Since the beginning of 2011, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers have competed one of the most vitriolic rivalries in the NFL. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh had to have both contests circled on their calendars before the season.
There's nothing either coach would love more than to embarrass the other one. Unfortunately for Harbaugh, Carroll and the Seahawks were the ones doing the embarrassing when these two teams met for the first time this season in September.
Nonetheless, the ball is now in Harbaugh's court. On Sunday, Seattle will have to fly two hours south and square off against San Francisco at Candlestick Park.
With injuries considered, let's break down which team has the edge at each position heading into Week 14 of the 2013 season.
At the end of last season, quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick had impressed the masses and finished the year as two of the best signal-callers in the game. Wilson led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record, threw for 3,118 yards, scored 26 touchdowns through the air and registered a playoff victory.
Kaepernick fared even better than Wilson.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Kaepernick concluded the regular season as the 12th-best-passing quarterback in the league. Additionally, he guided the 49ers to two playoff wins and a Super Bowl appearance.
Sure, some may say that being the 12th-best quarterback in the league is far from impressive, yet let’s remember that he only made seven regular-season starts.
However, things have flip-flopped for the quarterbacks in 2013. Through 12 games, Kaepernick has regressed mightily, and Wilson is closing in on Peyton Manning as the NFL’s best quarterback.
49ers' defensive coordinator Vic Fangio even believes Wilson is one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. Here's what he told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News:
They've got a quarterback who's in the conversation of one of the top quarterbacks in the league right now.
Everybody thinks this guy is a freak quarterback. This guy is just a really good quarterback who happens to be very fast, very quick and very elusive. He's not just a guy that runs around. He's a passer. He can run any offense.
As it stands right now, Wilson is not only regarded as the league’s most efficient deep-passing quarterback, but he is also viewed as the most effective quarterback in terms of successful play-action passes, both according to PFF.
In Kaepernick’s defense, his wide receiving corps outside of Anquan Boldin has failed him more often than not in the absence of Michael Crabtree. Jon Baldwin, Mario Manningham and Quinton Patton have combined for 111 yards on 12 receptions.
Nonetheless, Kaepernick has to do a better job of elevating the players around him.
With the 49ers’ passing game in the dumps, offensive coordinator Greg Roman has had to lean heavily on ninth-year running back Frank Gore and the rest of San Francisco’s backfield. As expected, Gore has answered the call, just as he has every other year.
Unfortunately, he’s not having quite the same kind of success he had in 2011 and 2012. Yes, he has found the end zone plenty, but his yards per carry average is down (career-low 4.0), and he has been less involved in the passing game than he was last year.
Marshawn Lynch is having a "down year" as well. His yards per carry average has slipped from 5.0 in 2012 to 4.3 this season, he’s seeing fewer touches than he did in 2012 and it’s doubtful that he will reach the 1,500-yard mark again. Despite the fact that it is incredibly tough to register back-to-back 1,500-yard seasons, you can’t ignore that his production has declined.
Yet it’s fair to point out that both running backs have had to deal with injuries on the offensive line.
As far as the backups go, neither Kendall Hunter nor Robert Turbin has thrilled in limited game action. Hunter has arguably done more with the opportunities he has been given. He has found the end zone three times, amassed 3.9 yards per attempt on 61 carries and forced nine missed tackles.
Turbin may be better in pass protection, but his blocking ability doesn’t make up for lost production in the run game.
Heading into Week 14, both teams have had to deal with a plethora of injuries at the wide receiver position. For the 49ers, Manningham and Crabtree missed a combined 19 games and have only been in the lineup together for one measly game.
Seattle’s luck hasn’t been as bad as San Francisco’s because it has more depth at the position, but the team has taken its own bumps and bruises. All-Pro wideout Percy Harvin has been limited to one game this season due to a hampering hip injury, and Sidney Rice tore his ACL during the team’s Week 8 contest versus the St. Louis Rams.
For the Seahawks, though, the injuries have been a blessing in disguise to a certain extent. The injury to Rice has helped third-year pro Doug Baldwin reestablish himself as a reliable pass-catching option, while second-year player Jermaine Kearse has seen more snaps and targets because of Rice’s injury.
Baldwin is currently Pro Football Focus' eighth-highest-graded receiver. Without question, he has made the most of his newfound opportunity.
Neither team has a Calvin Johnson-esque playmaker who can consistently do damage, but both teams do have top-notch No. 2 and No. 3 wide receivers. If Crabtree had appeared in more than one game this year, I might be more apt to lean the 49ers' way, but unfortunately, he hasn’t.
Solely based on production, the Seahawks get the nod. As a unit, they have hauled in 120 passes for 1,893 yards receiving. In comparison, the 49ers’ receiving corps has collected 88 passes for 1,120 yards receiving.
As the 2013 season has rolled on, Seahawks tight end Zach Miller has seemingly been more and more involved in the passing game. Over the course of the last two weeks, he has caught nine passes, averaged 17.2 yards per catch and hauled in one touchdown pass.
It took a while, but he is starting to play the way he did late in the season last year.
However, his numbers pale in comparison to those of the Niners' Vernon Davis.
When Manningham and Crabtree were sidelined early on in the season, someone had to pick up the slack, and that someone was Davis. From the start of the season until now, no tight end has meant more to his quarterback than Davis.
At his position, he leads the league in yards per reception, touchdowns per game and catches of 20 yards or more per game. Moreover, he is third among tight ends in total yards and averages 2.51 yards every time he runs a route. That’s also the third-highest number in the league by a tight end, per Pro Football Focus.
Rookies Vance McDonald (49ers) and Luke Willson (Seahawks) have been used sparingly by their respective teams in the passing game, and neither player has produced on a consistent basis. In terms of blocking, they are equally poor at the point of attack, even though McDonald is featured more as a blocker.
The day Tom Cable signed on to be the Seahawks’ offensive line coach, the team instantaneously got better up front. Unluckily, Seattle hasn’t found two top-tier offensive guards to pair with its bookend tackles and All-Pro center.
Despite being back in the lineup, left tackle Russell Okung has yet to find his Pro Bowl form from a season ago, and right tackle Breno Giacomini has looked average at best. The good news is that center Max Unger had a bounce-back game after he completely bombed against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 11.
Like Seattle, San Francisco has had to do some shuffling along the offensive line. Left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati have both been battling MCL sprains and are questionable heading into Sunday’s game. Harbaugh hasn’t ruled either player out, but the likelihood of their presence against the Seahawks is slim.
Nevertheless, the 49ers’ offensive line hasn’t missed a beat in their absence.
Per PFF, they are still regarded as the third-best run-blocking unit and the 13th-best pass-blocking unit. Additionally, Alex Boone filled in admirably for Staley when he left last week's game, as the former didn’t surrender a quarterback sack or a quarterback hit; he only surrendered one quarterback hurry.
The 49ers’ depth simply outweighs that of the Seahawks.
When one has to compare two different defensive lines that run two different schemes, it makes the evaluation that much tougher. In the end, the overall talent pool each team has on its roster wins out.
The 49ers' 3-4 scheme has established itself as a force to be reckoned with over the last three years. Linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman have emerged as perennial All-Pro selections, while safety Donte Whitner is revered as one of the hardest hitters in the league.
Still, those three players mentioned above wouldn’t have had the same success without superior defensive line play in front of them. Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are two of the best 3-4 defensive ends in the game because they eat up blocks and disrupt the quarterback.
Nose tackle Glenn Dorsey has also settled into the starting lineup quite nicely. He has quickly proven since Ian Williams’ injury that he is one of the 10 best players at his position.
The Seahawks’ defensive line is no slouch either. Defensive ends Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett have partnered up for 17.5 sacks, 27 quarterback hits and 75 quarterback hurries this season. Undoubtedly, there isn’t a better end rotation in the league.
In terms of interior defensive tackles, Brandon Mebane is incredibly disruptive against the run, and Tony McDaniel is right behind him as far as effectiveness goes. Nonetheless, both players are slightly above average as pass-rushers, but that’s not their main objective in Dan Quinn’s defense.
In spite of schematic differences, both defensive lines are extremely talented, so it’s best to leave it at that.
Prior to the season, it would have been easy to say the 49ers had a better linebacking corps than the Seahawks. But in recent weeks Seattle has started to close the gap, thanks in large part to outside linebackers K.J. Wright and Bruce Irvin.
Irvin has made a seamless transition from defensive end to outside linebacker, and Wright has quietly surfaced as the best linebacker on the ‘Hawks roster. Bobby Wagner’s regression from Year 1 to Year 2 also helped open the door for Wright.
As good as the Seahawks’ linebackers are, they haven’t completely closed the gap. Willis, Bowman, Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks and Corey Lemonier have become an opposing offensive line's worst nightmare. On the season, the 49ers’ linebackers have registered 21 sacks.
In addition to the high sack total, Bowman and Willis have notched 180 tackles together.
Expect another All-Pro selection out of Bowman and a Pro Bowl selection out of Willis. From top to bottom, San Francisco owns the position, and there may not be a team in the NFL that rivals it.
You have to laud the 49ers for locking up cornerback Tramaine Brock at a reasonable price before he hit the open market, yet outside of him, there is little stability at the position. When healthy, Tarell Brown is one of the best in the business, but even he has injury concerns heading into Week 14.
Carlos Rogers has regressed the last two seasons, and Eric Wright is an average player, even when he is on top of his game. This, in turn, means that San Francisco may have major problems in the secondary come Sunday. Depth is so crucial in the NFL, and right now, this team is lacking depth at a key position.
The Seahawks exemplify depth. They arguably deploy the deepest and most proficient secondary in the league. Despite missing cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Walter Thurmond this past Monday, Seattle held Drew Brees to under 200 yards passing.
Aside from their ridiculous depth, the Seahawks have an All-Pro corner in Richard Sherman and two Pro Bowl safeties in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. It’s truly unfair for opposing quarterbacks. There’s a reason opponents are only able to muster up 177.3 yards passing per game.
Niners rookie safety Eric Reid will be a Pro Bowl player someday, but he’s not quite there yet.
Seattle has too much talent and experience to mess with on the back end of its defense.
Andy Lee or Jon Ryan, take your pick. Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with either punter, but based upon the numbers, Lee takes the cake. He’s averaging 42.1 net yards per punt, his max hang time for the season is 5.6 seconds and 19 of his punts have pinned the opposition inside its own 20-yard line.
Furthermore, only two of Lee’s punts have gone out of bounds.
Ryan has impressed too, but he hasn’t shown the same consistency as Lee. He needs to get more hang time under his kicks and work on not kicking the ball into the end zone as often.
However, Steven Hauschka and the Seahawks special teams unit are head and shoulders above Phil Dawson and the 49ers' special teams unit. Hauschka is 26-of-27 on field-goal attempts this season, while his kickoffs have been equally remarkable.
Opposing offenses have an average starting field position at the 20-yard line, and 41 of his 75 kickoffs have gone for touchbacks. That is not to mention that Hauschka’s max hang time on kickoffs this year was 4.4 seconds. That’s one of the best hang times in the league.
As far as coverage units go, you have to tip your hat to the Seahawks. They have allowed the fewest punt return yards in the NFL (15), and teams have fielded an NFL-low 12 punts. Cornerback Jeremy Lane plays an instrumental role on Seattle’s punt coverage team as a brilliant gunner on the outside.
Additionally, Seahawks special teams coach Brian Schneider is one of the finest in the business.
The Harbaugh-Carroll rivalry is one of the most intriguing rivalries in all of sports. There is no love lost between these two. Their heated feuds date all the way back to their collegiate coaching days when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC.
Yet it’s no secret that Harbaugh runs the table in head-to-head matchups. In his college and pro coaching career, he’s 5-3 versus his NFC West counterpart.
Nonetheless, things are starting to head in the right direction for Carroll. The last two times these respective teams have met, Seattle has absolutely put it on San Francisco. The 49ers have been outscored 71-16.
Carroll's back-to-back wins against Harbaugh have brought him a new sense of comfort.
Here's what he told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News this past Wednesday: "I feel real comfortable taking our team in there. But it doesn't mean that their fans aren't going to go crazy and do everything they can to give their team every advantage."
Harbaugh is hoping history repeats itself at Candlestick. At home, he has never lost to Carroll. He holds a 2-0 series lead when the Seahawks have to travel to the City by the Bay.
Although it may not seem so due to Seattle’s phenomenal season, the edge has to go to Harbaugh and Co. In 2.5 seasons, he and his staff have accomplished more than Carroll and his staff. The 49ers have three playoff wins and a Super Bowl appearance since 2011, while the Seahawks have two playoff wins and no Super Bowl appearances since 2010.
Until Seattle’s coaching staff surpasses San Francisco in playoff success, the edge will go to the 49ers every time.
Going back and examining the areas of emphasis, it’s evident that these teams are evenly matched.
The 49ers had the edge in four categories (tight end, offensive line, linebacker and coaching), while the Seahawks also had the edge in four areas (quarterback, wide receiver, defensive back and special teams). Moreover, two categories (running back and defensive line) were a push.
If this game was being played in the Pacific Northwest, you would be foolish to pick the 49ers. Carroll’s club crushed the Niners on back-to-back occasions in Seattle, but Harbaugh is out for vengeance at Candlestick. Plus, we all know his boys will come to play at home on Sunday.
This game has huge implications from a personal and business standpoint for Harbaugh.
Yet I’m still inclined to pick the Seahawks. They have hit their late-season stride, and they have proven they can win at any venue. Their struggles on the road no longer haunt them the way they did in 2012.
It will be a close game all the way until the end, but Seattle will prevail in the waning moments with a last-second field goal.
Seahawks win 20-17.