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Anatomy of a Game Changing Fumble Recovery

I hit on the staggering consequences a dropped route and blown block can cause when Nate Burleson indirectly assisted a forced fumble by the Dallas Cowboys. Seattle hustled its way into a fumble and fumble recovery in a similar fashion this last Sunday. Fumble recovery is not luck, strictly speaking; it's just unpredictable. Luck implies a lack of skill, whereas fumble recovery is a skill, just one that is exceedingly hard to measure.

The play didn't look too exciting at the onset. Seattle broke in a nickel package against the 49ers two-tight end, power formation. David Hawthorne knifed into the backfield but lost Frank Gore when Gore followed his lead blocker left. Jordan Babineaux followed but overpursued. Bad things were about to happen. Seattle was in nickel against a run, and two of its three run stuffers, the linebacker and strong safety, were behind and out of the play. Bad things were about to happen for the 49ers.

Darryl Tapp anchored against tight end Delanie Walker and forced Gore to cut back inside. Tapp slowed Gore and ankle tackled him into and onto prostrate non-entity Craig Terrill. Terrill, through no achievement of his own, played an essential part in the play. His was the body that kept Gore from being down.

Here's where hustle gets its due: Wilson started the play just outside the tackle box and in position to be blocked by a pulling lineman. And so he was. Right tackle Adam Snyder pulled out and put a body on Pistol, but Pistol didn't quit. He went high on Snyder and yanked him aside by the shoulder pads. Back in the scrum, Babineaux recovered and punched out the fumble. Gore was attempting to wrestle his ankle free and somewhat atop Terrill. The ball bounced forward and toward no team in particular before a streaking Wilson looped into the action and recovered for 43 yards.

It was the single most important play of the game, worth 30% of win probability, worth more than Matt Hasselbeck's late strike to Deon Butler, and more than the field goal that won it. It ended a menacing looking drive by San Francisco that had advanced into Seahawks territory and flipped field position. Seattle took the lead on the ensuing drive. It wasn't the better team all game, it isn't the better team on paper, but it mustered all the character Tim Ruskell saw in it and granted him his parting wish: Win.