MIAMI — If Dre Greenlaw had reacted a split second slower, the San Francisco 49ers might not be in Super Bowl LIV.
The difference in the NFL can sometimes be measured in just a couple of inches. Greenlaw made one of the plays that changed the entire season. In the regular-season finale, with the NFC West title on the line, Seattle Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister caught a fourth-and-goal pass over the middle. Greenlaw, a rookie fifth-round pick, reacted as Russell Wilson wound up to throw. Greenlaw met Hollister just short of the goal line. Hollister was so close to the end zone, it’s still hard to tell with absolute certainty watching the replay if he was actually short.
Hollister was ruled short on a replay review. The 49ers won the NFC West and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. Now they’ll face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Greenlaw didn’t want to say that the 49ers wouldn’t have been in the Super Bowl without his great play.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that,” Greenlaw said. “The team that we’ve got, we were going to persevere and find a way to get in. But it definitely helped.”
If the 49ers win one more game, Greenlaw’s tackle will become even more legendary. And a lot went into that fantastic play.
Dre Greenlaw did everything right
A quick reset: The Seahawks had fourth-and-goal at the 49ers’ 5-yard line with 12 seconds left, trailing 26-21. Whoever won would take the NFC West championship.
During the week, the 49ers prepared for a similar play to what the Seahawks would run on that fourth down.
“It’s one of their favorite plays,” 49ers inside linebackers coach DeMeco Ryans said.
Running back Travis Homer flared out to the right. The Seahawks were trying to pull the rookie Greenlaw to the outside, leaving a lane in the middle for Hollister to get in the end zone. Greenlaw didn’t budge. The 49ers had run man coverage against a similar play earlier in the game, but this time it was a zone.
“The way the running back went to the flat, it was designed to widen me out and get one-on-one with the ‘Mike’ [middle linebacker],” Greenlaw said.
When the 49ers practiced that week against that similar play, the message Ryans gave Greenlaw was clear.
“Coach just was like, keep looking back to the quarterback and read the quarterback’s eyes,” Greenlaw said.
Two things that Ryans had told Greenlaw were very important. He had to stay on the goal line. And he couldn’t get drawn away from his spot on the field.
“Just do what you’re supposed to do and you’ll love the results,” Ryan said. “That’s one thing Dre did on that play. Did you do something special? No, he’s just playing his technique. And it was one of the biggest plays of our season.”
Niners linebacker Fred Warner said from the time Greenlaw came to the 49ers, he was impressed with the rookie’s instincts. On this big play, Greenlaw’s instincts were right. Greenlaw waited, sticking with his zone assignment and saw Wilson locking in on Hollister crossing the field past Warner, right to him.
“In that situation, he was being patient,” Warner said. “I had to give him the ‘in, in, in’ call to let the offensive player go to him, and I had full confidence he would make the play.
“What his job was, he did it to perfection.”
Then there was the tackle itself. A couple weeks earlier, Falcons receiver Julio Jones barely got into the end zone in the final seconds because the 49ers hit him low and Jones’ momentum got him over the goal line. The 49ers lost on that play.
“Coach always tells us, on the goal line tackle high,” Greenlaw said. “If you tackle low they can fall forward.”
Greenlaw stayed high and hit Hollister hard. Hollister was short and the 49ers were NFC West champions. They got a bye week and the top seed in the NFC.
“It was a perfect form tackle at a perfect time,” Ryans said. “Everything about that play was perfect. You ask if he did anything special, he’s like, ‘No, I was just playing my technique, playing what I’m coached to do.’”
Greenlaw’s play was monumental
Let’s say Greenlaw was just a little slower to react, or he had widened out as the Seahawks hoped and Hollister scored. The 49ers wouldn’t have been the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs. They would have slipped all the way to No. 5. The Packers would have been the No. 1 seed, the Saints would have been No. 2 and Seattle would have been No. 3. The 49ers would have headed to Philadelphia for the wild-card round.
Perhaps the 49ers would have beaten the Eagles in round one, the Packers or Saints in the divisional round and whoever remained in the NFC championship. They’re playing great football. But there’s a massive difference between three road games and two home games in the playoffs.
Plenty of plays over the course of the season led to the 49ers’ NFC title. But it’s fair to speculate that without Greenlaw’s tackle, the 49ers would probably not be in the Super Bowl.
No team expects a fifth-round pick to make a big impact. The 49ers paid a lot to inside Kwon Alexander in free agency. When Alexander got hurt during the season, Greenlaw took a starting role and played very well. He said he had confidence he would contribute to the 49ers as a rookie, but it was special to make one of the biggest plays of the season.
If the 49ers take the Lombardi Trophy, Greenlaw’s play will take a special place in 49ers lore.
“Very grateful. Very grateful,” Greenlaw said. “Grateful for the coaches for having trust in me and my teammates for having trust in me.”
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