Sunday was a wild ride for the 49ers. The game had more ups and downs than a Britney Spears biopic and yet, at the end of the day, the 49ers likely saved their season with a win in New Orleans. There were several pivotal plays (4th and 10 anyone?) that changed the game's outcome. But there were other, less flashy, plays that also affected the game's trajectory, for better and worse. Each week, we are going to take a look at some key plays from the previous week's game that turned the tide one way or another.
Turning Point 1
Game Situation: First quarter, 13:44. 2nd and Goal at the Saints 4-yard line
Play: Zone Read to Frank Gore
When Kap took over full-time, the veer and zone read became staples of the 49ers offense. In 2014, however, the 49ers have not leaned on the play that put Kap on the map. That changed with the opening series in New Orleans. In retrospect, this game was really all about getting back to basics.
Notice that the 49ers line up with a unique formation here. Vernon Davis lines up at the full back spot and at the snap, Boone pulls with VD behind him. On the front side, this looks a lot like a traditional power run play.
Take a look at what the read option does to number 32, Kenny Vaccaro. Vaccaro starts on the offense's right. If this is a straight power run, he might have the speed to run down Gore if he flows hard to the play-side. It looks like he even has Vernon Davis man to man based on how he follows him throughout the tight end's motion, meaning he would follow VD to the left. In the end, though, he has to stay home to protect against Kap's backside run and it removes Vaccaro from the play entirely. This is the power of the read option - it evens the numbers game and gives the 49ers a numbers advantage on the play side. The numbers on the play side allows Gore to walk in to the end zone untouched.
Turning Point 2
Game Situation: Third Quarter, 6:59. 3rd and 15 from the 49ers 15-yard line
Play: Levels (Post-Out-Flat)
Result: Incomplete Pass
Up 21-10, the 49ers have a chance to put their foot on the neck of the Saints and turn this into the beginnings of a blow out. Unfortunately, though, the Niners are staring at a 3rd and 15 and they need to get something going. Greg Roman dials up a three-level concept (Post-Out-Flat) on the play side with Boldin running a backside post.
The Saints are playing a cover-3 with Kenny Vaccaro playing the deep middle. He has to choose which vertical route to defend, and he opts to give the limping Kennan Lewis extra help to the three receiver side. That leaves Boldin one-on-one.
Kaepernick then takes a bad snap, peeks over to the play side, and immediately comes back side to the one-on-one matchup capable of beating the Saints defense. When things get crazy, Kap goes back to his security blanket, and it almost works.
If Boldin catches the ball he might not make it into the end zone, but this becomes a drive where the 49ers likely get some points. Instead, Boldin drops a pass that hits him in the hands.
This was ultimately a 14-point swing as the Saints came right back and scored on their next possession making this a 21-17 game. If Boldin can catch the ball the best case is he scores. The worst case is the 49ers can take more time off the clock and end up with perhaps a field goal. While it's impossible to know for sure, I think if Boldin catches this ball the 49ers likely don't need Kap's 4th and 10 heroics.
Turning Point 3
Game Situation: Overtime, 2nd and 15 on the 49ers 15-yard line
Play: 4 Verticals
Result: Ahmad Brooks sack and forced fumble. Chris Borland Recovery.
Ahmad Brooks. Sack/Fumble to end the game. The 49ers have been here before. Brooks closes the distance and gets into left tackle Terron Armsted's chest. Initially, Armsted carried Brooks past the QB and out of the play, but Brooks stays with it and sacks Brees, forcing the fumble.
If Brooks is playmaker number 1, Chris Borland is playmaker number 2. Brees actually wants to pass underneath to Travis Cadet on the Texas route, but Borland drank his Felix Felicis and manages to blow up the play.
Borland incorrectly diagnoses a screen, so he darts out to the flat to cover Cadet. In the process he inadvertently trips Cadet as he passes by him. Had he not tripped Cadet, Brees likely completes the pass to Cadet with a lot of space to make something happen.
When Brees sees Cadet on the ground he double clutches the ball and gives Brooks the split second he needs to obtain sweet, sweet revenge. Yes, the 49ers won the game because Borland turned a screw up into a trip.
Perhaps more impressive is the speed with which Borland jumps on the ball. Cadet is a full yard closer to the ball but is slow to recognize what's happening. The split second hesitation allows Borland to recover the fumble. One play later, the 49ers emerged with the win.
This game was a classic punch - counterpunch kind of event. Ultimately the 49ers secured enough turning points to emerge victorious.