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Breaking down the 49ers game-winning drive against the Cardinals

A look inside the intricacies of the 49ers game winning drive against the Cardinals.

NFL: Arizona Cardinals at San Francisco 49ers Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The 49ers edged out another win, their second in the last three games against the Arizona Cardinals in front of a roaring crowd at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday. In the first game on Halloween, the 49ers needed the last drive to kill the clock and hold their lead. On Sunday, 17 days later, they needed a late-game drive to take back a lead that changed several times throughout the second half, and they did so with a go-ahead touchdown with 37 seconds left when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo found running back Jeff Wilson Jr. out of the backfield for a 25-yard touchdown reception.

The 49ers offense was stagnant until about halfway through the second quarter when they found a way to score on five plays in about 1:30. Garoppolo would drive his offense down inside the red zone twice in the third and fourth quarters only to throw two costly interceptions that put their chances of winning in serious jeopardy.

Garoppolo said after the game that “You’ve got to make those tight, quick decisions and live with it after. Obviously, I want the two picks back and they were two bad decisions, bad throws. At the end of the day, you’ve got to trust your guys and let them go make plays.”

As they had done all game, the 49ers and Jimmy Garoppolo relied on receiver Deebo Samuel to give them the spark they needed on the drive, finding him for a gain of 11 yards, converting a short 2nd down, and on another pass for a completion of seven yards, setting up the eventual 3rd down conversion and touchdown throw two plays later.

The drive showed the patience of Shanahan’s playcalling, allowing Garoppolo to hit the short and quick throws in front of the Cardinals defense until they got the look they wanted on the touchdown pass. It also showed a confident and calm Garoppolo entering the game at a critical time after throwing his second interception.

The Cardinals could not get enough pressure to stop the 49ers offense on the quick throws and so they sent the house under a cover zero coverage (man coverage with no safety help). On the final play, Garoppolo showed off his ability to fire accurate passes under pressure.

First play: 1st and 10 at SF 35 (2:12)

The defense forced a quick three-and-out on the Cardinal’s previous drive, a drive they began after Garoppolo’s second interception. Arik Armstead recorded a sack for an 11-yard loss on third-and-5, forcing the Cardinals to punt. The 49ers’ next drive began at their own 35-yard line and started off with an easy completion to Kendrick Bourne (No. 84) in front of the Cardinals three-deep coverage.

The play call is a concept called “arrow lion,” a concept designed to stretch the defense vertically on the three-receiver side and high-low read the strong hook defender down the seam. The flat route pulls the flat defender out of the throwing window. Tevin Coleman motioned out of the backfield to the trips side with Bourne and receiver Deebo Samuel.

Bourne, running the “arrow” route, sits down in the zone vacated by the flat defender. The middle linebacker is occupied with the inside slant from the “Lion” side (double slants) and the strong corner dropped off the flat and sank under Deebo Samuel’s (No. 19) corner route, giving Garoppolo a small window in the coverage to exploit for a positive gain of seven on first down.

Second play: 2nd and 3 at SF 42 (2:00)

With the offense now in hurry-up mode, they stayed in a five-wide empty formation again on this play, a jailbreak screen to Deebo for a gain of 11.

The play call is a “Wide RT Y LT Jailbreak LT to X” with Deebo as the “X” receiver catching the screen pass to the left. Garoppolo escapes disaster after he throws as left guard Laken Tomlinson’s defender nearly batted the ball out of mid-air as Garoppolo threw it to Deebo. Deebo catches it and gets upfield, gaining 11 yards, but not before he himself nearly had it ripped from his grasp when two defenders spun him around before the tackle and a third defender came in and popped him in the arm he was carrying the ball with. He somehow held on. To say Deebo is a strong individual would be an understatement.

Third play: 1st and 10 at ARI 47 (1:44)

One thing Garoppolo has excelled at this season is picking up yards on scrambles when nothing is open, and he usually waits in the pocket looking to give a receiver chance before he takes off.

The play call is a “shadow” concept with two shallow in-breaking routes from the #1 and #2 receivers to the right and a deep post/deep through route from the #3 receiver to that side. On the left side, the running back out of the flat is the first progression in the concept with the #3 receiver being the second read. Tevin Coleman is the running back and is not supposed to check release (he has a free release due to being the #1 read) but he waits in the pocket and chips the edge rusher as he releases (should be stressed that this could be by design on this call at this particular time but we do not have that information available).

Garoppolo looks his way initially, sees the delay, and then comes off the read due to this slight mistake. He looks for the deep through route by Dwelley but the defender has leverage underneath the route so there is nowhere throw and there is no throw to the underneath receivers as well. So he takes off up the middle and scrambles for seven yards.

Fourth play and fifth play: (4th) 2nd and 3 at ARI 40 (1:15), (5th) 1st and 10 at ARI 35 (1:09)

The fourth and fifth plays in the sequence were both pass plays to receiver Marquise Goodwin (No. 11), one in which he caught a first down pass for a gain of five yards on an under route underneath the cornerback.

The second pass was a clear drop and one which he should have caught, but he, like multiple other receivers on the team, is suffering from a dropped pass problem the last several weeks. The pass hit him in the stomach and it appears he was not ready for it after clearing the flat defender. The only consolation is that the incomplete pass stopped the clock and let the 49ers regroup for a brief moment before deciding their next course of action.

Sixth play: 2nd and 10 at ARI 35 (1:05)

Deebo made another crucial catch, and though it didn’t go for a first down, it set up the offense for an easy conversion on 3rd down.

The play call is a double swirl concept with an in-breaking route by the #2 receiver over the middle. The play is a replica of the play Garoppolo threw against Arizona in the first game on the first third-down throw to Sanders. Instead of hitting the single swirl route to Goodwin on the right side, presumably, because the corner had good coverage 1-on-1, Garoppolo instead looks off the seam defender on the left as both Samuel and Bourne stem their routes down the hash.

The hook defender travels with Bourne and sinks underneath his route, freeing up Deebo over the middle of the dig route in front of the safety. Deebo catches it and picks up again of seven. He tried to outrun the safety to the edge instead of turning upfield immediately but the play nets positive yards, making third-down easier to convert.

Seventh play: 3rd and 3 at ARI 28 (00:54)

This ended up being as crucial to the 49ers’ success on Sunday as the go-ahead touchdown. It was nearly identical to the Monday night game in that a 49ers offensive player was as close to the sticks as one can be to be granted a first down. Against Seattle, although the runner was clearly beyond the line to gain, the refs ultimately spotted the ball about one yard behind where the running back Raheem Mostert landed.

On Sunday against the Cardinals, a first down was ruled on a reception by tight end Ross Dwelley near the first-down line for the 49ers. The play call was a double-stick concept to the #2 and #3 receivers on the trips side, with both receivers running stick routes just beyond the line to gain. Dwelley caught the pass and appeared to be just short based on where he caught it and where the line marker is.

The play, as it was inside the 2-minute warning, was subject to an automatic review by the replay official. The best available angle was apparently the live-play camera a few yards upfield.

It would appear that there was enough to spot the ball short of the first down. When it is this close, however, the lack of an angle down the line-to-gain generally is a “stands” call from replay. Without a down the line shot, there was no clear and obvious evidence to say that Dwelley did not cross the line for the first down.

Eighth play: 1st and 10 at AR 25 (00:37)

The go-ahead touchdown came from an unlikely source: Jeff Wilson. Garoppolo found Wilson alone on a “Texas” route down the hash for the 25-yard touchdown. Of the play, Garoppolo said “Yeah, we got a great look, it was zero. The D-end peeled with Jeff. I felt the pressure up the middle and kind of just put it out there and let him just make a play on it. I just heard the crowd erupt, I didn’t even see him catch it and knew it was great news after that.”

The 49ers line up with trips to the right and Jeff Wilson lined up next to Garoppolo in the backfield. Garoppolo identifies cover 0, which is man coverage across the board behind usually a blitzing front of six or seven defenders and no safety help. Defensive end Chandler Jones (No. 55) drops with Wilson out of the backfield but as Wilson cuts inside, Jones stumbles and falls, leaving Wilson wide open.

The Cardinals blitz through the A-gaps where one defender comes on a delayed blitzed and giving them six rushers and five in coverage. After the game, Shanahan stated, “You had five guys in protection and they are usually bringing six, so it can be a very bad call versus zero or it can be a very good call.” Shanahan got the look he wanted and anticipated it correctly.

The Cardinals had been rushing six defenders all day similar to the first meeting between the two teams so Shanahan installed this play specifically and ran it all week in practice with Wilson. “That was the route we liked him on. Something that we worked out with him in the week. All of our guys are capable of doing it, but you try to do it how you practice it in the week. It was nice that we had enough time afterward so we could make the decision to get the sub in.”


One commentator the other day on Twitter remarked that “Jimmy Garoppolo is Jameis Winston with a better record.” I replied with the fact that the 49ers would not be 9-1 with any other quarterback Shanahan has had as a head coach in San Francisco, neither Hoyer, nor Beathard, nor Mullens. None of those quarterbacks would’ve won these close games.

Over the last three games, even with the number of boneheaded throws Garoppolo has made, the 49ers could’ve finished 3-0 and still be undefeated if not for an obvious third-down conversion spot, a missed kick, and tons of dropped passes, arguably worse than anything Garoppolo has done. They didn’t lose in week 10 to Seattle because of him, but they did win this week because of him.

The road gets harder before it gets easier with games against the Packers, and at the Ravens and Saints, three of the league’s best defenses. With a less than healthy offense, Garoppolo will once again need to put the offense on his shoulders and continue making the tough throws to give his team a chance to win.