SANTA CLARA -- On the biggest play of the game, 49ers running back Jeff Wilson was on the field for his first offensive snap.
“That might be all you get, so you better be ready for it,” Wilson said.
On Sunday, that was all Wilson got. And, boy, was he ready.
One day after turning 24, Wilson had a celebration -- the result of his ability to remain focused and loose. Wilson rose to the occasion to beat an all-out blitz with a 25-yard catch and run on a quick pass from Jimmy Garoppolo as the key play in a 36-26 victory over the Arizona Cardinals.
Wilson’s first career touchdown reception gave the 49ers the lead with 31 seconds remaining Sunday afternoon at Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers added a touchdown on the final play of the game, when the Cardinals fumbled in desperation mode and D.J. Reed returned it 4 yards for a touchdown. The 49ers improved to 9-1 on the season, and Wilson was the latest unexpected hero to emerge.
Matt Breida was sidelined with an ankle sprain, and the 49ers did not get much production on the ground from Tevin Coleman or Raheem Mostert. Coleman had 14 yards on 12 attempts, while Mostert gained 13 yards on six carries.
After a delay for a booth review, the 49ers entered the huddle trailing 26-23 with 37 seconds remaining with the ball at the Arizona 25.
Coach Kyle Shanahan made the decision to put Wilson in the game because he was effective running the upcoming play during the practices leading up to the game.
“Honestly, we were in the huddle initially and it was Tevin next to me and then I went to the sideline and was talking to Kyle and came back and all of a sudden it was Jeff next to me,” Garoppolo said. “You got to tip your hat to him to be ready in that situation. As big of a moment as that was, I think it was his first offensive snap and, I mean, to do that, it’s incredible.”
The play opened up for Wilson when Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph called an all-out blitz, leaving the middle of the field open and Wilson matched up against edge rusher Chandler Jones, who leads the NFL with 12.5 sacks.
On the previous play, tight end Ross Dwelley caught a 3-yard pass on a third-and-3 situation. Shanahan said he was going to go for it on fourth down if Dwelley had been stopped short. And when the 49ers got the first down, it gave them time to get Wilson into the game for his one play.
“It was neat watching him just because that was the play we were calling as long as we got the first (down),” Shanahan said. “When they were reviewing it and watching Jeff do high knees in the huddle, trying to get warmed up for the route. Glad he had the time to get loose.
“You had five guys in protection and they are usually bringing six, so it can be a very bad call or it can be a very good call. It’s going to be one or the other when it’s over.”
Wilson said he knew Jones would be matched against him when he saw Cardinals linebacker Haason Reddick move a few feet to his left. That indicated to Wilson that Reddick would blitz and if Wilson exited the backfield around the left side, Jones would be responsible for covering him.
“I knew he was one of the better guys on their defense, but I also knew he was a D-end,” Wilson said of Jones. “His hips aren’t that good. He can’t move side to side, especially when his whole body was turned. So it was a simple one step, cut across his face, go get the ball.”
Wilson made the inside move on Jones, who stumbled and fell. Wilson caught the pass and outran safety Jalen Thompson and split Budda Baker and Patrick Peterson to arrive untouched into the end zone.
The game-deciding play was not the only time Wilson stepped on the field, of course. He also served as one of team’s core special-teams players. He said he stayed mentally sharp due to the nature of the game and being in another close, thrilling finish.
“I stay warm by watching. My teammates give me thrills,” Wilson said. “You do a little stretch here and there, and I play special teams, as well. Special teams always keep me loose.”