As you sit here reading this after a victory (the first one in over a month, I hope you’re enjoying it), I’d like you to take a moment and think back to how you were feeling as the 49ers faced a 3rd & 19 from their own 16-yard line with 7:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Remember, going into this play; the 49ers were trailing 16-9. They had yet to score a touchdown in this game. They didn’t have any kind of objective rhythm on offense and were poised to go three and out and give the ball right back to a Bears offense that had scored on every single possession they had up to this point. I can quickly tell you, as the 49ers broke this huddle, an inkling of doubt started to creep into my mind.
“Maybe this really just isn’t their year,” was the thought rattling around my head as the 49ers set themselves at the line of scrimmage. Then before I had time to marinate on this thought, something spectacular happened. Wide receiver Deebo Samuel caught a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage, got into space, followed some blockers upfield, and turned what I expected to be a minimal gain into an electric gain of 83 yards, getting dragged down just shy of the goal line around the Bears three-yard line.
In the blink of an eye, the 49ers went from stalling on a pivotal drive they had to have to suddenly knocking on their opponents' doorstep as they lined up for a first and goal inside the Bears five-yard line. Generally, I wouldn’t say I like overvaluing one play throughout an entire game or an entire season, but I cannot begin to stress how huge of a momentum swing this crucial third-down conversion turned out to be.
Let’s just say for a moment that the 49ers don’t convert there. They get an uninspiring gain of 2-3 yards, and they end up punting the ball back to the Bears from inside their own 20-yard line. The 49ers' defense again takes the field against a team that had scored on them on every single possession to that point in the game.
Would it have been the end of the game if the Bears extended the lead there? Absolutely not. That is still a considerable amount of time for the 49ers' offense to answer. But the way it would have demoralized the 49ers on both sides of the ball would have made a comeback attempt extremely unlikely, in my opinion.
Enough with the hypotheticals, though, because the truth of the matter is that the 49ers did not have to worry about this playing out, as mentioned above. What actually happened is from this point on, the 49ers outscored Chicago 23 to 6, with the scoring being initiated by a gutsy run by quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to deliver their first touchdown of the game.
All of a sudden, the 49ers went from being dead in the water to right back into a game that they HAD to have if they had any chance of making a run at the postseason. Moreover, I believe that this jolt of momentum also carried over to the defensive side of the ball as well. The 49ers' defense that couldn’t stop the Bears defense all game long to that point suddenly flipped the script and held Chicago to a 25% conversion rate on third down over the remainder of the game.
The word I will keep coming back to is momentum. Prior to this play, it felt like the Bears had a firm grasp on this game. After, everything seemed to be going the 49ers' way. They had rhythm on offense, they were getting stops on defense, and for the first time since week one in Detroit, they looked like a team that should not only be respected but feared as well. And it all comes back to the jumpstart they got in a most crucial spot, from a third-year wideout who has arguably been their best player all season.
As the 49ers head into their Week 9 matchup with the Arizona Cardinals, they sit only a half-game out of a playoff spot. At the moment, there is tangible hope that this team can string together some wins and maybe make a run at this thing. My entire argument here is that without this electric play by Samuel, the 49ers are likely sitting at 2-5. Instead of talking playoff run, we’re discussing what players they should be moving for draft picks before the deadline.
So whether it is just for this week, or if it stands the test of time, I will sit here and loudly proclaim that a screen pass in the middle of the third quarter was the play the 49ers that ultimately kept hope alive, which in turn kept the 49ers season alive as they prepare to play the final ten games of this season.