety if his team was only up 4 points because San Francisco kicked the extra point and made it 34-30.
A safety in that situation would have left the Niners down two points and a field goal would have won it. Punter Sam Koch was great at eating up the clock before stepping out of bounds so it all worked out for Baltimore. When it comes to critical situations like the goal-line series for San Francisco I always remember what Marty Schottenheimer once said to me: "When you need a play, think of players not plays." I sure would have liked to have seen Frank Gore, Vernon Davis or even Colin Kaepernick get a shot for the end zone.
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