San Francisco 49ers: Are Seattle Seahawks a Legitimate Challenge in '12?
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The Seahawks arrive for their 2012 NFL campaign under the leadership of head coach Pete Carroll in his third season in the Pacific Northwest. They finished 2011 at 7-9 for the second consecutive year—a record that doesn’t do justice to the strength of this team.
The ‘Hawks defense in particular ranked as a top-10 unit, forcing 31 turnovers, just seven fewer than the 49ers. They significantly improved this area of the team over the offseason and have continuity in personnel needed to remain a cohesive, successful group.
What invariably will be given more publicity is their signing of quarterback Matt Flynn to a three-year deal. This was one of the more coveted of all available free agents this year. He comes to an offense with the necessary weapons in place but in desperate need of a QB that can deliver the ball to its playmakers.
The 49ers get the Seahawks at home in mid-October and travel to Seattle for a rematch two days before Christmas, nearly a year to the day in which these two teams battled in epic fashion in 2011 (Niners prevailed 19-17).
The 49ers also won the first matchup in San Francisco last year on the fantastic efforts of Ted Ginn and his back-to-back kickoff and punt-return touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
In 2012, then, what will result from this season series? Could the ‘Hawks sweep, or even supplant, the 49ers as NFC West champs?
Let’s explore the relevant dynamics in the next few slides.
Note: I will evaluate the St. Louis Rams later this week in this three-part series.
7-9 Seahawks of 2011
The Seahawks proved that they can beat superior competition.
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Once again, the Seahawks are a much superior team than what their record would otherwise indicate.
They just suffered from a bit of a Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde effect.
While getting summarily thrashed the first two games of the season on the road, highlighted by a 24-0 beat down by the Steelers, these were two playoff-bound opponents playing on their home turf. They showed some serious mettle by rebounding with a tough divisional win at home against the Cardinals, 13-10.
Despite losing the next game, they displayed more determination by mounting a furious comeback against the Falcons but coming up just short at 30-28. The passing offense showed actual life on the arm of Tarvaris Jackson and his 319-yard, three-TD performance. It was the usually stout defense that let them down uncharacteristically.
The subsequent two games further illustrated the ‘Hawks’ Jekyll-Hyde M.O.
And what did they do promptly one week later? Lose to the Browns 6-3 in which two putrid offenses obviously failed to reach the end zone. But hey, it was Charlie Whitehurst at quarterback, and they’d see the return of Jackson for the rest of the season.
No matter, the ‘Hawks proceeded to lose two, win two, lose one, win three and then lose two more.
They took care of business twice against the Rams, pulled off huge upsets against the Ravens, Bears and Eagles, but lost to two non-playoff teams in the Cowboys and Redskins, as well as two must-win divisional games against the Niners and Cards.
I realize this inconsistent style of play doesn’t quite reflect a “stronger than what their record would indicate” type of team. What does is the losing margin: of the ‘Hawks nine losses, four amounted to deficits of three points or less. This team was in a lot of close games but couldn’t quite put it all together on offense and away from its home turf.
That will change when factoring in the offseason acquisitions.
Get the QB, Get After the QB
The 49ers will have their hands full with Chris Clemons and Co. coming off the edge.
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Clearly set on upgrading the quarterback position, Seattle landed Matt Flynn, a top-tiered free agent who was second only to Peyton Manning in the category of available QBs.
Some football pundits might call Flynn a one-hit wonder, and they’d be fairly accurate in that assessment. The former LSU product has just two career starts under his belt—but fairly prolific ones at that.
In 2010, he threw for 251 yards and three TDs with a QB rating of 100.2 in a narrow loss at New England. He really elevated his stock a year later with his franchise record-breaking 480-yard, 6-TD performance (70.5 completion percentage, 136.4 QB rating) against the Lions during the final game of the season.
The Seahawks believe his development under the tutelage of Aaron Rogers and transferring to a similar offensive system will make this a great fit. With an established run game and a bevy of solid pass catchers to throw to, Flynn should substantially revamp his new team’s passing attack.
On the defensive side of the ball, they drafted DE/OLB Bruce Irvin with the No. 15 overall pick. He provides phenomenal speed as an edge rusher and has impressed thus far in OTAs. Second-round linebacker Bobby Wagner also brings pass-rushing abilities to the team.
The Seahawks also added former Tennessee Titan Jason Jones, considered a highly coveted D-line free agent and re-signed DE Red Bryant and LB Leroy Hill to play alongside Chris Clemons—their leading sack artist (11) in 2011.
For a defense that sacked the opposing quarterback just 33 times, the Seahawks now feature numerous speed rushers on the outside from the defensive line and linebacker positions.
Bolstering arguably the two most important positions on the field (QB, pass-rusher) should push the ‘Hawks closers in the standings to the Niners in 2012.
Seahawks Offense vs. 49ers Defense
How will Flynn look playing for the team he you used to play against?
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The predominant question facing the Seahawks in 2012 is whether or not Matt Flynn will elevate the passing offense into a formidable unit. They already feature a powerful rushing attack, especially now with dynamic fourth-round pick Robert Turbin spelling Marshawn Lynch—Mr. Beast Mode himself.
So what about the passing attack?
Flynn certainly cannot complain for a lack of targets. Leading receiver of 2011 Doug Baldwin returns, along with a healthy Sidney Rice, Ben Obomanu, Mike Williams and Golden Tate. If the latter four can repeat past seasons’ success and/or realize their potential, this receiving corps can produce huge numbers.
Flynn also has the luxury of two accomplished tight ends at his disposal in Zach Miller and recently acquired Kellen Winslow. These are often a QB’s best friend, granted that Miller be freed up to flex out as a pass-catcher and Winslow keeps his head on straight.
Now, how do the 49ers defense match up personnel-wise?
In the two matchups of 2011, Tarvaris Jackson threw two TDs to Baldwin and one to Tate. Other than Baldwin putting up solid numbers against his old Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh, no receiver single-handedly created a significant matchup.
If indeed fully recovered from shoulder injuries and concussions, Rice would pose the only significant size advantage at 6’4’’, 202 pounds. I still don’t trust the 6’5’’ Williams to replicate his 2010 stats.
Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Chris Culliver and the rest of the Niner DB’s should be fully comfortable with their WR assignments.
Moreover, the 49ers linebackers and safeties absolutely contained the tight ends and RBs catching passes out of the backfield last season. An increased role for Miller and additions of Winslow and Turbin, however, will no doubt increase the difficulty of their coverage responsibilities in 2012.
Then again, it all boils down to whether Flynn can deliver the ball to his receivers against the 49ers’ ball-hawking secondary and dominant pass rush. The ‘Hawks must drastically improve their pass protection that ranked near the very bottom of the NFL.
The Seahawks’ run game behind Lynch and Turbin will prove a challenging task, but ultimate vengeance will be on the minds of all 49er defenders to prevent Beast Mode and his compatriots from crossing the 100-yard threshold (as he was the only one to do so in 2011).
Seahawks Defense vs. 49ers Offense
49er wideouts hope to avoid hits like these from Kam Chancellor.
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This personnel matchup should prove the greatest challenge for the 49ers.
The ‘Hawks return their excellent cover corners in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.
It will be incumbent on the new set of 49er wideouts and tight ends to gain separation from this often-blanketing secondary. Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis, Kyle Williams and the other receivers no longer with the team could not accomplish this last season.
With Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins now on board, I expect much-improved success. Seattle will not be able to consistently double-team. Moss will stretch the field, opening up underneath routes and lanes for the versatile stable of Niner backs. LaMichael James will be a major X-factor in the ground and passing game.
As detailed previously, Seattle fortified its linebacker corps and pass rush with Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner and Jason Jones, and also by retaining existing members of the defense.
The 49ers offensive line will absolutely have its hands full. It only gave up two sacks in their two matchups last year (all in the second game) but will face an entirely different animal this year, compounded by the deafening noise emanating from the 12th Man at CenturyLink Field.
Frank Gore and Brandon Jacobs will help neutralize the Seahawks’ blitzers. Along with Kendall Hunter and James, the ground game for the 49ers is the key component of the winning recipe for defeating this NFC West opponent.
How Will These Matchups Affect the State of the NFC West?
LaMichael James? I say X-factor.
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To put it simply, they’ll have the greatest affect.
With their strengthened roster and continuity with an underrated coaching staff, the Seahawks are the only team capable of supplanting the 49ers in the division.
They remained in position to emerge victorious late in the fourth quarter both times last year. I expect them to situate themselves in the same position in 2012.
The considerable hindrance to the ‘Hawks’ (and every NFC West team’s) quest to capture the division is a brutal 2012 schedule.
They’re fortunate enough to receive the Packers and Patriots at home but have to travel to Detroit and Chicago for games against those playoff squads. I foresee them going 1-3.
I also expect tough matchups for the Seahawks in Carolina in Week 7 and even Week 15 in Buffalo. Divisional games, for their part, are always arduous undertakings, regardless of the quality of competition on paper.
The ‘Hawks will come close by beating the Niners in their Week 16 matchup, but the reigning NFC West champs will ultimately thwart their efforts.
49ers 1-1, Seahawks 1-1
49ers 12-4 (first in NFC West), Seahawks 10-6 (second in NFC West)