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Defensive victory formation? 49ers break down bizarre, game-ending defensive touchdown

Barring a collapse of catastrophic proportions, the 49ers, up 30-26, were going to beat the Arizona Cardinals with six seconds remaining on the clock and Arizona with zero timeouts. But head coach Kyle Shanahan tends to give himself options for most eventualities, leading to the most bizarre defensive alignment and ensuing play of the 49ers’ season.

Shanahan pulled every single defensive lineman from the field, leaving solely defensive backs and linebackers to ensure the Cardinals couldn’t pull off a shock game-winner from their own 22-yard line. After Tarvarius Moore broke up a slant to Larry Fitzgerald, there were two seconds remaining, leading to safety Marcell Harris rushing the Cardinals offensive line one-on-four as a nose tackle with Moore rushing off the edge, with Ahkello Witherspoon opposite him.

After Fitzgerald caught a pass from Kyler Murray, he threw a cross-field lateral which ended up at the bottom of a pile, where Cardinals offensive lineman J.R. Sweezy flung the ball backwards in hilarious fashion. After a failed attempt by Jaquiski Tartt to scoop it up, D.J. Reed Jr. followed behind him to run it in for his first career touchdown. The mess of a play was an appropriate way to cap off a messy 36-26 win (which may have upset some bettors, considering the 10-point game line that was given on some betting sites).

The decision to pull the defensive linemen was not something Shanahan decided without consideration. Reed described the alignment as the defense’s “victory formation,” or a “bandit look,” as the 49ers call it. The 49ers do walk through it, but they’ve never run the formation at full speed, Shanahan said.

“That was the dilemma there at the end,” Shanahan said. “When we got the ball back and to call those runs, three running plays knowing that they had three timeouts, for about two minutes there it was just us coaches debating, ‘What’s the best chance for them to score? To block a field goal and return it for a touchdown or to do some type of lateral play for a touchdown? Because they’re only going to have one more play.’

That was a stressful debate for a couple of minutes that I’ve never had to debate before and we thought the lateral stuff would be a lower percentage so we took all our D-Linemen out, which [defensive line coach Kris] Kocurek was very upset with. Bosa wanted to go in and try to get another sack. We put Marcell [Harris] in, [CB] Ahkello [Witherspoon] and I think it was Tarvarius [Moore] to play the D-Line. They had some rules to it, so it definitely made it a little bit easier when they’ve got a guy like their quarterback out there they can lateral it back to because he’s tough to tackle.”

While Bosa wanted to get back in the game, he got a kick out of watching Harris try to rush the Cardinals’ O-line basically by himself.

“I joked with him about it after, it was pretty funny,” Bosa said. “He learned how rough it gets in the trenches. He got knocked down right away, it was pretty funny.”

Linebacker Elijah Lee told KNBR he was wondering why he wasn’t in at nose tackle.

“It was crazy,” Lee said. “I was questioning why I wasn’t the nose tackle but we needed all the speed we really needed out there because plays like that you don’t want them to get too far from so you might as well put all the DB’s on the field.”

Cornerback Emmanuel Moseley told KNBR he advised Harris not to hit Murray, discernibly to avoid the wrath of the Cardinals’ offensive line, and said he was stoked to see Reed finish with a touchdown after seeing his work in training camp and OTAs.

It was almost Tartt who scooped up the ball, and according to Lee, Tartt was upset with himself for failing to score, asking teammates if the ball had been downed. Tartt told KNBR he enjoyed watching the 49ers’ young core of defensive backs all in on the same play.

“I mean it was fun to watch the young guys out there, T Moore, Marcell, DJ to come in,” Tartt said. “I mean T Moore made a huge pass breakup just to not let them start whatever they was trying to do, and that was just cool, we’re going to laugh about tomorrow I’m pretty sure.”

Reed, who was following Fitzgerald on the outside, said he got a kick out of Harris, Moore and Witherspoon playing defensive line, and thanked Sweezy for effectively snapping the ball and giving him the gift of a first career touchdown.

“He gave me a late birthday gift,” said Reed, whose birthday is November 11. “Whoever that lineman was, I appreciate him, for real.”

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