Although the 49ers controlled much of the game last night against the Lions, there were a few moments where the team teetered on the verge of letting the Lions fully back into the game. The two most prominent moments were the team's final non-victory formation drive and then the onside kick. I wanted to focus on drive that resulted in the 49ers final seven points of the game. And I wanted to focus on one play in particular.
On that final scoring drive, the 49ers faced three separate third downs, including a 3rd and 7, 3rd and 9 and 3rd and 14. One of the team's Achilles' heels in 2011 was third down conversion rate. The team struggled with it and had struggled to a certain extent in 2012. Against the Packers, the 49ers converted two of nine third downs, although they did convert two more via penalty. The Against the Lions, the team converted 4 of 11 third downs, but the timing was absolutely pivotal on some of these conversions.
In the final offensive scoring drive, Michael Crabtree was the key player as he showed why his combination of hands, athleticism, awareness and vision had so many people excited about him coming out of Michael Crabtree. Crabtree may not have the size of a Calvin Johnson or the speed of an in-his-prime Randy Moss, but he would appear to have elite level awareness at this point in his career. It is a receiver's job to know where the yard markers are, but we've seen more instances than we can count where a 49ers receiver has come up short because they simply got in position a yard short of the first down marker.
One of my favorite plays from Sunday Night Football was a 3rd and 14 pass play on that final scoring drive. The 49ers faced 3rd and 14 on their own 27-yard line, leading 20-12. A failed conversion would give the Lions the ball back with more than enough time to potentially tie the game. The 49ers had done plenty of good in the game, but the Lions had managed to hang around to a certain extent.
Shortly before the the team lined up in the shotgun with Gore in the backfield, this was my thought:
3rd and 14 for the 49ers. I'm guessing we see a draw or some other kind of run right here.— NinersNation (@NinersNation) September 17, 2012
This is exactly what the 49ers of a couple years ago would have done. They would take the draw to prevent a turnover, and run a little bit of time off the clock, even with too much time remaining anyway. Of course, these are not your 2010 San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers ran a play that sent Michael Crabtree over the middle well short of the first down marker. However, the play also sent Frank Gore out into the middle of the field as another safety valve option. Nobody went deep on the play as the Lions were playing a fairly deep cover to keep everything in the 14 yards in front of them.
They did keep Crabtree in front of them for a minute, but two key blocks sprung him. On one side, Mario Manningham engaged his receiver. However, on the other side, we got to see an absolutely phenomenal play by Frank Gore as he took out a defender. The play-call was perfectly designed. Gore did not look back for a pass from Alex, but rather, peaked back to see when Michael Crabtree caught the ball. As Crabtree turned to move up field, Gore took out his defender, which combined with Manningham's block secured arguably the biggest third down conversion of the game.
I present a GIF of the NBC replay view of the play. Throughout the game, national media on Twitter was delighting in how the 49ers block and tackle so well, which can be a bit lost in today's chuck and duck game. This was an example of executing perfect fundamentals to make a key conversion.