SEATTLE — Patch Zebra Detroit.
That was the simple play-call in the huddle as the Seahawks faced 4th-and-7 at the San Francisco 35-yard line, trailing the 49ers 17-13 with 13:52 left to play in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
It morphed into much more after a flurry of activity—an aborted field goal attempt, a double snap count, penalty flags, route adjustments (especially one widened route), a missing safety, a pinpoint throw and a contested catch in the end zone—but the bottom line is this: The 35-yard touchdown pass from Russell Wilson to unheralded receiver Jermaine Kearse gave the Seahawks their first and only lead, and it put Seattle in the Super Bowl.
“It was one of the biggest plays, if not the biggest play, of the game,” Wilson said.
Try the season.
Following a 16-yard intentional grounding penalty and a 15-yard pass to tight end Zach Miller on third down, there was a bit of confusion on the Seahawks’ side of the field. Kicker Steven Hauschka was running along the sideline, unsure if he was going to be sent in to attempt a 53-yard field goal. Finally, coach Pete Carroll gave him the green light, but Hauschka never lined up for the kick. Timeout Seahawks.
“We really sent the field goal team out there to do it, and as we talked it over, it was beyond what Hauschka had down in pregame and we said, ‘Okay, let’s not force that issue in hopes of him kicking a good ball right there,’ ” Carroll said.
During the timeout, Wilson begged Carroll to go for it if they weren’t going to kick the field.
“I thought it was a great call; just give us a chance,” Wilson said. “It’s potentially the last game of the year. It’s one of those things that sometimes you’ve got to go for something. You’ve got to believe in your guys and believe that you can get it.”
Considering how poorly the Seahawks had thrown the ball to that point, it was a leap of faith. Wilson was 12 of 19 for 167 yards and had been sacked four times before that fourth-down play. Take out the 51-yard broken-play pass to Doug Baldwin, and Seattle was averaging a paltry 5.3 yards per pass attempt.
In the huddle, Wilson called “Patch Zebra Detroit,” but alerted the receivers to a possible free play because of the double snap count Wilson was going to use.
“We practice that stuff all the time,” Wilson said. “It’s something that you have to use, especially playing against a very, very good defense and a great defensive line. Just to make sure that the defense has slowed down a little bit so those ends aren’t getting a good jump on the center. I think that’s a huge thing.”
The Seahawks lined up all three receivers in “trips” to the right, with Golden Tate the widest as the No. 1 receiver, Kearse in the middle as the No. 2, and Doug Baldwin on the inside as No. 3. The tight end stayed in to block on a maximum protection call, and running back Marshawn Lynch was the only receiver on the left side of the formation as an emergency outlet.
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio countered with man coverage underneath one deep safety, Donte Whitner. Trumaine Brock had Tate on the outside, Rogers matched with Kearse in the middle and rookie safety Eric Reid had Baldwin on the inside. The 49ers would rush just four.
Wilson’s double count drew standout 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who was lined up over the guard, offside. Flags were thrown, which changed the routes by the Seahawks’ receivers to verticals, specifically Baldwin and Tate. Kearse stayed on his prescribed vertical route, but with a slight twist. “I had a wide departure,” Kearse said.
Instead of going straight down the field, Kearse angled toward the sideline to give himself more room. Rogers turned his shoulders to face the sideline in order to play inside leverage on Kearse and force the play to the sideline. But Kearse had other ideas, and zipped back inside Rogers. That forced the cornerback to do a speed turn and flip his head around to the inside and run, which Rogers said is the normal technique. But that movement caused Rogers to slow for an instant and allowed Kearse to get a step on him.
“They run so many routes out of their formations; they’ll go out and run a quick out on you,” Rogers said. “In nickel spot, you have to look for everything. Once I saw him turn back in, I just turned around.”
The big question: Where was Whitner? The deep safety is supposed to help on the most immediate vertical threat. Lynch was the only eligible receiver on the other side, and there was no one threatening the middle of the field. There were just the three Seahawks streaking into the end zone, including Baldwin, who had badly burned Reid and was also open.
Yet Whitner wasn’t in the play.
“We had a safety back there in coverage,” Fangio said. “[Whitner] should have … he was on one of them, should have been.” But Whitner was shallow and so far inside that he couldn’t have made a play on Baldwin, either.
With no safety around to help over the top, the cornerbacks were on their own. Wilson’s line-drive throw traveled 45 yards in the air, but Rogers had recovered and was in excellent position by the time the ball arrived. Rogers, with his chest in Kearse’s back, reached out his left arm and just missed the ball a split-second before it landed in Kearse’s arms.
“They threw the ball at me,” Rogers said. “Even though we had middle field safety help, I’ve got to make the play on the ball. You never know what [the safety] sees. I don’t know if No. 3 went across and took him out on the play and opened up that hole. I still have to make the play. Regardless of whether the throw was good, inside or outside, it’s my play to make.
“The [ball] location was outside of him, gave him a chance to make the play and he made the play. Can’t do nothing about that. Some plays are just made like that. Can’t do nothing but try and fight.”
On this night, the Seahawks got the best of the fight.