SANTA CLARA – It all came together for 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman on Monday night.
It might have been the greatest – or, at least, the most timely – defensive play in the 43-year history of Candlestick Park. Bowman’s 89-yard interception return came with 70 seconds remaining to avert a stunning upset and enable the 49ers to clinch a playoff berth with a 34-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
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But there was so much more to the play than merely plucking the ball out of the air and running to the end zone at the opposite side of the field. The play began with Bowman designed to rush Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on an all-out blitz. He ended up aborting the blitz, because he figured he could make more of an impact off the line of scrimmage.
“He was occupying the center and saw the ball released and then he tracked it and ran to the ball and made the play,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said on Tuesday.
Harbaugh compared it to defensive lineman Justin Smith’s remarkable play early in the 2011 season to preserve a 49ers victory against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On that play, Smith was rushing the passer. Then, he reversed field and hustled to strip the ball from wide receiver Jeremy Maclin for a turnover as the Eagles were driving for the potential winning points.
Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio later called Smith’s play, “the defensive equivalent of 'The Catch.'"
There is a new candidate for that distinction after Bowman’s play on Monday. After all, the Falcons but were in position from the 49ers’ 10-yard line to score the go-ahead points and create a scenario in which the 49ers would face a must-win regular-season finale against the Arizona Cardinals.
“These are two football plays, just remarkable and just so, so good that what makes a football player,” Harbaugh said. “Sometimes you see the ball released and you make a couple steps. But what makes him think in his instincts, whether it was Justin or NaVorro, in this case, the instincts that he could go get it on that play when it’s 10 or 15 yards away.
“His training, his instincts, just make him go. He ran to the ball to make a tackle.”
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Bowman was in position to grab the ball out of the air after cornerback Tramaine Brock dislodged it from Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas on a slant pattern.
“And then ball pops up like a lollipop to NaVorro,” Harbaugh said. “But it’s that instinct and training that he has to see the ball released and then track it to get it on the tackle. I don’t know what the percentage of athletes that can do that or would do that, to have that kind of instinct and ability.
“But NaVorro Bowman does and Justin Smith did a couple years ago. I don’t know how many kind of plays a coach has like that in his career. Probably so few that you’re just going to remember them your entire coaching career. That was one of those memorable plays.”