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Turning Points: The plays that turned the tide in 49ers-Giants

There were three plays that ensured the 49ers left New York with a victory. We take a detailed look at how the plays unfolded.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

Ugly win. That’s all you’ve been reading about the 16-10 win against the New York Football Giants. If it wasn’t for Vic Fangio’s stellar defense and a T-Rex who managed to insert himself in the defensive rookie of the year discussion after just three games, the 49ers lose some serious ground in the playoff race.

As in every game there were plays, some that are emblematic and others that are less so, that changed the course of the game’s trajectory.

Turning Point 1

Game Situation: Second quarter, 2:37. First and Goal at the Giants 10-yard line
Play: Veer with an Arc block
Result: 7-yard loss

One of the biggest problems with the 49ers offense is their inability to get out of a hole when they "get behind the sticks." If on first down the 49ers lose yards the drive seems to fail more often than not. That’s exactly what happened on the 49ers second offensive drive, and it was all due to one missed block.

The 49ers run their preferred read-option play here, the Veer, which is a little different than the traditional zone read in that the QB reads the play side edge defender. The easiest way to beat the veer is to run a scrape-exchange where the DE goes right for the back making the QB think it’s a "keep" read. The linebacker then exchanges gaps with the DE and secures the edge. That’s exactly what defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul (no. 90) and linebacker Devon Kennard (no. 59) do on this play.

The 49ers are prepared for this and run Stevie Johnson on an arc block. The arc block is specifically designed to beat the scrape exchange. In this case, though, Stevie Johnson whiffs entirely on the block and allows Kennard to blow up the play. The 49ers get behind the sticks on the drive and end up with one of their myriad field goals.

Turning Point 2

Game Situation: Third Quarter, :22. 4th and 1 at the Giants 44 yard line
Play: Weakside ISO
Result: No gain. Turnover on downs

Yes, Chris Borland, our very own T-Rex that’s tackling faster than Bill Belichick can cycle through running backs, is pretty awesome, but it’s still Antoine Bethea that is the defensive MVP. At this point the game is very much in doubt - you can almost feel the Giants mounting some kind of comeback. I mean, Eli Manning can’t keep throwing picks forever, right?

Going for it here is the right call by Tom Coughlin. Advanced Football Analytics has the expected success rate at 65%. If you fail, the 49ers will likely run all over your between the 20s, then stall in the red zone.

Enter the 49ers defense.

An ISO is all about isolating (hence the name) a linebacker or a fill player in the hole and hitting him with a lead blocker. Three things, check that, four things go wrong for the Giants: Aaron Lynch sets the edge so Jennings can’t bounce outside. Michael Wilhoite takes on the lead blocker. Ray McDonald beats his man with an inside move then comes back to grab Jennings up high. And Bethea sticks his nose in low and takes out Jennings low. All in all it’s fantastic team defense and a great call. The 49ers were playing run all the way with 9 in the box.

Turning Point 3

Game Situation: Fourth Quarter, 4:55. 3rd and Goal at the 49ers 4-yard line
Play: Fade to Larry Donnell
Result: Incomplete Pass

This game turned big time on Tom Coughlin’s stubbornness. The Giants are in a prime scoring position and Greg Roman must have slipped him the ol’ 2012 fade roofie because Coughlin calls three straight fades: First to Odell Beckham. Then to Reuben Randle. And finally to Larry Donnell, the 6’6" tight end.

This is one of the few times we’ve seen Eric Reid one-on-one against a big receiving threat in the red zone and Reid plays it perfectly. He plays with an inside technique, putting himself between the receiver and the ball on a fade, and giving himself position on any in-breaking routes. The inside technique also allows Reid to drive the TE towards the boundary, the only other help a one-on-one defender has out on the proverbial island.

Despite all this, Manning throws a very catchable ball and Donnell actually gets his hands on it. But Reid manages to get a hand on Donnell’s left arm as he does up and is also able to hit the right arm on the way down. I can’t be 100% sure, but I think those moves don’t allow the Giant’s tight end to get a vice grip on the ball and when he makes contact with the ground the ball falls out.

It’s not unusual to see pass interference calls on these kinds of plays, but Reid does a fantastic job of jumping up, not forward. Had he pushed Donnell backwards, I think this this is DPI - especially since Reid does not get his head around to look for the ball.

While the defense definitely carried this team to the win, the offense wasn’t as putrid as many would think. They were once again just a few missed opportunities from rendering the final minutes meaningless. But when you combine a few bad play calls from Tom Coughlin with one of the NFL’s elite defenses you get a team that overcome missed opportunities and stay in the thick of the playoff race.