Turn Your Head and Cough: Examining One Play from the Week 14 Victory

Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann

Photos are worth a thousand words, and if you frequently read NFL film breakdown articles, then six seconds of tape can end up reading like a Dickens novel.

Indeed, tight end George Kittle’s 7 catches for 210 yards and one touchdown are all worthy of an expert’s breakdown as each is equal to 2,430 troy pounds in Mother Lode gold.

What sealed the much-needed victory for the San Francisco 49ers wasn’t a Kittle catch-and-run, but wide receiver Dante Pettis’ 31-yard catch late in the fourth quarter.

The 49ers stole the Week 14 game from Denver in a tale of two halves. In the first half, the offense racked up 348 net yards on 41 plays, gashing the Denver defense for 8.49 yards per play. It had been weeks since the 49ers could simply wish points on the board, and it felt like the team was going to trounce Denver as they did in Super Bowl XXIV.

During the halftime locker room meeting dominated by orange wedges and sports drinks, the 49ers’ offense decided that 348 yards were plenty and Kittle didn’t really need to set an NFL record.

For its next four offensive possessions, the team decided to gain a net total of 32 yards on 17 plays, or about 1.88 yards per play. Someone wanted the 49ers to cut it close, so the 49ers’ offense decided not to score a single second-half point.

The accumulated knowledge spanning the 28 known galaxies points to one clear and undisputed fact: the 2018 49ers struggle to finish close games. Once Denver pulled within a score with 3:57 left in the game, I could hear the fans in Levi’s Stadium collectively open their bottles of Xanax and Klonopin to calm frayed nerves.

The 49ers took possession with 3:53 on the clock, and gained one yard on a Jeff Wilson run to start the drive. On the next play, quarterback Nick Mullens found wide receiver Marquise Goodwin for 7 yards.

That set up a makeable third-and-2 for the offense. However, left guard Laken Tomlinson decided to commit a false start penalty, pushing the team back five yards and setting up a colossal situation for the 49ers.

After breaking the huddle, the 49ers aligned in a gun formation with Kittle lined up just off left tackle Joe Staley’s left hip. Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne was at the top of the formation in a plus-3 split.

Pettis was lined up inside of wide receiver Trent Taylor. Quarterback Nick Mullens motioned Wilson from the backfield to the flanker position on the right.

Upon Wilson's motion, Denver’s coverage became clear. Safety Justin Simmons moved from outside linebacker Von Miller’s hip to line up with Taylor. That bumped cornerback Isaac Yiadom to the outside to cover Wilson.

Safety Will Parks, in the orange circle, moved from the A-gap in between center Weston Richburg and Tomlinson toward Pettis. Denver was in a cover-1 man, with safety Dymonte Thomas as the single high safety.

The 49ers benefited from two factors on the play.

First, Yiadom and Parks were either confused or did not hear the coverage. Both men covered Wilson who was running a dart route over the middle. Taylor’s stick-china was just a bit of Shanahan flair on a lovely design.

Second, Pettis ran a gorgeous stick-and-nod route and found himself uncovered in the middle of the field. His footwork and dedication to running precise routes will pay off in spades for the 49ers.

As an added bonus, Thomas never saw Pettis break toward the middle of the field. His feet hardly moved on the play until he saw Pettis running down the open green grass. Pettis’ 10-yard route turned into a 31-yard gain, dipping the drive into baptismal waters and making it born again.

Never sleep on the men in the trenches.

Denver tried to sell A-gap pressure, but sent only four men to pursue Mullens. However, Miller and defensive end Derek Wolf ran a TEX stunt against right tackle Mike McGlinchey and right guard Mike Person. The 49ers picked it up, giving Mullens plenty of time to find Pettis.

McGlinchey earned an 81.2 pass blocking grade from Pro Football Focus on Sunday, while Person earned a dismal 42.3. But, on this play, Person picked up Miller with ease.

Pettis had a drive-killing drop on the previous possession when he was coming over the middle on a short under route. The 31-yard catch on the last drive made up for the error and was a key in the big win over Denver.

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