Most football analysis requires expertise. But some plays, even amid unknown audibles, blocking schemes, options, etc, are simple enough for the common fan (such as myself, or yourself) to understand. Sometimes it is clear that no matter what else was going on, player X beat player Y for a big play. Let’s look at two very similar, very big plays from the 49ers 23-10 victory over the Panthers in the NFC Divisional Round game from last Sunday.
Up 7-6 with 6:35 left to go in the second quarter on a first and goal from the 49er seven, Cam Newton rushes around left end before NaVorro Bowman tackles him at the one for a six yard gain.
Here is the scene at the snap. Bowman is the right inside linebacker on this play, next to Patrick Willis, their other inside linebacker, who is standing on the hash marks five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is lined up in front of Willis, directly over center with his left hand in the grass at the line of scrimmage.
Three seconds later the Panthers have four blockers to handle the three 49ers on the left edge at the line of scrimmage, between the six and seven yard lines. Newton’s chances of reaching the end zone look good. Panthers guards Travelle Wharton and Chris Scott–numbers 70 and 75–are closing in on Bowman, number 53. Center Ryan Kalil has moved Dorsey–number 90–back a couple yards, but Dorsey is still upright and in pursuit.Wharton engages Bowman on the five yard line, just in front of the rushing Newton. Dorsey–number 90–has shed Kalil–number 67–but he likely will be unable to move his 297 pounds into Newton’s path in time; Scott–number 75–sees him coming into the play.Now Wharton is blocking air, and Newton–number one–is going down, grabbed by the mostly hidden Bowman. Scott has broken away from Bowman and moves to block Dorsey, number 90. This has all happened in one second, from 6:32 on the game clock to 6:31.And what just happened, exactly? Let’s take another look, Joe! This is another view from the instant replay provided by FOX. Newton breaks around the edge as Wharton–number 70–moves to block Bowman.
Wharton engages Bowman. Scott–number 75–sees Dorsey coming in. The Panthers look all set to escort Newton into the end zone.Bowman starts to shed Wharton and clear his path to Newton, number one. Scott–number 75– breaks towards Dorsey, number 90.Bowman, having freed himself of Wharton, and with his teammate Dorsey occupying Scott’s attention, meets Newton head-on at the five yard line. Just from these screen shots, it seems that if Newton had cut left around Wharton, he would have scored. Watching in real-time reveals that Bowman purposefully sheds Wharton in this direction to meet Newton after Newton had already cut inside.1
And there is our hero, emerging triumphant from the pile at the one yard line. Dorsey himself ended up getting in there too; he is the horizontal 49er next to Bowman.At the time Bowman’s outstanding effort (along with the teamwork of Dorsey, not to mention the other nine 49ers out there) seemed trivial. The Panthers would still have second and goal from the one yard line. The 49ers defense, as indicated by plays such as this, and their previous goal line stand, is certainly good, but generally even bad offenses against good defenses are going to score a touchdown given second and goal from the one. Brian Burke, of Advanced NFL Stats, noted on Twitter that in the past two seasons, the 49ers had given up touchdowns on 10 of 15 plays from their own one yard line. But they did not this time. The held the Panthers through third down, and Ron Rivera quite unwisely2 opted for a field goal. Bowman’s tackle, aided by Dorsey’s continual pursuit, saved four points.
Up 13-10 with 8:59 left in the third quarter on a second and goal from the Panther four, Colin Kaepernick rushes around left end and scores a touchdown.
This is the snap. Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence is following 49ers wide receiver Quinton Patton–number 11– to the offense’s left side. Linebacker Luke Kuechly is lined up on the goal line just to the referee’s right; safety Mike Mitchell is at the near hash marks, on the goal line to the right of Kuechly. 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree is wide left, with Anquan Boldin in the left slot.
Kaepernick breaks left, following Patton. But left tackle Joe Staley is down on the goal line after having missed his block on Luke Kuechly, now at the two yard line on the far hash marks and breaking into the play. The corner Florence, originally chasing Patton, is now a yard deep in the end zone, also unblocked, and seemingly in good position to stop Kaepernick. The safety Mitchell is moving in from the two yard line on the near hash marks. Patton is now Kaepernick’s only blocker for the three Panthers.Patton engages Mitchell, but Kuechly is covering the lane to Kaepernick’s right, and Florence the lane to the left.Kaepernick (or “Fleetfeet”, as is about to become appropriately apparent) breaks left. Mitchell–number 21–has released off of Patton and is closing in. Kuechly–number 59– has come around them both and is also closing in. Florence is also closing in–wait, no, he is heading up field and taking himself completely out of the play, unless merely brushing Kaepernick with his outstretched hand will suffice. Boldin and Crabtree, in the lower left, finish their blocks on the outside.Kaepernick dashes past Florence and Mitchell, and Kuechly reaches out with his right hand… …and gets nothing. Kaepernick strides into the end zone.Touchdown 49ers! None of the three Panthers–not Florence, not Mitchell, not Kuechly–even register a missed tackle, because they do not even get close enough to attempt one. But all three of them miss Kaepernick, Florence by far the hardest of all. His poor angle, combined with Kaepernick’s speed, were enough for a touchdown, despite the fact that the 49ers blockers were outnumbered.
The Panthers are a very good football team. These two plays show how the 49ers beat them.3 Being a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, and making better snap judgements (whom to block, what angle to take) a little more quickly is often all the difference in the NFL.
- Unfortunately video of the play, outside of NFL Game Rewind, seems to be unavailable. ↩
- Personally, I have never been so delighted to see my team’s opponents kick a field goal in my entire life. I am not even going to break out Brian Burke’s fourth down calculator and check to see what the baseline percentages for going for it are. Remember that earlier 49ers goal line stand? Remember how when the 49ers offense took over the ball on their own half yard line, they were so concerned about a safety/blocked punt/etc that they ran a quarterback sneak on first and ten? Remember on when Colin Kaepernick almost threw an interception inside his ten yard line? Remember when Andy Lee punted after the three and out and Ted Ginn Jr. returned the ball to the 49er thirty-one yard line, and the Panthers scored a touchdown on the next play? Remember how seven points is more than twice as many as three? Even if the Panthers had not converted yet again, they would still have been in great shape. ↩
- There were some questionable calls by the referees. They seemingly missed catching the 49ers with 12 men in the huddle; however, apparently they did notice this, but as they had not marked the ball as “ready to play” this did not warrant a penalty. More outrageously, they did not call Anquan Boldin for a headbutt, despite calling Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn4 for one earlier. And there was also a questionable unnecessary roughness call on the 49ers’ first drive. But then, there was also one on a terrific Dan Skuta sack of Cam Newton. And they let four extra seconds run off the clock on Vernon Davis’ end-zone-catch-eventually-ruled-touchdown, which would have robbed the 49ers of a final chance at a touchdown if the call had gone the other way, so… maybe this is not the big conspiracy theory Panthers fans have been calling it? ↩
- Inception footnotes! Captain Munnerlyn is his given name. He is not one of the Panthers’ captains. ↩