49ers vs. Seahawks: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan

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49ers vs. Seahawks: Breaking Down San Francisco's Game Plan
Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

NFL fans have been waiting a long time to see the next heavyweight bout between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

No inter-divisional rivalry generated more collective buzz this offseason, as players for both teams were at each other’s throats in the media, while the front offices went shot for shot to improve their teams through the draft and trades.

There is a lot of intrigue behind this rivalry, largely because the teams mirror one another so closely. Each has a young star quarterback, a hard-nosed running game and a tough defense. The teams are led by two  coaches, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll, who both epitomize the term "player's coach" and who have a testy relationship that predates their current head coaching jobs. 

On top of that, these two NFC Western Division powers are likely each other's main obstacle to representing the conference in the next February's Super Bowl.

This is the perfect rivalry—one of the best in sports today.

Viewers outside the 49ers and Seahawks fanbase will tune into Sunday Night Football this weekend, knowing this game could go either way. No one team has a clear-cut advantage over the other, which is why some might give this one to Seattle since this game will be played on its home turf.

But don’t count out the 49ers.

This is a team that just roared past Aaron Rodgers and the Packers for the third time in a row and in the last calendar year have beaten New Orleans, New England and Atlanta all on the road. It is safe to say that the Niners can beat any team, anywhere, any time.

As far as this weekend’s matchup goes, here is what they’ll need to do to pull out a win.

 

No. 1: Contain the Beast

One thing San Francisco absolutely cannot afford to do is let the Seattle offense strike a balance, which they will be trying to achieve by feeding the beast—running back Marshawn Lynch.

Most know, when No. 24 turns it on, he can single-handedly erode the intimidation factor of the hardest-hitting defenses and inhibit the play-calling of the most defensive coordinators. Lynch’s power, his refusal to go down after initial contact, forces defenses to stack the box, especially in looks and down-and-distance situations that signify run.

Lynch having himself a day on the ground creates a substantial domino effect, which results in strategic and play-calling advantage for Seattle.  Momentum then swings in the direction of the Seahawks, which in a grudge match like this one can mean everything.

Sharing a division with the 49ers makes Coach Carroll and the Seahawks well aware that San Francisco has its best games when its defense puts the squeeze on the opponent and makes them one dimensional.

They know this because they are cut from the same cloth.

Ergo, you will have Seattle’s will to run versus San Francisco’s inundating will to stop the run, which could be the prevailing factor that determines the outcome of this football game on Sunday. Mind you, Lynch has had three-straight 100-plus yard games on the ground against this perennially top-rated defense, averaging 4.8 yards per carry to boot.

So, what can the 49ers do?

Fundamental play in the box is what it’ll boil down to.

Defensively, the 49ers cannot afford to play the kind of game they did against Green Bay last week or Lynch will run for more yards than Forrest Gump. Disciplined, assignment-based football will help the Niners pull this one out.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images

They cannot allow him cutback lanes.

They cannot bite on misdirection, read-option or counters.

San Francisco defenders cannot let Lynch get his pads low and gain leverage when they come to tackle him. Otherwise Lynch and the Seahawk offense will be moving the chains all night long.

The defensive linemen have to control the line of scrimmage and put the linebackers in position to flood the gaps. Form-tackling, gang-tackling and beating Lynch to the punch will help the 49ers lock him up this weekend.

And again, the run defense will need to be stout and the tackling will need to better than in the Green Bay game. The Seahawks don’t mess around—they hit back—and 28.5 million viewers witnessed San Francisco's defense, especially its defensive backs, have issues wrapping up ball-carriers.

“As a group, we weren’t pleased with our tackling,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday, via the team’s official website. “We talked about it after the game. It’s not something we’ve been accustomed to the last couple years with our defense.”

At the end of the day, it will come down to play calling, anticipation and tackling by the San Francisco 49ers. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis need to have strong showings, setting the tempo for the soldiers around them or else this thing could fall to pieces early.

 

No. 2: Mind the Elements 

One of the most prevalent storylines going into this game is the crowd noise. 

The Seahawks 12th man has been measured at 112 decibels—louder than a power saw or a rock concert. This has had a profound effect on visiting teams. Going back to 2005, CenturyLink Field holds the league record for most false-start penalties by opponents with 121 (2.36 per game).

Last time the 49ers were up north, they had six penalties for 58 yards, including two false-start infractions. The fear with such penalties is that they can mount throughout the course of a game and play a big factor in the battle for momentum. If the 12th man gets in the heads of the offensive linemen in particular, this could be a long day for the 49ers.

Colin Kaepernick knows the best way to shut up the crowd is by scoring points.

However, he has had difficulty with game management, largely due to the complexity of San Francisco’s offense. They’re going to have to simplify things and when Kap needs to make calls, it would be wise to rely more on hand signals (i.e., visual communication).

This will be one of the few ways the Niners will try to circumvent the crowd noise.

Beyond that, high emotions could play into this one. These two teams have been jawing all offseason, they’re both 1-0 and both have intentions of winning the division and going to a Super Bowl. This is going to get personal. Tempers will be flaring, and it is important for San Francisco not to get drawn into fisticuffs.

If the 49ers are feeding off their emotions, getting into heated exchanges with Seattle players after the whistle instead of channeling that energy during the time of play, they could wind up forfeiting a lot of yardage or worse.

The 49ers can't affected by the distractions that come with playing in Seattle, which is what happened last December, when each play for San Francisco was seemingly worse than the last, and the game snowballed into a 42-13 thrashing in Seattle's favor.

 

No. 3: Take Advantage of Man Coverage

USA TODAY Sports

With star cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner on the back end of the defensive unit, Seattle is able to sit back and let those two operate on an island. The trust Seattle coaches have in this All-Pro pair to run with nearly any NFL receiver provides the defensive coordinator with a nice security blanket.

Given their size, physicality and intuitive play, man-to-man coverage is their bread and butter. The defense, which lost coordinator Gus Bradley, who took the Jacksonville Jaguars' head coaching vacancy, had a number of zone elements, but it could charge Sherman and Browner to line up and play tight coverage, while relying on the speed rush from the front seven to pressure the opposing quarterback.

Without going into greater depth, that is the Seattle defense in a nutshell.

That being said, the unit as a whole will be challenged in more ways than one this weekend, stemming from the play of the corners. What they do and how they execute will have a ripple effect, particularly on how 49er offensive coordinator Greg Roman calls the game and how San Francisco’s QB performs.

As we know, quarterback Colin Kaepernick is a player that has a proclivity for the deep ball, having attempted a league-leading nine 20-plus yard throws in Week 1, completing three such passes for 87 yards and a touchdown, according to a tweet by the San Jose Mercury News' Cam Inman (h/t PFF).

Then on throws in the 10-19 yard range, he was a perfect 6-for-6 for 140 yards. Thanks to that style of play, Kaepernick is averaging a league-high 10.6 yards per attempt.

Either with uncanny zip or delicate touch, Kap can find soft spots, anticipate and push the ball downfield. Very rarely does he look underneath—more often than not, his eyes are kept downfield, looking for windows to make a big play.

Knowing Kaepernick is capable of this, the 49ers have designed more routes down the field, so expect defenses to start trying to safeguard the deep part of the gridiron. More than likely, he will attempt several 20-plus-yard strikes on Sunday, looking for both receivers and tight ends.

They’re going to go deep, but the play won’t always be there. Then by design or instinctual play by the quarterback, Seattle might get hurt.

Now, if Sherman and Browner are going to be tracking this vertical passing attack up and down the field all night long—and even if they are winning their matchups—they may ultimately create opportunities for Kaepernick to tear them up underneath—especially if Seattle’s edge-rush overpursues.

Folks tend to overlook that this is how the Green Bay Packers were gashed in the Divisional Playoff Round—it wasn't strictly the read-option that killed them. Kaepernick had 75 yards and a touchdown on five scrambles that game, demonstrating the danger of playing man-to-man coverage versus a dual-threat quarterback.

Let’s go to the All-22 film via NFL Game Rewind to take a look at one instance in that particular matchup.

via NFL Game Rewind

Formation: Shotgun, Empty Backfield

Personnel: 02

Down-and-Distance: 3rd-and-8

Quarter: first

Sniffing Green Bay’s red-zone on third-and-long, the 49ers elect to come out of an obvious passing look. The offense sends out two tight ends, three receivers and no running backs to spread out the defense.

The Packers react by going with a Cover 2 with press man across the board.

All of San Francisco’s eligible receivers are streaking downfield, except for Delanie Walker, who sits on his underneath route (bottom of the screen).

Each of Kaepernick's potential targets is locked up, and Green Bay still has two safeties lurking on the back end. Even if the quarterback wanted to drop one over the shoulder of Vernon Davis, who is running a seam route, he would be at risk of having it jumped by the deep defender.

All the while, outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Erik Walden are coming in hot from the outside, ready to make a play on Kaepernick

Fractions of a second later, Kaepernick still has no safe options to throw to, especially given his present position in the pocket. For any traditional dropback passer in the NFL, the play would be a bust by this point, and they’d be toast.

With tons and tons of open field, and feeling the pressure from Matthews and Walden sneaking up behind him, Kaepernick takes off.

After all, the 49ers closest receiver is 10 yards downfield, while the rest are locked up with Green Bay defenders in the end zone. Since the offense only needed eight yards to stay move the chains, this seems like a smart decision by the quarterback to extend the drive.

With no one in the vicinity, worst-case scenario is that he moves the chains and gets out of bounds unscathed. 

He's got room.

Harry How/Getty Images

And it’s a touchdown.

This is the difficulty with playing a quarterback like Colin Kaepernick, who is a true anomaly in that he can run and throw at an elite level. It hinges on his decision-making and his ability to see the field, but he can tear apart a zone with his arm, and if a defense is pulled out of position in man coverage, he’ll gash them with his legs.

Watch it happen:

If Kaepernick takes what the defense gives him, they can steadily move the ball, convert third downs, extend drives and be particularly dangerous in the red zone. In short, the combination of San Francisco’s ever-evolving vertical offense—with Seattle’s knack for playing man with its corners—will undoubtedly create running lanes for the quarterback.

On the other hand, if anyone peels off of their receiver to play the quarterback, Kaepernick, who is exceptional throwing on the run, will be tossing strikes to unguarded receivers all night. But that is a whole other article for another day.

 

Miscellaneous:

  • Win the battle of third-down efficiency: The last time around, when these two faced off at CenturyLink Field, the Seahawks were 11-of-13 on third-down, while the 49ers were 3-of-11.
  • Finish drives: The 49ers were 1-of-4 in the red zone in Seattle last time (25 percent), while the Seahawks were a perfect 4-of-4.
  • Run it (Pt. I): Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams averaged 4.75 YPC versus the Seahawks in Week 1, which is a good sign that the 49ers will be able to run the ball effectively against a front that was top three against the run last season.
  • Run it (Pt. II): The run will ultimately set up play-action passes. Kaepernick was 8-for-10 for 122 yards and two touchdowns versus the Packers on Sunday, which translated into a near-perfect QB rating of 157.1, per Jeff Deeney of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

  

 

 

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