The San Francisco 49ers (4-2) are coming off a short week, preparing for tonight’s matchup against the Seattle Seahawks (4-2). This will be the Niners’ first divisional matchup of the 2012 season, and it’s already a critical game.
There is a three-way tie for first place in the NFC West, as the division has revealed itself to be one of the more competitive groups in the league.
San Francisco and Seattle are coming off games where they each faced their respective conference representative in last year’s Super Bowl. The 49ers were just served a home loss versus the reigning champion New York Giants, while the Seahawks toppled the New England Patriots in Cinderella fashion.
This primetime bout will be a tremendous fight. Both teams are fighting for league respect and supremacy within their division. They are arguably the two best teams in the NFC West, in a budding rivalry that is beginning to earn league-wide recognition.
And because of that reason, there is a strong dislike between these two teams. This game has the makings of a hard-fought battle. It’s going to take a strong effort on San Francisco’s behalf if they hope to come away with a win.
Get Vernon Davis and Frank Gore Involved
The 49ers must get their top offensive playmakers involved early and often. Davis and Gore are substantial contributors in San Francisco’s offense, supplying it with big-gainers and momentum changers.
In Week 6, Davis and Gore combined for only 11 touches for less than 100 yards and no scores. Yet, they have been the two big time players in this 49ers offense. This makes their absence unacceptable.
Greg Roman must emphasize the continued use of these offensive staples. Their production tends to have a positive ripple effect on the rest of the players. Additionally, it will open things up for guys like Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham.
So far in 2012, Nos. 85 and 21 have combined for 810 yards and eight TDs. Gore is also averaging 5.4 yards on the ground, while Davis averages 14.8 through the air.
Beware the Deep Shots
San Francisco’s secondary was gashed in Week 6 by some big plays in the passing game. The 49ers don’t typically allow those chunk plays downfield, but the Giants exposed them nonetheless. In that very same week, Russell Wilson of the Seahawks showed his ability to hit the long ball against the Patriots.
He even hit a game-winner to Sidney Rice in that match.
Wilson and the ‘Hawks take their shots downfield and their receivers are capable of picking up chunk yardage. As a youngster looking to prove himself, Wilson will not hesitate to pull the trigger and go deep. And the Seahawks have the big-bodied receivers capable of hauling in those long bombs.
The 49ers coverage needs to be infinitely better than they were last week.
Let Alex Smith Find A Rhythm
For this matchup, the 49ers should allow their starting quarterback to take the reigns and play uninterrupted. Given what took place against the Giants, the 49ers might want to scrap the “WildKap” this week against Seattle.
Against the Giants in Week 6, onlookers learned that the presence of backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the offense could actually be quite disruptive. It was apparent that Smith couldn’t find any sort of rhythm, running back and forth to the sideline.
It would be wise for the Niners to let their starting QB, Alex Smith, get a tempo going with his targets.
For instance, if he completes a pass, don’t yank him on the next play in favor of Kaepernick. While Kaepernick running the read-option has worked to some degree, it was against teams with less than stellar run defenses.
Smith beat the Seahawks by himself twice in 2011. He can do it again.
Jim Harbaugh: "The plan wasn't the best plan. It wasn't a great day for any of us." #49ersTalk
— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) October 14, 2012
Stop the Run
To the surprise of many, the San Francisco defense had trouble stopping the run in Week 6.
Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants ground game stepped up to the challenge, and for a brief moment, stripped the 49ers’ identity from them. New York won in the trenches by opening up lanes for their backs and finishing runs.
The Niners will have an even bigger threat to their run defense on Thursday Night Football, when they host Marshawn Lynch and the Seahawks. Lynch is an aggressive, downhill runner that San Francisco has to be prepared for. It is a requisite that the defense match Lynch’s no-quit attitude with a steadfast, relentless approach.
San Francisco needs to refocus on winning up front in the trenches—something they got away from last week. The defensive linemen need to clog up lanes and the linebackers need to fill the gaps. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman need to play downhill on ball-carrier and wrestle him to the ground.
They have to work on shedding their blocks as well. Last week, the Niners defenders had a tough time releasing from their blockers and getting to the ball-carrier. This resulted in some big gains that really hurt the momentum of San Francisco’s defense.
Affect Russell Wilson
The Seahawks have been forging ahead this season with their rookie quarterback, Russell Wilson. In the six games the Niners have played this season, they are yet to go against a rookie passer. This will be their first test.
Vic Fangio can put his defense in an advantageous position by throwing the whole playbook at Wilson. San Francisco should disguise their coverages, giving the QB different looks in which he is too inexperienced to decipher.
The Niners should also focus on getting hits on Wilson. They’ll want to affect him with pressures and constant harassment. The pressure will also prevent the deep routes from developing, thus limiting their downfield plays.
Rise to the Occasion
More than anything, the 49ers need to step up to the plate and show who they are on the national stage. Coming off a loss in a shortened week, San Francisco needs a quick turnaround. They need to approach this game with clear heads and a straight-line focus.
They can benefit from playing their brand of football and establishing it early. A fundamentally sound game will help them win this ball game. It needs to be one of those grudge matches where over-aggressive physicality goes into every block and tackle.
And after losing their identity for a second time this season, the Niners need to show up and play to the level we all know they are capable of.
Play the Receivers Tight
San Francisco’s coverage had perhaps its worst game of the season on Sunday against the Giants. Regardless of home-field advantage, it was the Giants who dictated the pace of the game. They were able to throw the ball when they wanted and generate big plays downfield.
The Seahawks like to get their receivers involved—and they have a few good ones. Sidney Rice, Braylon Edwards, Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin all bring unique skills to this Seattle passing attack.
San Francisco cannot allow this passing game to get in any sort of a rhythm. And they must maintain over the top help for the duration, as to prevent any backbreaking gainers or potential touchdowns.
The Niners’ safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, will have to be factors on defense.
Score TDs in the Red Zone
San Francisco’s red-zone offense has been stuttering once again this season. In terms of scheme and personnel, the 49ers' red-zone attack was one of their biggest concerns heading into the offseason. Early in the year, it appeared as if they had it fixed—especially when their first score of the year was a 14-yard TD strike to Randy Moss in Week 1.
The Niners still are not overly efficient in goal situations. And to add insult to injury, Pro Bowl kicker David Akers hasn’t quite been automatic in 2012. The team’s leading point-scorer last year has been leaving points on the field, and it should add to the urgency of San Francisco’s red-zone offense.
In tonight’s matchup, points will be at a premium. The Niners will have to capitalize in goal situations because they won’t know when their next opportunity will be.
Don’t Stray from the Run on Offense
For one reason or another, the San Francisco 49ers completely abandoned the run last week against the Giants. As soon as New York got on the board, the 49ers went into crisis panic mode and shut down any attempts to ground and pound New York’s suspect run defense.
Early in the game, Frank Gore was averaging 4.6 yards per carry against the Giants. He also had zero carries in the second half. The 49ers are not a good enough passing team to be one-dimensional like that. This is a team that works best with a balanced offensive approach.
Gore’s productivity on the ground automatically increases San Francisco’s chances of winning.
What key to the game for San Francisco stands out to you?
Protect Alex Smith
The 49ers have a very good up-and-coming offensive line. The unit has done a solid job protecting Alex Smith and opening lanes for the running backs. Against Seattle’s pass rush—which sacked Aaron Rodgers eight times in one game this season—the Niners O-line will have to bring its game.
The offensive line will need to work together to keep Alex Smith vertical. If Smith is getting hit, he’s more liable to throw an interception. If he has time and a cushioned pocket, Smith can execute this offense well enough to come away with a victory.
The Seahawks' edge rush with Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin will be an issue, though. The tandem already has a combined 10 sacks on the season and is familiar with San Francisco’s front. The 49ers cannot underestimate the heat they are going to try to bring with their pass-rushers.