Seahawks vs. 49ers: 3 Key Matchups to Watch for San Francisco

Tyson Langland@TysonNFLNFC West Lead WriterOctober 17, 2012

Dec 24, 2011, Seattle, WA, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Kendall Hunter (32) rushes against the Seattle Seahawks during the third quarter at CenturyLink Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE
Joe Nicholson-US PRESSWIRE

A Thursday Night Football victory will keep the 49ers atop the NFC West at 5-2, butt a loss will surely knock them out of that top spot. San Francisco will be looking to get back into the win column after two embarrassing defeats in the last four weeks.

At no point during his short tenure in San Francisco has head coach Jim Harbaugh lost back-to-back games. And you know there's no way he wants that trend to start this week. His rivalry with Pete Carroll extends all the way back to their college days where both coaches feuded with each other on more than one occasion.

Both teams are about as healthy as they can be six weeks into the season, so there shouldn't be any excuses come game's end. Either your side played well and executed, or it didn't. The only real question mark is left tackle Joe Staley. He suffered a concussion during San Fran's Week 6 defeat to the Giants, but we should know more by the end of Wednesday.

Regardless, the game goes on, and as they say, "next man up." Let's take a look at which three matchups the 49ers will have to win to come out on top.

Vic Fangio's Defense vs. Marshawn Lynch

In 2011, Marshawn Lynch was one of the few running backs who ran well against the vaunted 49ers' run defense. In his two appearances, he combined for 140 yards rushing and one touchdown. His yards per carry average was 4.11, which is impressive considering he only averaged a measly 2.54 during the teams' first meeting in Week 1.

Not to mention, Lynch was the first player all season to rush for 100 yards and score a rushing touchdown against San Francisco. I wouldn't say "Beast Mode" has San Fran's number by any means, but his aggressive running style isn't something they see every week. 

Even though the San Francisco run defense failed down the stretch last week, it is still one of the best units in the NFL. The 49ers are currently ninth in the league at shutting people down on the ground. Their 3.6 yards per carry allowed is good enough for sixth best, and their two touchdowns allowed is tied for the second-highest mark in the NFC.

At no point last season did Vic Fangio's defense allow more than 125 yards rushing in any one game. Two teams have already eclipsed that mark this season, and it could quite possibly happen again on Thursday night, so it's safe to say that there is a bit of tightening up that needs to be done—most notably, Isaac Sopoaga.

Sopoaga has been a weak spot up the middle all season. His two worst games came when he played nearly 50 percent of the team's defensive snaps. The New York Giants ran the ball for 5.55 yards per carry when they ran it right up the gut. Two of the Giants' longest rushes of the game came when they ran the ball right at Sopoaga.

Out of 118 nose tackles and defensive tackles that Pro Football Focus has graded, he is the 14th worst. Unfortunately right now, the Niners don't have a better option at the nose. They spend a lot of time in the 2-4-5, so that's a good way to keep his snaps down.

49ers Run Game vs. Seahawks Run Defense

Greg Roman's offense is set up to limit mistakes and keep the time of possession in San Francisco's favor. In both losses this season, the 49ers' opponent had the ball almost five minutes longer than they did. And in both games, they lost the turnover battle as well, thanks in large part to quarterback Alex Smith.

Smith already has seven turnovers himself this year, so it will be imperative that Roman's offense gets back to what they do best this week, and that's run the football. Even after a down week in Week 6, the 49ers are still the top rushing team in the league at 176.8 yards per game. Their six yards per carry average is tops in the league as well.

Yes, the Seahawks do have the second-best run defense in the NFL. But that shouldn't scare off Harbaugh's club. In Week 17 of the 2011 season, they ran for 178 yards against Seattle's stout run defense. Frank Gore chewed up 83 of those yards, and Kendall Hunter played second fiddle with 73 yards of his own.

Advanced NFL Stats has the 49ers run game as the most efficient in the NFL for a reason. By rank of offensive linemen on San Francisco's roster—Joe Staley is No. 1, Alex Boone is No. 2, Jonathan Goodwin is No. 3, Mike Iupati is No. 4 and Anthony Davis is No. 5. However, Boone and Goodwin are neck and neck for the No. 2 spot.

Even with Boone playing at such a high level, the 49ers will still need Staley tomorrow night if they want the run game at full strength. Harbaugh had him listed as questionable after Wednesday's practice, so it sounds like he will be a game-time decision. Yet I expect him to be out. It's hard to recover from a concussion in only three days time.

Andy Lee vs. Jon Ryan

Not very often do I get the opportunity to highlight two punters in my matchup pieces, but when both players are two of the best in the game, it draws merit. Both Andy Lee and Jon Ryan are tops in the NFL in average gross yards. Ryan is averaging 50.4 yards per punt, and Lee is only a few yards behind him with an average of 47.9.

With defenses being stingy, it would be smart to expect a low-scoring game. In a game of that nature, field position plays such a huge role in the outcome. When looking at game-changing kicks inside the 20-yard line, Lee outdoes Ryan by one. It should also be mentioned that Lee has done it on a fewer number of kicks.

Whoever wins the field position battle tomorrow night will escape with a 'W." I also think San Francisco's special teams unit has the edge based on kick coverage and returns. Leon Washington hasn't looked like his normal self this year, so expect Kyle Williams and his 27.5 yard return average to lead the way.

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