"We were not going to let him run it in on us," the Ravens' defensive coordinator said a few moments later, referring to fleet-footed Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick. "We got beat in Washington because I let (Kirk Cousins) run it in on us. We got beat in Philadelphia because I let (Michael Vick) run it in on us. I wasn't going to let him run it in on us."
The 49ers needed five yards to steal Super Bowl XLVII with one of the greatest comebacks of all time, and Bernard Pollard was trying to keep it simple.
"In the huddle, before every one of those plays from the 5-yard line, all we kept saying was the same thing: 'Beat your man,'" the Ravens' safety said. "And if you look at that film, I promise you, every defensive back beat his man up. We understood the situation."
The 49ers needed five yards on fourth down, after failing to get them on second and third, and Kaepernick decided to change the play. When he saw the Ravens' safeties near the line of scrimmage, he audibled, calling for a fade route to Michael Crabtree in the right corner of the end zone. This shifted the running back out wide and, unbeknownst to Kaepernick, played directly into the Ravens' hands. To account for the back, safety Ed Reed slid out to his left, allowing him to slide over and help in coverage on Crabtree once it became apparent Kaepernick would throw. This allowed cornerback Jimmy Smith to play the fade, which he did with, um, enthusiasm.
"There's no question in my mind that there was a hold on Crabtree on the last play," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "In my opinion, that series should have continued."
However, it did not. Smith's extremely physical coverage of Crabtree, which certainly could have resulted in a holding call without surprising anyone, was let slide by a permissive officiating crew that had called a loose game all night. Kaepernick's pass fell incomplete, the Ravens took over, and a short time later the Super Bowl champion Ravens were celebrating the same five yards the 49ers will spend this entire offseason lamenting.
"The game was a display of our entire year," Reed said. "It started great, got ugly and ended great -- with 53 tickets to paradise."
This Super Bowl had pretty much everything, from Joe Flacco's MVP performance to Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return to the 34-minute third-quarter power outage that appeared to swing the momentum in San Francisco's favor. But in the end it came down to those last five yards -- second-and-goal, third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal from the 5-yard line. The Ravens knew those five yards weren't going to be easy to hold, and they were not.
"The way Colin was playing, he's just so dangerous, obviously it's always in your mind that he's going to take off and run on one of those plays," Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said. "I think we were surprised he didn't."
Instead, the 49ers called three straight pass plays, all to Crabtree, all incomplete. On the first one, Harbaugh said he believed the call should have been pass interference on cornerback Corey Graham, who was jostling physically with Crabtree in the end zone while Kaepernick's throw sailed high. On third down, Kaepernick tried to hit Crabtree in the flat, but Graham and Smith broke up the pass. And on fourth down … well, we've already talked about that one.
What each of the three plays had in common was that Pees called a run pressure on each. He sent his pass-rushers into the backfield with a mission to contain, first and foremost -- to keep Kaepernick from taking off and running the ball in for the winning touchdown. With the ball that close to the goal line, Pees knew any pass thrown would be coming out quickly, so he figured there wasn't much time to get someone free to pursue a sack. He wanted to use his up-front guys to control the quarterback, which meant increased pressure on the defensive backs to stay true in coverage if he did throw. Like his players, Pees was surprised the Niners threw on all three plays.
"I thought that one [on third down] was going to be a run before they called that timeout," Pees said.
It may have been, but with the play clock ticking down the Niners had to call the timeout and reset. When the third-down pass was broken up, the fourth-down chess games began. Pees called a blitz that gave him another flashback -- this time to Super Bowl XLII, when he was calling defensive plays for the Patriots and Eli Manning and Plaxico Burress beat him for a Super Bowl-winning touchdown. This blitz Sunday, he said, was not exactly the same, but it reminded him of that one. The key difference for Pees will forever be that, this time, it worked. The blitzing linebacker hurried Kaepernick, Smith and Reed did what they had to do in coverage, and the pass went incomplete to give the Ravens a Super Bowl title.
"We had to make those last three plays," Pollard said. "We just had to, and we knew it. Look, this game … we didn't play great. We really didn't. But we won."
They'd played great in the first half, not so much in the second, but these battle-tested Ravens know how to focus on what matters. Sunday night, what ended up mattering was five yards the 49ers needed and the Ravens would not let them get.