Drew Brees finished with 462 passing yards against the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff. That number was truly misleading. The tape told a different story. The San Francisco defense played very well, especially their secondary. The coaching staff challenged the 49ers corners to play man-to-man against the Saints wide receivers, and the 49ers were the better unit. The Saints receivers did not get open consistently versus man coverage. There was no rhythm or continuity to New Orleans’ high tempo, fast break offense.
Despite the outstanding job done by the 49ers defense, San Francisco trailed twice in the final 4 minutes of the game. And that’s when the game belonged to Alex Smith. Sooner or later, in playoff football in today’s NFL, the quarterback must make difficult throws in critical moments. Based on my 16 game study of Smith this season, in which I had evaluated every throw he made, in all situations, I did not believe Smith would make those throws. Against the Saints, he did.
Let’s look at the 3 game-changing throws. The first came with 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter. The 49ers had base personnel on the field: 2 backs, 2 wide receivers and tight end Vernon Davis. Davis was split outside the numbers, the single receiver to the short side of the field. Throughout the game the Saints had played a high percentage of man coverage, including many snaps of “cover zero”, with no deep safety in the middle of the field. The defender matched on Davis in these man coverage concepts was one of two safeties, Roman Harper, in “man free” coverage, or Malcolm Jenkins, in “cover zero”.
On this play, it was “cover zero”: Davis on the outside versus Jenkins, a tight end on a safety. Davis ran right by Jenkins on a go route, and Smith, knowing blitz pressure was coming, laid the ball out beautifully for a 37 yard gain. Smith had to quicken his drop, plant his back foot and turn it loose. It was a big time throw, and it set-up a touchdown.
Let’s fast forward to the final minute of the game. The 49ers trailed by 3. 40 seconds remained on the clock. The ball was on the San Francisco 33 yard line. The 49ers had Davis in the inside slot on the 3 receiver side. Again the Saints played man coverage. This time it was “man free” with a single deep safety in the middle. Jenkins, a corner at Ohio State, was again matched on Davis. Jenkins, playing his help over the top, tried to undercut the in-breaking route. The window to deliver the ball was small. Smith put the ball right on Davis’ hands. The precise ball location allowed Davis to run after the catch. 47 yards later, the 49ers were in field goal range.
Smith was not finished. 14 seconds on the clock. It was third down from the 14 yard line, and the 49ers were playing to win in regulation. Smith was in the shotgun, Davis was in the left slot. The Saints played zone coverage. It was a 2 deep look but it was condensed given the shorter field in the red zone. Smith had to beat safety Harper with his throw, so anticipation was absolutely critical. He had to throw early so that Harper’s break on the ball would not force an incompletion, or interception.
Smith pulled the trigger before Davis ran by the underneath defender, linebacker Scott Shanle. He threw to a spot based on precise timing. It was as good as it gets. The catch was great, but the throw was special. A heartbeat later, and the winning touchdown does not happen. It was that close. It was the throw that should be celebrated.
3 throws in the final 3½ minutes. All 3 came from the pocket. Each demanded quick decision making, timing, anticipation and accuracy, attributes necessary for high level quarterback play in game-deciding situations. For the first time in his career the burden of playoff victory was placed on Alex Smith, and he was outstanding.