Call it Cleveland 2.0.
For the second time this season, the New Orleans Saints defense lost track of a receiver late in regulation, gave up a long pass and found a way to lose when the win was within reach.
On Sunday, San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick kept alive a fourth-and-10 play from the 49ers 22 for more than 7 seconds until he found Michael Crabtree on the other side of the field for a 51-yard catch with 1:05 left in regulation.
“When I saw him throw it,” Saints cornerback Corey White said, “I didn’t know who he was throwing it to.”
Crabtree’s play shocked the crowd at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, helped spoil a late Saints rally and led to overtime, where the 49ers won 27-24.
“He was about the third or fourth guy I looked at when I was scrambling,” said Kaepernick, who finished with 210 passing yards and one score. He also rushed for 24 yards and was sacked four times. “I was happy I found someone that was open on that (play). I wasn’t expecting it.”
Crabtree’s play led to Phil Dawson’s game-tying field goal from 45 yards. In overtime, a Drew Brees fumble deep in Saints territory led to a 35-yarder by Dawson.
In Week 2, the Saints lost 26-24 after losing track of Andrew Hawkins on a second-down play with 13 seconds left. Hawkins caught a 28-yard pass, setting up a game-winning field goal for the Browns.
This time, Hawkins’ role was played by Crabtree, whose sixth NFL season has been marked with disappointment. He finished with three catches for 62 yards, his best outing since Week 3.
The Saints’ defensive miscue on the play?
Outside linebacker Junior Galette pushed upfield to Kaepernick’s right. Kaepernick countered by stepping up in the pocket, then scrambling across the field to his right. The Saints pass rushers indirectly pursued, choosing to take the same straight-line angle instead of an upfield approach. That gave Kaepernick enough time to search the field for a miracle.
By the time Kaepernick found Crabtree, an approaching Tyrunn Walker could not get to the quarterback before his release.
“There’s no excuses for that,” Galette said. “You’ve got to find a way to bring him down. We know how elusive he can be.”
In the secondary, the Saints, who were playing a Cover 2 defense, failed to “plaster” the 49ers: When the coverage falls apart on a broken play, find someone to defend.
“Unfortunately, we picked the same person to cover,” White said, “and he got behind us.”
And in the end, San Francisco again broke the hearts of fans in the Crescent City — and ended the Saints’ 20-game home winning streak with coach Sean Payton on the sideline.
“He has a very strong arm, and he’s very capable of making that play,” said Saints safety Rafael Bush, who was on the other side of the field. “That was a great play by him. But at the end of the day, that play has to be ours. We can’t let that happen.”