Despite trailing for 57 minutes, the San Francisco 49ers had played well enough to give themselves one more shot at Super Bowl glory. After a 33-yard Frank Gore run, San Francisco needed exactly seven yards, and it had exactly four plays to do it.
As you and 108 million other people know, Jim Harbaugh's play calls were questionable at best during that four-play stretch. Along with the officiating on San Francisco's last offensive play. Many felt wide receiver Michael Crabtree was held by cornerback Jimmy Smith—the no-call resulted in a turnover on downs.
There's easily a case to be made supporting both calls, but for now let's break down the Niners' embarrassing goal-line flop. Will further examination support Harbaugh's play calls and Colin Kaepernick's pre-snap reads? Or will it justify what we already know?
1st-and-Goal at the 7-yard line, 2:39 Remaining
Before the ball is snapped, both the Baltimore Ravens and 49ers come out in easily identifiable formations. The 49ers are in their classic "diamond" pistol formation. Which means Kaepernick has one running back directly behind him, one to his left and a tight end to his right.
Baltimore counters this look with a base 3-4 look. The front seven consists of three down linemen, four linebackers and four defensive backs. The only defender who is lined up across from a skill player is left cornerback Corey Graham.
Left outside linebacker, Courtney Upshaw's pre-snap read on this play to follow the quarterback no matter what. Given the fact the 49ers run so much zone-read option, it's evident that he is instructed to stay home no matter what No. 7 does with the ball.
Right outside linebacker Terrell Suggs will be looking to turn the play inside if it were a weak side run. Both inside linebackers will be tracking the running backs out of the backfield. The secondary will be playing at normal depth just in case the 49ers go play action.
However, the 49ers do not go play action, they stick with the run on 1st-and-goal from seven yards away. As you can see above, I arrowed who Kaepernick would be watching to see which decision he would be making on the option play.
He sees that Upshaw will be tracking him no matter what, so he makes the right decision by letting go off the ball. The rookie LaMichael James takes the handoff up the middle for a two-yard gain. I noticed a strong point of attack on Alex Boone's block, and I drew an arrow from fullback Bruce Miller to Ray Lewis, the man he was supposed to block.
Miller ends up missing the block as Lewis sidesteps him, which allows No. 52 to disrupt the play for a short gain. Dannell Ellerbe gets credit for the tackle because he couldn't sustain and drive on his block. The stop brought up 2nd-and-goal from the 5-yard line.
2nd-and-Goal at the 5-yard line, 2:00 Remaining
On the second of four plays, the 49ers abandon the "diamond" pistol formation and get into a traditional shotgun set with a bunching on the right side. Crabtree is split out at right wide receiver, and Randy Moss is split out at left wide receiver.
Tight end's Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are bunched in tight to the line. Both wideouts have one-on-one coverage, the front seven has three rushers with all four backers dropping into coverage. Upshaw drops underneath into the flat zone, Lewis throws Davis off his route with Suggs and Ellerbe playing in space.
Dropping No. 91 into the flat kept Kaepernick at bay while still staying far enough back to help defend the pass. There's no question things tighten up when an offense is trying to move the ball five yards on a defense that has to defend a 15-yard area.
As the play begins to develop, it's evident that the second-year quarterback out of Nevada will only have two main reads on the play. His first read might have possibly been No. 85, but as I mentioned above, he was taken away by Lewis.
When he sees Davis locked up, he immediately shifts his read to Crabtree. Crabtree is making a play for the ball along the sideline in an effort to advance the ball two yards up field. It's hard to tell if the play was designed to go deeper but was cut short due to the Ravens off coverage.
Nevertheless, it's a poor play design because the odds of Kaepernick hitting his last option, who is coming across the backside of the formation, is slim to none. It's doubtful that the designed roll out had Moss as a realistic option, yet I like the idea of him trying to pull coverage off the right side of the field.
Crabtree eventually finds his way three yards up field into the end zone, adds a nice little push off and tries to make the catch with the corner draped all over him. It was a relatively good throw considering the circumstances, yet the coverage was just too tight.
Graham timed it perfectly, allowing contact as soon as the ball reached its destination. The second straight doomed play meant the 49ers had exactly two chances left to punch it in the end zone.
3rd-and-Goal at the 5-yard line, 1:55 Remaining
San Francisco's third offensive play features another new formation look. Kaepernick is under center for the first time with two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back. Again, this play is designed for Crabtree in the flat.
He is originally motioned out of the backfield to the slot wide receiver position. His route calls for him to b-line straight to the open, flat area of the field. Moss will be running his defender off to the back of the end zone, Walker is running a curl at the right hash and Davis is running a fade wide left.
These route combinations should hopefully draw coverage away from Crabtree, allowing him to give the 49ers their first lead of the game. This play also marks the second straight play design for the 1,000-yard receiver.
The 49ers get the matchup that they want as Moss has his coverage in the end zone. However, Crabtree doesn't get deep enough as Kaepernick is under duress. On this particular play, the Ravens dialed up pressure by sending five defenders at the young quarterback.
If the pressure doesn't get home, it probably gives Kaepernick the opportunity to hold for another second. That extra second could possibly allow the wideout to break open, yet no such luck. Kudos to the Ravens for getting home.
It's not easy to do against a team like the 49ers. They have one of the best offensive lines the league has to offer.
Crabtree catches the ball three yards short and has the ball subsequently knocked away after being hit by the backside corner. I understand the love affair with your best receiver, but at this point, it's getting a tad bit obvious.
4th-and-Goal at the 5-yard line, 1:50 Remaining
On the last offensive play of the game for the 49ers, they went back to Kaepernick's bread and butter, the pistol. Harbaugh's play design was to again isolate Crabtree on the right side of the field to get a favorable matchup.
He did indeed get a favorable matchup, as it was one-on-one coverage. Unfortunately, Baltimore sent five rushers after Kaepernick for the second play in a row. This time they did it out of a disguised Cover 0 look that initially showed Ed Reed at the line of scrimmage.
Reed acted as if he was going to blitz but backed off to fall into coverage on Crabtree. Which meant Smith now had jump ball help. Kaepernick laid the ball up in the back of the end zone so No. 15 could go and get it.
Yet Crabtree had a hard time getting off the ground due to Smith's hold. And for those of you who don't think it was a hold, just go ahead and look at the picture above. Smith's arms are locked and engaged to keep Crabtree from making a move on the ball.
Obviously, the ball falls incomplete as no one has the chance to catch it. By going back and reviewing the play multiple times, the only reason I think of for the no-call is that the official deemed the ball uncatchable.
Other than that, there is really no reason it shouldn't have been called. That incomplete pass signaled the third straight play call for Crabtree. Based on the isolated look on the right side, Dean Pees was smart enough to believe he had the highest chance of getting the ball again.
Pees also made the right move of sending pressure on the final two plays. The last thing you want Kaepernick to do is stand back in the pocket and orchestrate some kind of genius escape plan to win the game.
Without a doubt, the play-calling was awful. After the two-yard run on first down, Harbaugh never attempted another run. Many believed that he would dial up a designed run for his ridiculously athletic quarterback.
Moreover, I touched on the fact that three straight plays to Crabtree was a bit obvious. Instead, use Davis and find a matchup you like on a linebacker. The Ravens gave basic 3-4 looks on the goal line with varying pressure packages.
To be honest, I think we all expected more from the 49ers offense in that situation. But to be fair, credit has to be given to the Ravens defense as well. They played each instance perfectly and made sure to keep everything in front of them.
The defensive hold was arguably San Francisco's best play design during that four-play series.
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