The ballgame always comes down to inches in the playoffs, doesn’t it? It wasn’t different this past Sunday when the Seahawks defeated the 49ers on a last-second interception. An inch and it would have gone over Richard Sherman’s head, sending the 49ers to the Super Bowl via a Michael Crabtree catch. An inch and it would have quelled the criticism of Colin Kaepernick. An inch and it would have quieted Sherman – maybe.
The Seahawks won a tough game that came down to the final 32 seconds of the fourth quarter. The game’s brutality and closeness was expected, as the two teams had met previously and were similarly structured throughout their rosters. They were built the same way, but both couldn’t win on this day. It would come down to one play, one that would send a roar from CenturyLink Field through Sherman’s mouth to New York.
The clock was ticking. The 49ers had the ball on their rival’s 18-yard line with a shot for back-t0-back Super Bowl appearances. On 1st-and-10, Kaepernick was in a shotgun set with running back Kendall Hunter off-set to his right. Three receivers were off to his far left in a Trips set while on the right side, a lone receiver lined up. That was Crabtree and he wasn’t entirely alone — Sherman was in his face.
Crabtree hesitated with his right foot before releasing outside. When he finally started running, he forced Sherman to quickly change from his squared stance to an open-hipped one that led to his body facing the sideline. It meant he had his back to the ball, less than ideal positioning but common in the Seahawks’ Cover 3 press zone scheme. Seeing how his receiver was more likely to win a jump-ball contest, Kaepernick took a three-step drop and stood at the top of it before attempting to place the football on Crabtree’s outside shoulder.
Sherman wasn’t an easy out for the quick-footed Crabtree. He was physical once he got his hips turned, sticking out his right arm and striking the receiver in the left shoulder. The punch forced Crabtree to slow down, sinking his shoulders and taking a long stride further outside while looking back as if he was going to catch a back-shoulder throw. The further outside he went, the more difficult it became to get open, and the throw became far more difficult too.
Crabtree was a couple yards in from the sideline. That should have been enough room for him to get open, and allow Kaepernick to deliver a strike over the top and to the outside shoulder. But when the ball sliced through the Seattle air, it didn’t get enough lift. It wasn’t tall enough for Crabtree, but instead short for Sherman, who turned his head around, eyeballed the football and extended his right arm out to knock it back into the end zone.
Like it’d done all season, the Seahawks’ play-call put their players in position to make a play. The Cover 3 assigned the curl/flat area to linebacker Malcolm Smith, who was filling in for the injured K.J. Wright. He was a fourth of the underneath defense, but when the ball flew over his head, he covered deeper, following its trail and becoming a part of the deep coverage with Sherman. His trail led him to the deflected pass, where he caught it with waiting hands, and eventually to the Super Bowl in New York.
The play was colossal. It shattered the 49ers’ dreams and soared the Seahawks into the Super Bowl.
It was little surprise that it came down to Sherman and Crabtree, who have a standing feud that dates back to the 2013 summer when one allegedly tried to fight the other at a charity event. Afterward, Sherman brashly spoke in an interview in which he called Crabtree (and Kaepernick) out.
“I’m the best corner in the game. When you try me with a sorry receiver like Crabtree, that’s the result you gonna get. Don’t you ever talk about me,” Sherman said.
Sherman is arguably the best player on the defensive side of the ball for the Seahawks, while Crabtree is arguably the most integral piece to the 49ers’ passing offense. It’s only expected that it comes down to those two on the final play of a game that would come down to inches.
This time, Sherman had a couple in his favor.