Fans and sportswriters rarely know what exactly happened on any given football play. How was it drawn up? What were the quarterback’s reads and the defensive assignments? We can make educated guesses, but deceptive formations and and window dressing fool even coaches and Pro Bowl players.
So it was a rare treat when rookie coach Kyle Shanahan told beat writers exactly what happened on the game’s key offensive play (for the 49ers): Brian Hoyer’s touchdown pass to TE George Kittle on fourth-and-goal at the Colts five yard line with 20 seconds left in regulation.
Here’s how Shanahan diagrammed the play:
“Kittle was the number one if they blitzed, and they did, so he got it. If they wouldn't have, Breida would have been the number one, and if they doubled him, [WR] Pierre [Garçon] would have been. ...
They doubled, we pretty much had a feeling they would double Pierre. If they didn't blitz they were going to play quarters coverage and probably double Pierre and put Breida one-on-one with the outside linebacker. If they blitzed and it was a zero look, which it was, we had a good blitz beater on the other side, so we had to get rid of the ball, and you don't have an option on that. You've got to plant and throw and you hope he runs a good route, and he did, and the safety almost made a heck of a play at the goal line, but he found a way to get in.”
There’s a lot that’s impressive in that answer, starting with the directness and honesty. Shanahan correctly predicted the Colts’ pass defense after lots of film study: double-teaming No. 1 WR Pierre Garçon in quarters coverage, with the possibility of an all-out blitz. (Zero look means they left no safety at all, risking man-to-man coverage on every receiver to maximize the number of rushers.)
If there was no blitz, he figured, Indianapolis would run quarters coverage, a double-high safety zone. It has some complexities, though the options are reduced in the red zone, and is conducive to the safety doubling up on a wide receiver if not required inside. That’s the look that the Colts showed — deceptively, as it turned out.
On 3rd and goal, they showed blitz but dropped into coverage. On fourth down, it was the opposite.
The 49ers lined up with Breida as the lone back and four pass targets on the line. Pierre Garçon was on the left flank, just outside the numbers to give him maximum range to maneuver, right or left. Kittle was in the left slot, Trent Taylor set up slot right, and Marquise Goodwin (who was having a big game) was wide right.
Since Garçon was the team’s best target, Shanny figured that they would double team him. As he said Monday, “I try to call stuff that they're not defending.”
So his plan was to go to UDFA running back Matt Breida as his first option. It’s unlikely Indianapolis was thinking much about him in their defensive strategy.
As the play unfolded, Breida ran a wheel route to the right through the slot, bursting past safety Darius Butler, who was covering him but looked more interested in blitzing. Butler scrambled to backpedal when Breida didn’t stay in to block, but the RB had a good step or two on him.
But all of this strategy changed because the Colts blitzed. Double-teaming in zero coverage makes no sense, because you would have to leave a target wide open, so the Colts switched to man coverage. Rookie TE George Kittle was the “hot receiver” on the play — the designated safety valve in case a blitz or some other emergency required Hoyer to get rid of the ball as soon as possible.
(For those wondering why the team is sticking with Hoyer instead of bringing in rookie C.J. Beathard, an all-out blitz on a crucial last second play at the goal line is exactly the kind of situation where you want a veteran in there instead of a rookie, especially who didn’t even pass much in college.)
Pre-snap, Trent Taylor went in motion to the left slot, in part to reveal the Colts’ coverage. CB Pierre Desir followed Taylor across the field, indicating man coverage rather than the predicted zone, and this may have helped Hoyer diagnose the blitz.
Taylor then ran a pick play to spring Kittle — this was the “good blitz-beater on the other side” that Shanahan mentioned. It created just enough space for Kittle to make a super-human and score to tie the game.