Play 1 — 49ers with the football, 1st-and-10 at the Buccaneers 21 at the start of the second quarter.
How did it happen? The Niners employed a base run formation with two wide receivers split to Hill's right, including Jackson. Maurice Hicks was the deep back, with the fullback offset to the left. The Buccaneers crowded the line of scrimmage, with eight defenders within four yards of the 21-yard line. This put the Bucs' defensive backs in man coverage on the two wide receivers and left one safety in the middle.
The Buccaneers rushed five, with LB Barrett Ruud coming on a delayed rush. The Niners offensive line quickly developed a solid pocket for Hill, complete with room to step up to his right and into his throw. Hicks remained in the backfield to chip possible pass rushers. As Hill released the ball, both ends for Tampa Bay overran the quarterback and the inside three rushers were stuck behind a wall of 49ers. This was one of San Francisco's better blocking jobs on Sunday.
Unlike some of his earlier throws, Hill's toss to Jackson was a perfect spiral. As the ball approached Jackson, you could see how he found the correct seam for his slant. As he caught the football, Jackson split his defender and a safety to make what was an easy touchdown catch.
With the isolation shot, you can watch Jackson's route. Kelly played man coverage, but played well off Jackson, almost 10 yards. That's an indication that Kelly expected safety help if Jackson cut inside. Jackson ran a simple skinny post route for the first 15 yards and Kelly had him well covered. But at the Bucs 7-yard line, Jackson gave Kelly a small shimmy to his right. Kelly bit on the fake and stopped. Jackson used that move to cut inside of Kelly and gain position for the incoming pass. By the time Jackson reached the 3-yard line, he had a full step on Kelly and there was no safety in the picture. Hill threw it perfectly and Jackson made a solid reception.
Finally, the slot receiver on the play, Arnaz Battle, ran a slant route which sucked in at least one of those safeties, probably Tanard Jackson. He trailed well behind the play as Jackson made the catch, an indication that he was helping LB Cato June defend Battle.
Play 2 — Buccaneers with the football, 1st-and-10 from the Niners 24-yard line with 3:55 left in the second quarter.
How did it happen? The Bucs employed a big shift at the line of scrimmage. RB Michael Pittman moved out of the fullback position in the I-formation and split out wide to Garcia's left. Stevens and fellow TE Alex Smith shifted from the left side to the right side, with Stevens outside of Smith. WR Michael Clayton remained in the right slot. RB Michael Bennett was the single back. Clayton went in motion to the left before the snap. The 49ers shifted their outside linebackers when Stevens and Smith moved. A Niners safety up at the line of scrimmage moved back into his normal position while a cornerback went out to defend Pittman. After all the shifting, the Niners had a five-man front with two linebackers inside.
At the snap, both Smith and Stevens went out for passes. Smith went straight up the field unblocked, while Stevens flared out to the right with LB P. Haralson in pursuit. The Buccaneers blocking scheme called for them to move the remaining three linemen to the left, which they did pretty easily. The two inside linebackers remained in coverage.
Garcia felt a little pressure and moved out to his right. He had plenty of field to work with and he surveyed the developing play. After a pump fake, Garcia pulled up and threw a high floater down the right sideline to Stevens. As Stevens made the catch, it was obvious that Haralson had lost his coverage.
An isolation of Stevens revealed that he used an out-and-up route on Haralson. For the first five yards, Haralson remained stride-for-stride with Stevens. But at the 20 Haralson turned around to look for the quarterback and Stevens made his move. Stevens obviously sensed that Haralson wasn't paying attention. In addition, the safety that could have picked up Stevens had chosen to help defend Smith, who ran his route down the seam. By the time Haralson realized that he had no help, he had no chance of catching Stevens.
The touchdown pass worked because Haralson blew his coverage, but also because Smith's route forced the safety to make a choice. Most pass routes that lead to touchdowns work partly because other routes force defenders to make choices. Had the safety chosen to help out with Stevens, Smith would have been wide open up the seam. And since Garcia stepped out of the pocket to give himself more time to throw, he was allowed the chance to assess both routes and pick the best one.
Play 3 — Niners with the football, 1st-and-10 at the Bucs 23 with 14:17 left in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers had just turned the football over, with Niners CB Nate Clements returning an interception 62 yards into Bucs territory.
What happened? Hill connected with RB Frank Gore for a 23-yard touchdown reception to make it 21-13 49ers.
How did it happen? The Buccaneers defense, forced to work in the short field again, put six men on the line of scrimmage as the 49ers used what looked like a base running formation. RB Frank Gore sat behind Hill as the single setback, while a receiver split to either side.
Hill took the snap and used a play-action fake to Gore. The Bucs only rushed four and the protection around Hill was solid. TE Vernon Davis, who scored on an earlier possession, ran out into the right flat, taking a safety, Kalvin Pearson, with him. The tight end on the opposite side did the same with another linebacker.
The tight ends forced the Bucs defense to spread out and allowed them just one defender to stay with Gore after he came out of the backfield. Sensing that his other receivers were covered, Hill threw a deft pass that led Gore to the right. The defender, LB Quincy Black, could have broken up a pass thrown more inside. But the throw was perfect. Gore made the catch and Black fell off of him as he tried to make a diving play. From there, Gore made it a footrace to the end zone and he won.
The wide shot replay gives another view. Gore just ran into the middle of the field and gained good position on Black. The play action forced both Black and fellow LB Adam Hayward to respect the possibility that Gore would come out of the backfield with the football and may have made them less aggressive against the pass that they might have been. In addition, the well-crafted tight end routes spread the Bucs out and put Black in a one-on-one situation that demanded he have good position on Gore. He didn't.
Play 4 — Buccaneers with the football, 2nd-and-10 at the Niners 24, 1:31 remaining in the fourth quarter.
What happened? Bucs backup QB Luke McCown threw a 24-yard touchdown pass to Stevens.
How did it happen? The Buccaneers, down eight points, needed a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the contest. McCown moved the Buccaneers into a position to tie the football game after converting a fourth down two plays earlier.
The Buccaneers called a shotgun formation. Stevens was in the left slot, with WR Ike Hilliard lined up inside of him. McCown had Pittman to his left in the backfield. Smith was in the tight end slot to the right, with Michael Clayton split wide right. The Niners had four down linemen set to rush and their other seven defenders scattered in zone coverage. As McCown prepared for the snap, the Niners dropped an eighth player into coverage. The Niners seemed to have any possible route covered.
At the snap McCown had solid protection and four receivers went out for a pass. Pittman helped LT Donald Penn chip a defensive player before he headed out into the flat. McCown had plenty of time but with eight pass defenders, he had difficulty finding a receiver. Bucs RT Jeremy Trueblood couldn't hold his block any longer on Niners DT Bryant Young, who nearly sacked McCown before the QB stepped up.
McCown was on the move to his right. He got outside the pocket before a Niners defender gave chase. It turned out McCown getting outside the pocket was the best thing to happen to the play. McCown used a quick pump fake, set himself and threw a bullet to Stevens at the Niners 3. Stevens caught it and scored from there.
We call some sacks "coverage sacks" because the pass coverage is so good a quarterback is unable to find a receiver before being sacked. But when the coverage is so good and the defensive line cannot sack the quarterback that can be dangerous for the defense. A mobile quarterback like McCown allows him more time to find receivers — and gives his receivers more time to get open. In addition, defensive backs can lose their coverage when receivers begin scrambling to find openings in coverage.
That's exactly what happened. Stevens ran a seam route out of the tight end position on the left side. He was well covered. At the moment Trueblood lost Young, McCown had Stevens in his sights. But McCown felt pressure coming and saw that Stevens had three 49ers defenders in the vicinity. Stevens eventually stopped his route just outside the right hashmark at the Niners 10. McCown was now on the run, and with no blockers in front of him he can see that Stevens could be his best target. The Bucs had two wide receivers on the right side, but both were covered. The Niners had two safeties in the end zone.
As McCown moved, so did Stevens. Then Hilliard moved inside. In doing so, though, he sucked in a defensive back briefly, the one back that could have stayed with Stevens and defended the play. McCown's pump fake didn't hurt either. That helped suck in the outside defensive back, who had to respect McCown's movement and the receiver he was covering. Now Stevens had his own pocket to work with as he broke for the end zone.
McCown's throw was dead on. The pump fake, Hilliard's inside move and the Bucs receiver on the sideline created a seam between the three Niners defenders that could have made a play. As Stevens made the catch, three Niners converged on him, but it was way too late to stop him. This play was a perfect example of how zone coverage can be exploited if a quarterback and his receivers have enough time.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.