Breaking down the game-winning drive

Frank Gore fumbled at the Niners’ 16 yard line with 10:39 left to go in the 4th quarter and it looked the Bengals were going to win.

But 49ers defense stopped the Bengals offense like they had all afternoon, and Cincinnati settled for a 23-yard field goal. 6-3 Bengals.

Ted Ginn Jr. returned the ensuing kickoff to the San Francisco 28 yard line. The Niners needed a big drive, and they got it, thanks largely to a terrific series of play calls by offensive coordinator Greg Roman.

Here’s a breakdown of that drive.

Play 1: First and ten at the SF 28. Delanie Walker, Vernon Davis, and Joshua Morgan line up in a bunch formation close to the Joe Staley on the left side of the formation. Kendall Hunter lines up as the lone tailback, but he motions out wide to the right next to Michael Crabtree who’s in the slot. As this happens, Smith backpedals to shotgun. At the snap, Walker runs a fade up the sideline, Davis runs a quick out, and Joshua Morgan runs a curl route which leaves him wide open in a soft spot of the Bengals’ zone defense. First down and a pickup of 12 yards.

Play 2. First and ten at the SF 40. Wishbone formation in the backfield with Kendall Hunter deep, Bruce Miller offset to the right and Delanie Walker offset to the left. Vernon Davis lines up on the right side of the line and Joshua Morgan is in the right slot. Walker motions next to Davis at tight end. Alex Smith tosses the ball to Hunter, who runs around the right corner, cuts back and picks up 11 yards. Frank Gore, who apparently sprained his ankle in the second quarter, would not have had the quickness today to make this run happen. The Niners ran a power run to the strong side of their formation here, and it set up one of the key plays of the drive later on.

Play 3. First and ten from the CIN 49. The Niners use a two wide receiver, two tight end formation, with Kendall Hunter as the only running back. The Bengals bring an eight-man rush, Alex Smith takes a quick three-step drop and fires to his hot receiver, Vernon Davis, who’s open on a quick out the right. Davis turns upfield and picks up eight yards after the catch.

Play 4. Second and two from the CIN 41. The offense lines up in a power-I formation – both the fullback and the tight end on the right side. But they line up two receivers to the left, and Kendall Hunter bounces the run to that side to pick up two yards and the first down.

Play 5. First and ten from the CIN 39. Gore subs in for Hunter, and takes his place as the lone tailback in the two wide receiver, two tight end formation. Smith fakes the handoff, then tries to throw to Gore in the right flat, a play that every NFL team seems to be trying this season, but it doesn’t work for the Niners here. Smith throws it a little too hard, and Gore lets it bounce off his facemask.

Play 6. Second and ten from the CIN 39. The Niners line up in a classic I formation. The Bengals bring eight defenders in the box because surely the Niners are going to run. Alex Smith turns to hand the ball off to Gore, but he fakes it and passes downfield to an open Vernon Davis for a gain of eight yards. Hard to say the defense would have bitten on the run fake as badly had Hunter been the tailback on the play.

Play 7. Third and two from the CIN 31. Two tight end formation with Bruce Miller in at fullback. The Niners run power left and Gore picks up four yards to get the first down. Huge run for the hobbled Gore.

Play 8. First and ten from then CIN 27. The Niners line up in a strong-side power formation, a set very similar to the one they used on the second play of the drive. On that play, Kendall Hunter took a toss for an 11 yard gain. On this play, Alex Smith fakes a handoff to Frank Gore, rolls right, and passes to a wide open Vernon Davis for a 20 yard gain. The defense completely bit on the run. Before the play, color commentator Jim Mora Jr. explained to the audience that it was time to keep giving the ball to Gore. The Bengals expected the Niners to do just that, and Greg Roman took advantage on that thinking on this brilliant play call.

Play 9. First and goal from the CIN 7. The Niners line up eight players on the line of scrimmage and run Gore up the middle. He picks up no yards.

Play 10. Second and goal from the CIN 7. Harbaugh subs out Gore for Hunter. Gore takes his helmet off, shakes his head, and takes a knee on the sideline. This time the Niners line up in a bunch formation to the left, and Hunter runs off the left tackle. Hunter makes one explosive cut and sprints into the end zone. 13-6 Niners.

The Niners couldn’t move the ball against a poor team for most of the game, and they punted seven times total today. But on this one drive, the Niners looked like geniuses.

Luckily for them, one touchdown drive was all they needed to win.

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