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Film Study: Antonio Gates' 4th Quarter TD

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In NFL History, only Tony Gonzalez has produced more touchdowns than Antonio Gates from the TE position. It stands to reason that the 49ers would not want to turn him loose in the red zone, but turn him loose they did, and the result was a Chargers' TD.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, I'm still amazed the Chargers managed to win this game.

This play is interesting because the Chargers are successful in attacking a defense vertically, which is something they haven't done very well for much of the season. In this case, however, a makeshift offensive line holds up very well against a blitz and gives Philip Rivers time to throw downfield.

Also this play shows an interesting concept - the post and corner. This combination is very effective at beating any kind of deep zone coverage, as it creates conflicts for the deep defender on the side of concept.

The Play: 5:21 remaining in the 4th Quarter. Chargers 1st and 10 at the 49ers 21 yard line.

The Chargers use "11" personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Here's a diagram of the play.

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Play Diagram


The Chargers' Offense, from left to right.

  • WR Dontrelle Inman (15). Inman runs a Comeback Route.
  • WR Eddie Royal (11). Royal chips on the ROLB, then runs an Shallow Out Route.
  • RB Donald Brown (34) is on Rivers' right. He runs a Flat Route.
  • TE Antonio Gates (85). Gates runs a Corner Route.
  • WR Malcom Floyd (80). Floyd runs a Skinny Post.

The 49ers' Defense (from the defense's right to left).

  • Up Front: LB Dan Skuta (51), DE Justin Smith (94), DT Tank Carradine (95), LB Aldon Smith (99).
  • In the Middle: CB Dontae Johnson (36), LB Michael Wilhoite (57), LB Nick Moody (54),
  • In the Secondary: CB Chris Culliver (29), SS  Craig Dahl (43), SS Antoine Bethea (41), CB Perrish Cox (20).
  • The 49ers are running a 2-4-5 defense by personnel. By formation, the look is closer to a 4-3-4.

Elements of the Play

Figure 1 shows the pre-snap business. Unlike most instance. Rivers doesn't bring anyone in motion to force the defense to show whether they are playing man, zone, or blitzing. Before the snap, Moody comes up the the line of scrimmage in front of backup RG Jeremiah Sirles, showing blitz. Just before the snap, Wilhoite shows blitz in front of LG Chad Rinehart, then backs off quickly.

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Figure 1

At the snap, Figure 2 shows Moody rushing along with the other 4 defenders, giving the 49ers a 5 man rush. The Chargers elect not to leave any anybody in to block, leaving the 5 linemen to pick up the rushers. Interestingly, Royal takes a step inside to chip on Skuta, which will allow Dunalp and Rinehart to focus on double-teaming Justin Smith.

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Figure 2

At this point in Figure 3, Royal's chip is so effective it allow Dunlap to mostly ignore Skuta. In the middle, C Trevor Robinson and Sirles execute a terrific double team on Carradine, moving him to the left and cutting off the blitz lane which Moody intended to use to provide pressure up the middle. On the right side, RT D.J. Fluker is man-to-man against Aldon Smith. It appears Brown is supposed to chip on Aldon Smith, but misses him completely.

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Figure 3

In Figure 4, at the top of Rivers' drop, the 49ers are playing Cover 1, with Wilhoite in the "Robber" position watching Rivers, and Dahl playing the single-high safety. Beyond this, it appears that Culliver, Johnson, Bethea, and Cox are playing off-man coverage. The 49ers blitz created a 3-on-3  matchup for defenders to receivers on the boundary (i.e. short) side of the field. All Rivers has to do is pick out the best option - the uncovered man appears to be Donald Brown, who's open for an easy gain of 5-10 yards, until...

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Figure 4

Figure 5  - Bethea inexplicably leaves Gates, and moves toward Brown. This leaves Gates completely free inside the 10 yard line, as Cox is still covering Floyd, and Dahl's deep middle responsibility is to take away Floyd's Post route. Rivers has a clean pocket and plenty of room to make the pass. This is about as easy a touchdown as Gates and Rivers have ever been presented, and only a bad pass or drop can ruin it.

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Figure 5

Here's a GIF of the play:

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Takeaways

I don't think it was a play designed specifically to exploit  any one player, rather, the play design put the 49ers in a bind from the moment the blitz occurred - as it created the 3-on-3 area of the field which Rivers could exploit. Thanks 1st to the strong pass blocking, Rivers had plenty of time to survey the field. A good play became a great play with Bethea's move to take way Brown - leaving Gates loose inside the 10 yard line and gifting the Chargers an easy TD.