Four days after the Super Bowl, there has been plenty to talk about regarding the 49ers play-calling and execution on the final offensive drive of the game. The 49ers were trailing by five and were able to quickly move into position for a potential go-ahead score. Unfortunately it came up short.
I thought we'd take a look back at that final drive, focusing primarily on the final four plays. Although woulda-coulda-shoulda is undefeated (to quote Jim Harbaugh), I think there are some pertinent details to pull from this as the 49ers move forward into the 2013 season.
The 49ers began the drive on their own 20, and were able to quickly move down the field and into a first and goal situation at the Ravens seven yard line. The 49ers ran five plays that got them 73 yards. 33 of the yards came on a Frank Gore left end run from the Ravens 40. Just prior to that, Michael Crabtree picked up 24 yards on a post pattern.
Before getting to the four goal-to-go plays, I wanted to take a quick look at Vernon Davis' drop a bit earlier. I suppose it really didn't matter in the end because the 49ers got their needed yards, but it is still noteworthy. Here is a screenshot
A GIF would probably give us a better view, but this struck me as a play where Vernon could have dove for the ball. Vernon can get plenty physical when needed, but it seems like we don't always seem him diving for some of the slightly longer throws. My guess is he thought he had enough space to get it, but it seems like a dive might have made the difference. The 49ers picked up the yards on Crabtree's catch and Gore's run, but in the larger picture, sometimes Vernon could dive a bit more on these.
The 49ers got into the goal-to-go situation running five plays, with three plays coming from the full-house pistol, one from pistol with Bruce Miller to Colin Kaepernick's left, and one from the offset I-formation. Once they got into goal-to-go, they ran the following four plays:
1st and goal, BAL 7 - Full-house pistol with LaMichael James in the running back position - James up the middle for two yards
The one running play we saw from this four-play series was LaMichael James running for two yards. It was a read option style of play, but as the picture below shows, Kaepernick was not going to be keeping the ball.
Courtney Upshaw made a bee-line for Kaepernick all the way, never playing James on the run at all. I forgot to circle it, but where you see Ray Lewis center bottom of the screen, Alex Boone is blocking in front of him. He is attempting to block Dannell Ellerbe to his left. However, he let Ellerbe get around him to make the play on James as he came up the middle. Had Boone stayed with Ellerbe, Bruce Miller (behind him) would have picked up Ray Lewis, potentially springing James for the touchdown.
We don't know what was going through Boone's head on this play, so we can only make assumptions about what he knew Miller was doing or not doing behind him.
2nd and goal, BAL 5 - Shotgun, Gore to Kaepernick's left - incomplete pass to Crabtree
The 2nd and goal play resulted in Michael Crabtree getting jostled on the play by Corey Graham, jumping up quickly looking for pass interference.
My view of the play came down the 49ers sideline on the bottom of this screen shot. I wasn't directly behind the play, but I was far enough down the line (around the 49ers 20-yard line) that I could see this play developing. Although this is not Sprint Right Option (of "The Catch" fame), as Kap rolled to his right I just got that "The Catch" vibe.
As this second photo shows, Crabtree (red) was covered fairly well and Vernon Davis (yellow) had two defenders around him. Randy Moss is circled in blue. The corner is trailing him and he is waving his arm for the pass. Unlike the next two plays, Kaepernick did not make the immediate throw to Crabtree, but rather looked for his options. He would have seen the pair of underneath defenders in front of Moss, which might have discouraged him from throwing.
This seemed like an ideal time for a high throw to the back of the end zone at Moss. Kaepernick has work to do on his touch, but it seemed like the opportunity there for a touch pass to the back of the end zone. Moss has the hops to get a high pass and could've been the hero. Oh the world of woulda-coulda-shoulda.
3rd and goal, BAL 5 - Shotgun, Gore to Kap's right - timeout just before snap with play-clock expiring
This play is not available in the All-22 film because of the timeout, so we're going with some quick screenshots of a play that could have brought home the gold.
The 49ers went with a shotgun formation and Frank Gore just to Kap's right. Delanie Walker had initially lined up wide left, but motioned in close to the line, while Randy Moss and Michael Crabtree lined up to the right side.
The play was a designed run as we see Gore pull left and Kaepernick tuck the ball to run that way. Alex Boone pulled as well and would have had a shot on Ray Lewis (second from the top on the right). Gore likely had a shot to get the defensive back on the top right side of the screen. It's again, all woulda-coulda-shoulda, but it was an interesting play-call that likely could have paid dividends.
I've seen a decent amount of national criticism of Kaepernick and his work with the play-clock. While he has struggled at times, I felt like he got a lot better as the season wore on, putting together a great performance in that regard against the Falcons, even while down 17-0 and dealing with the noise. He was not perfect in this regard, but as with any young quarterback, it's all about getting more experience.
3rd and goal, BAL 5 - Kaepernick under center, Gore behind him, Crabtree offset from Gore to the left (wing-T?) - incomplete pass to Crabtree
On the actually executed 3rd and goal, the 49ers lined up with Kap under center, Gore behind him and Crabtree offset from Gore. I can't quite remember the name of the formation off the top of my head. Quick research says Wing-T, but I thought there was another name for it. Anybody? Bueller?
Crabtree went in motion to the right side and ran a pattern toward the sideline, while the Ravens stayed in man defense, bringing Ed Reed on a blitz.
As the picture above shows, Vernon Davis (yellow) is turning around and would be open. Unfortunately, Kaepernick is already throwing on a designed quick pass to Crabtree. Jimmy Smith hit Crabtree with enough force to dislodge the ball from Crabtree's hand. The refs ruled it incomplete. Had it been complete and a fumble, the 49ers would have moved up to about the four-yard line.
The play-call just struck me as odd. My guess is Roman & Co. were hoping Randy Moss and Vernon Davis would draw the corners just deep enough to create some space for Crabtree to catch the ball, turn and get his hand across the goal line. The Ravens maintained discipline on the play and prevented Crabtree from having the space to get to the goal line had he held on to the ball.
4th and goal, BAL 5 - Pistol formation - incomplete pass to Crabtree
And so we come to the 49ers final offensive play of the game. A play that has led to all sorts of consternation over uncalled holding.
The play call itself was basically just get in the end zone and get open. Dannell Ellerbe was blitzing between Jonathan Goodwin and Mike Iupati, while Frank Gore was blocking just to the right. Kaepernick tapped the back of his head, which made Ravens DB Jimmy Smith think back shoulder throw:
"I saw Kaepernick tap the back of his head, so I'm thinking it's a back shoulder. I took away inside leverage just so he wouldn't run a slant, then got my hands on him long enough to mess up the timing."
Jimmy Smith did indeed get his hands on Crabtree, grabbing two hands full of jersey. We've seen plenty of pictures of that. After Smith starting grabbing Crabtree, we see Crabtree using his left hand on Smith's helmet to get his own leverage. Here is a quick shot of that:
All things considered, it is not remotely surprising no flag was thrown on the play, and I don't mean that for good reasons. Even though Smith started it, this was a case of the ref's "letting them play" and not wanting to get in the way. I disagree with this philosophy considering there are specific rules in place, but that is what happened here.
As for the play itself, one thing we can take from the play is the blitz pick-up. Kap tapped the helmet for the look to Crabtree likely in part because of Ellerbe's blitz.
Gore was set to block to the right as the picture above shows. The picture below gives us the end zone camera angle. The Ravens came with a significant blitz to force the quick throw. Joe Staley and Mike Iupati block there goes, but it opens a huge hole for the blitzing Ellerbe.
Below, Ellerbe comes untouched as Gore has gone to his right to block. There is a whole mess of bodies there. Although the 49ers other blockers are not doing a perfect job, they would appear to have at least occupied the Ravens defenders for a moment.
My thought on this is a line adjustment to have Gore block left might have opened up an opportunity for Kaepernick to scramble to his left toward the end zone. The picture below shows the defenders occupied on that side of the field.
There is no guarantee Kaepernick makes it to the end zone, but it provided an alternative. Without knowing the play-calling and audible specifics, we can only speculate on what could have been. And that really applies to everything on this last drive.
One question has been, why not run Frank Gore every time. With Haloti Ngata out, that would have made some sense. After James went right, my thought would be run Gore, or pass then run. They did have a run lined up for Kaepernick, but that was stopped by the timeout. The 49ers are built around power rushing and build their offense off their dominant line. I honestly have no answer as to why they wouldn't line up and run the ball down the Ravens' throats. With Ngata out and Ray Lewis playing about as well as I might have in the game, that front seven was severely weakened in the game.
Any ideas why the 49ers would elect to pass three straight times? I am asking for serious answers, as opposed to snark. It's all woulda, coulda, shoulda, but it is valuable to figure out as we prepare for another season with this offense.