Deceptive plays and formations are such a big part of NFL football that it’s hard to know exactly what was planned on any particular play. What looks like a mistake might have been exactly what the coach ordered.
In mid-December, Chip Kelly dismissed Pro Football Focus’ ratings for that reason:
...how can they grade an offensive lineman when they don’t know what the play is? I’ve had it before [where they said that] our left tackle gave up a sack. He didn’t give up a sack because the guy slanted in the ‘B’ gap. The guard had ‘B’ gap and that’s not the left tackle’s responsibility, but it’s written down as a sack on the left tackle because you don’t know what play was called. We called slide protection. We didn’t call man protection.
This is true for football writers too — unless the coach tells us exactly what his play was. That doesn’t happen very often, but Chip was so happy about breaking his 13-game losing streak that he broke down his exact play call on the game-winning 2 point conversion. Colin Kaepernick added his perspective as well.
That was their Christmas present to Niners fan. Let’s use this rare opportunity to watch how it all unfolded.
The situation could not have been more dramatic. The Niners scored a touchdown with 31 seconds left that brought them within one point, 22-21, before the conversion attempt. The man formerly known as “Big Balls Chip” decided to go for two, all or nothing for the win. Ball on the two yard line, clock off for the conversion.
Kapernick lined up in shotgun, trips left with Rod Streater (who had just caught the crucial touchdown pass) farthest left outside the numbers. Kap had RB Shaun Draughn in the backfield to his immediate right on the strong side. The Rams packed in close to the formation, with even the safety only a couple of yards back into the end zone.
So what was the play call, Chip?
It was a designed rollout [to the right]. That’s what we were trying to do with [Kap] – try to get him on the edge. He had a run-pass option: if they cover everybody, he’s going to run it. If they came up, then he was going to throw it, so it was a designed play for him.
It wasn’t long ago that every play was either a run or a pass, and you could tell by the blocking. Kelly has been at the forefront of using Run-Pass Option (RPO) plays that give the quarterback both choices, usually behind run blocking. There is no better place for an RPO than inside the 5 yard line, since any passes shouldn’t take long to develop.
This was not some crazy new play cooked up at the last second, though. Chip has said that he doesn’t want his team running a play in a crucial situation unless they’ve literally practiced it 1,000 times, and he practiced what he preaches here. Kaepernick told reporters that:
...the play he called was a play everybody on offense knew was going to get called, we had great confidence in, and it worked out great for us.
The team was bunched on the left side of the field in a formation suggesting a sweep left by Draughn. The entire offensive line moved in that direction, but Draughn was only a decoy. He wasn’t a running option on the play, but Kap was (along with 3 potential passing targets). As the QB told reporters, that was the plan all along.
You know, [the quarterback run] was an opportunity that we saw on film, that we thought we could take advantage of.
Who were the three receiving options, Chip?
“He had Streater first and then he had the other two receivers coming, so we had (49ers WR Jeremy) Kerley and then ...‘Burb’ (49ers WR Aaron Burbridge) ... So he had three options: he had a quick one to Streater, because he was the guy who went in motion, and then he had the other two guys.”
Streater came across the entire formation, just behind the snap and into the right flat. Burbidge (on the numbers) and Kerley (in the left slot) ran a double slant to the right.
The goal was for Kaepernick to roll right and either hit the first receiver who came open, or keep it and run in between Streater and the other two. Here’s what the entire design looks like; orange is the decoy, red the receivers, and yellow the run option.
Kap described what happened.
We had a bootleg or slide coming across with a couple of overs, they jumped the slide [Streater], sank off on the overs and I saw an opportunity to get in there and in my head I was just, ‘I have to get in. I have to get in for thir team, we need this win.’ I was very excited to be able to do that.
Kapernick went on to give credit to the Rams’ defense.
We really thought that we were going to have the first guy [Streater] coming out [open] in the flat, they did a good job of covering that, and running with the overs as well, but the run-pass option is always good.
Indeed it was. Five Ram defenders shut down Draughn’s faked run; the rest smothered the three receivers. This left Kap with only 326-pound DT Michael Brockers to outrun. Brockers’ 40 yard dash time was 5.36; Kap ran 4.53.
Kaepernick kept rolling right. The top of his drop was at the ten yard line; absolutely no one was open. So he kept rolling right and slightly forward.
By the time he got to the five, CB EJ Gaines hung on Burbidge like a tailored suit; Streater and Kerley were double-teamed, and Kerley had actually been shoved to the ground (no flag). Kap pump faked to hold off the defensive backs but it was clear that running was his only option.
Rams CB Blake Countess figured it out and quickly recovered. He left Kerley and was in position to dive-tackle Kap at the 1 yard line, but the athletic QB hurdled over him with arm (and ball) extended to break the plane into the end zone.
The Rams’ defense is no joke. Even with a great play design, it took a shrewd and impressive leap by Kaepernick to stop Countess from winning the game with a single tackle.