The NFL is a game in which a handful of plays can make all of the difference. In the playoffs, when the level of competition and quality of opposition are higher, the impact of just a few plays on the outcome of the contest can be even more magnified. In the epic heavyweight bout that was Sunday's NFC Championship game, we got a first hand account of how just a select group of plays can flip the outcome of the game entirely.
Before we break down the plays that ultimately cost the 49ers a repeat trip to the Super Bowl, let's set the stage a bit. For the better part of the first three quarters of action, it felt like San Francisco was in control of the game. Not only were they playing well, but they were getting breaks that they just haven't gotten in previous trips to Seattle. Rookie corner Darryl Morris jumped on a LaMichael James muffed punt that could've given the Seahawks a scoring chance inside the red zone. A holding penalty on Richard Sherman – correctly called, but one that we've seen go uncalled many times before – kept a drive alive early in the second quarter that ultimately ended with a touchdown. Jonathan Goodwin pounced on another loose ball after a strip-sack of Colin Kaepernick; one play later Kaepernick found Anquan Boldin in the back of the end zone on simultaneously incredible, but maddening throw.
These 50-50 type plays never seemed to bounce the 49ers way in previous games in Seattle. And to be completely honest, sometimes it takes a little bit of luck to beat a team of that caliber in their house. But beginning with Seattle's first offensive possession of the second half, things slowly started to turn the other direction. Once the fourth quarter hit, all of the crucial plays were tilting Seattle's direction. Let's pick things up on that opening second-half Seahawk possession and see where things went wrong.
Lynch breaks loose
Much has been made regarding the success that Marshawn Lynch has been able to have against the 49ers' defense over the last few years. In the seven games Lynch has played against the 49ers since 2011, these are his final yardage totals: 109, 72, 98, 111, 103, 107, 33. Lynch averaged 4.25 yards per carry in those seven games. In that time frame, the 49ers have allowed a 100-yard rusher just six times; Lynch accounts for four of those games. Pretty good, right? But upon closer examination, those numbers don't really paint an accurate picture of the overall level of success that Lynch has actually seen when playing the 49ers.
Lynch has enjoyed a few advantages that other backs simply have not when playing the 49ers. First, Seattle has a very good football team. This means that (with the exception of that 33 yard performance in Week 1 of the 2011 season), when Lynch has faced San Francisco, the games have been either closely contested or have seen Seattle playing with a lead throughout. Combine that with Seattle's run-first offensive philosophy and Lynch is able to accumulate more carries against San Francisco's defense than other backs typically have the opportunity to get.
The other thing Lynch has been able to do against San Francisco is break off a big run or two. While I don't mean to pretend that those bigger runs don't matter, because they obviously do, they also inflate his yardage totals and make his per-carry impact seem larger than it actually is. As an example, in last week's NFC Championship game Lynch finished with 109 yards on 22 carries, a 4.95 yards per carry average. However, 56 of those yards came on three carries on Seattle's opening second half possession. On Lynch's 19 other carries, he averaged just 2.9 yards per carry and was mostly a non-factor. The majority of Lynch's other games against San Francisco since 2011 follow a similar pattern. Those three carries obviously matter – hell, one of them was 40-yard touchdown – but so does consistency. And Lynch flat out hasn't consistently had the per-carry impact that most would lead you to believe.
So, what's going wrong on those big plays? The cause is not always the same, but most of the time they tend to stem from breakdowns in the 49ers' run fits. In the zone running scheme that the Seahawks employ, big plays typically come from the cut back. The defense overcommits to the play side, vacating their gap responsibility on the back side and opening up a rushing lane for the back. This is exactly what happened on Lynch's 40-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter.
Facing third and one, Seattle brings their 13 personnel (1 RB, 3 TE, 1 WR) on to the field with one of the tight end spots actually manned by reserve offensive lineman Alvin Bailey. The play call is an inside zone run to the weak side (the offense's right) of the formation. If you happened to read my game preview from last week, you may remember a play in which I highlighted Bowman staying home on the backside of a zone run and making the tackle on a Lynch cut back for a minimal gain. On this play, Bowman fails to do that and it costs him.
As Lynch takes the handoff, you can see Ray McDonald has done a fantastic job taking on the double team, leaving Patrick Willis unblocked. Ahmad Brooks has also done a good job setting the edge and keeping outside leverage. Lynch makes the wise decision to stick his foot in the ground and cut to the backside. In the second shot from the above image, you can see Bowman has gotten too far inside and has allowed left guard James Carpenter get into a position to seal him off. With the mess of bodies in front of him, Bowman appears to lose track of Lynch and continues to work in the wrong direction. At this point, Lynch is through the hole and into the second level with a lead blocker to take care of Donte Whitner.
Even here, the 49ers have the opportunity to make the play and limit the damage to just an eight or nine yard gain. But safety Eric Reid takes a bad angle and over-pursues the play. Lynch makes one more cut and it's off to the races. Tramaine Brock has the final opportunity to bring Lynch down short of the end zone, but makes a really poor effort to punch the ball out from behind before just giving up altogether at about the four-yard line.
The 49ers defense did a great job keeping Lynch bottled up before and after this drive. It took just a couple of mistakes to turn what could've been a short gain into one of the critical plays of the contest. Seattle did a great job taking advantage, but this was a play that could've been avoided.
Seattle's aggressiveness pays off
The other crucial play for Seattle's offense came on the second play of the fourth quarter, a fourth down conversion that gave the Seahawks their first lead of the game. Nearly as important as the fourth down play itself was the play that preceded it. After Russell Wilson committed an intentional grounding penalty on second down, Seattle was taken out of field goal range and faced a third and 22 from midfield. A short throw to Zach Miller in the flat picked up 15 yards, which made the decision to go for it a possibility. If Miller gains even five less yards, Seattle probably punts and we're not even talking about this play.
After kicker Steven Hauschka successfully convinced coach Pete Carroll that kicking a 53-yard field goal into the wind wasn't a great idea, the Seattle offense took the field for a fourth and seven attempt from the San Francisco 35-yard line.
The Seahawks come to the line of scrimmage with three receivers to the right in a trips formation and tight end Zach Miller inline on the left; the 49ers have matched up with their nickel package. Wilson's hard count draws Aldon Smith offsides – something that was an issue all game long for the 49ers defense – and triggered a route adjustment from the Seattle receivers. The route adjustment? All verticals.
Following the snap, you can see the 49ers are in a Cover-1 man coverage. Tramaine Brock, Carlos Rogers and Eric Reid are all in man coverage on the three Seattle receivers to the right with Donte Whitner in a deep middle zone. A couple problems arise from here. Realizing that a penalty was called, the entire San Francisco front four gives up on the play and ends up either standing around or giving some half-assed effort. This is just poor situational awareness. A five-yard penalty doesn't give Seattle a first down and regardless, you have to make that offsides penalty be the worst thing to happen on the play. This gives Wilson all the time he needs to stand in the pocket and deliver an accurate ball down the field.
To make matters worse, Donte Whitner does a terrible job executing deep zone responsibility. Whitner's job is to stay deeper than the deepest and keep everything in front of him. But he ends up doing a number of things that leave me scratching my head. To start with, Whitner begins the play at a disadvantage by aligning so far over to the left of the offense. Facing a three-by-one formation (three receivers to one side, one to the other) like the one Seattle is in, Whitner should be at about the right hash, leaving him in position to help to either side depending on the routes of the Seattle receivers. Now, the pre-snap alignment is likely just a result of attempting to disguise the coverage and present Wilson with a two-high safety look before going to a single-high safety defense. Okay fine, that's understandable. What's not, is what he does after the snap.
Whitner's read should be relatively simple. Once he sees Zach Miller staying in to block, he knows that there won't be any type of vertical threat to that side of the field. Considering the ground he needed to cover just to get to his ideal pre-snap location, Whitner should be immediately turning and running to get over the top of trips. Instead, he stays in his backpedal and doesn't cross midfield until the ball is nearly halfway to its target.
Whitner is completely out of the play and never comes close to being in a position in which he can help. Rogers recovers from getting turned around early and is in decent position by the end of the play, but Jermaine Kearse makes a better play and is able to go up and make the contested grab for the touchdown.
I do want to stress that despite the outcome on the two plays highlighted above, the 49ers' defense played a hell of a game. Nearly half of Seattle's offensive production – 148 of 308 total yards – came on four plays. Two of those, Doug Baldwin receptions of 51 and 22 yards, came on plays in which Wilson was able to scramble around avoiding pressure before finding Baldwin down the field once the coverage had broken down. Seattle had a tough time generating consistent yardage in the natural flow of the offense.
Not to mention, San Francisco continuously came up huge in the red zone – an area they've struggled in over the course of the season. In three red zone visits, the Seahawks managed just two field goals and a fumble on a fourth down conversion attempt from the one-yard line. Those stops gave the 49ers' offense extra opportunities late when it seemed Seattle might put the game away for good. It was an inspired effort. Unfortunately, a couple of key mistakes overshadowed much of the good work they had done throughout the day.
Turnovers, turnover, turnovers
Obviously, it wasn't just the defense that made some crucial mistakes. I wrote before the game how important it was that San Francisco win the turnover battle and avoid giving the ball away. For three quarters they were able to do exactly that. Then suddenly, in the fourth quarter things came unhinged. Colin Kaepernick turned the ball over three times on three fourth quarter possessions and it proved to be too much for the 49ers to overcome.
The first of those turnovers came courtesy of a Cliff Avril strip-sack on the first San Francisco possession of the quarter. A delay of game penalty turned much easier third and one conversion into a predictable pass on third and six. The 49ers aligned in their most common third down formation; a trips look with Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree to the right of the formation and Quinton Patton split wide to the left. To the trips side, the 49ers are running a double post concept.
Post-snap, Kaepernick looks straight down the middle of the field at the safeties to identify the coverage. With Earl Thomas coming up and Kam Chancellor rotating over the deep middle of the field, Kaepernick knows he has single coverage on the outsides and takes a glance left at Patton running vertical up the left sideline. Byron Maxwell has excellent coverage on Patton, forcing Kaepernick to look elsewhere.
At this point, we see the first of two issues: defensive lineman Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have made quick work of the right side of the 49ers' offensive line. Despite sliding their protection towards Avril and Bennett, giving them three to block two, the pillars of Seattle's offseason encounter little resistance. The pressure forces Kaepernick out of the pocket, bring us to our second issue.
Kaepernick flees to the left rather than stepping up in the pocket and moving back to his right where, as you can see in the image above, he has a good amount of space to work with. Had he chosen to work back to his right, Boldin is open on the whip route and wouldn't have needed to do much after the catch to pick up the first down. Also, the option to scramble is there. Bruce Irvin was spying Kaepernick on the play, but considering the amount of success Kaepernick had on scrambles up to that point, I have a hard time believing he wouldn't have been able to either make Irvin miss or get rid of the ball to Boldin before Irvin could close the gap.
Had the protection been able to hold up, a big play was there to Crabtree on the post. Chancellor had been drawn across the field by Patton's vertical and Davis's deep crossing route, leaving a lot of room for Crabtree to work. Alas, none of that happened. You know the rest. Avril knocks the ball loose as Kaepernick attempts another throw across his body while moving to the left and Bennett is able to scoop the ball up and return it to the six yard line before being dragged down.
San Francisco's defense came up with the huge goal line stand, keeping the deficit at three. Two plays later, Kaepernick would make another costly mistake.
After motioning Boldin across the formation, the 49ers end up aligned in a basic I formation. Kaepernick gives a token play action fake to Hunter before looking to Boldin, who's working a double move to the left. Seattle is in their base, Cover-3 coverage with three deep defenders and four underneath defenders.
As Boldin makes his final break to the outside, the ball is on its way. For the life of me, I can not understand why Kaepernick makes this throw. From the beginning of the play, Chancellor is dropping directly underneath Boldin's route. With the depth Chancellor gets on his drop, there's never a chance that this pass is going to be completed.
I think this is a situation in which Kaepernick's arm strength worked against him, making him think he could fit the ball into a place it had no business going. He would get away with a nearly identical throw to Crabtree on the 49ers' final possession, but it was just as poor of a decision the second time around. The difference? Kaepernick got a few additional inches of air under the ball and Earl Thomas happens to be five inches shorter than the 6-foot-3 Chancellor.
The final offensive play of the game was one that hit a little too close to home for 49ers' fans, invoking memories of their season coming to an end one year earlier. I'm not going to break down the details of that play. I think we've all seen enough of the visual reminders for the week. However, I do have some thoughts.
Obviously, the outcome was not the one we wanted. But I find myself conflicted on the process that went into making that game-deciding throw. I wrote prior to the game that San Francisco would be wise to avoid targeting Richard Sherman. For 59+ minutes of game time, the 49ers appeared to agree with me. Prior to that final play, Sherman had been targeted just once – the aforementioned drive-saving holding penalty. Regardless of your opinion on Sherman, the person, if you think he's anything other than one of the two or three best corners in the league on the field, you're in denial. For the duration of the game, Kaepernick avoided that side of the field and it was the correct decision.
Then, with 30 seconds remaining and the game on the line, you decide to test him on the one route that you absolutely cannot test him on: the vertical route up the sideline. Sherman has proven over and over again that if you attempt to drop the ball in over the top of him, he will make you pay. The game plan going in was clearly to avoid throwing at Sherman, so why make the decision to move away from that plan with everything on the line? That's the one aspect of the play that I don't agree with.
On the other hand, if you've read any of the post-game comments from Kaepernick then you know exactly why he made the throw. "Had a one-on-one matchup with Crab," Kaepernick said of the game-deciding pass. "I'll take that every time."
Having the confidence to make that throw in that moment. Having the confidence that your best receiver can beat their best corner, that matters. For two seasons now we've seen Colin Kaepernick have that confidence. Stepping back and taking a long-term view, a willingness to pull the trigger in those crucial situations and not shying away from the moment; that's a trait that I want in my starting quarterback, even if things don't always work out.
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