Sunday’s battle at Candlestick Park between the San Francisco 49ers (8-4) and Seattle Seahawks (11-1) will be a real throwback to the golden age of football, reminding us all that it’s truly a game of hitting.
As division rivals and Super Bowl contenders, these are two high-torque teams that are very passionate about hating one another.
The physicality and drama set for this one transcends any conceivable UFC match, New Jersey reality show or even a VH1 spin-off using thematic elements of the two. This is as close to an in-season championship game as you’ll see, and it might even outdo some playoff games that take place this year.
For either team, it will take a tremendous effort, both physically and mentally, to walk out of this one victorious. And while the in-game matchups are compelling, and playoff implications are on the line, perhaps the biggest notion of all is that everyone’s pride is at stake.
As 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh stated this week, this game is about validation.
That being said, in a “moment of truth” game for the San Francisco 49ers this weekend, we’ll take a look at what they can do to steal what could be their biggest win of the year—and one that carries them into the postseason.
Utilize the Running Backs on Draws and Screens
The 49ers must find a way to beat the pressure they’re going to see from Seattle and, if at all possible, slow it down over the course of the game with their play selection. If their offense is to be without the starting left side of its line, missing Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, they’ll have to adjust what they do, particularly when it comes to the tailbacks.
They can’t expect to go shoe to shoe and ram it down their throat.
That’s hard enough to do versus the Seahawks even when their offense is operating at full strength. It would also blatantly ignore how much they’ve struggled without these two in the lineup already. Since Iupati was injured in Week 10 and Staley in Week 13, Frank Gore’s production has dropped off a cliff.
The rushing game has virtually disappeared over the past three games:
|Week 11||New Orleans||13||48||3.7|
|Week 13||St. Louis||15||42||2.8|
Pro Football Reference
In order, the Washington Redskins, St. Louis Rams and New Orleans Saints are the 14th-, 15th- and 16th-ranked run defenses in the league. Not great, but it just goes to show how the team has had no run presence. Iupati is the team’s best road-grader and a pivotal figure in its power-rushing attack, while Staley is the team’s best overall lineman.
Without them, there’s going to have to be a little more window dressing and creativity to get the backs going (which San Francisco will need to do to field a complete attack). The read-option is a possibility, and there’s a chance it gets used some, but Seattle is a disciplined defense, and it is not unfamiliar with it.
That wouldn’t be the wisest dimension to lean on.
No, what the Niners need to do is take advantage of an aggressive rush by the Seahawks with some well-timed draw plays. If that front seven is coming in hot and Colin Kaepernick sells the pass to clear out the box, any one of San Francisco’s three rushers can chew up the middle.
With swing tackle/backup guard Adam Snyder starting last week and Staley eventually having to exit, this is what the 49ers attempted to do versus a similarly built St. Louis Rams defensive line that utilizes a 4-3 base scheme. Essentially, the Niners can build off that game plan to create a run presence.
The dropback by Kaepernick is respected by defenses, mainly due to the deep speed in Vernon Davis and the fact that the quarterback can launch the ball. So, just like the 49ers use the threat of run to help with the passing game—namely play action—the offense must now use the threat of pass to aid the run.
That’s what the 49ers do here by clearing out the middle, getting the St. Louis linebackers to play back on their heels, while allowing that fierce speed rush to over-pursue. Very rarely does Frank Gore get to see a box that light, but that’s what draw plays can do.
By the time Gore gets the handoff, it’s wide open, and he can basically pick and choose his running lanes. Timing, execution and calling these draws in the right game situations are also important factors when it comes to making this work.
All-Out Effort to Stop Marshawn Lynch
Pro Football Reference
Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to go down is such a burden because it keeps a defense honest all game.
Typically, the 49ers like to purge the threat of run early, pin their ears back and play tight coverage for the rest of the game. Many of their defensive players have touched on the concept of making the opponent one-dimensional—and we’ve seen what happens when teams have success running on them.
This is why Seattle matches up well with San Francisco.
Against the Seahawks, teams have to commit extra men to stopping the run and do so for four quarters. Lynch is probably the one runner in the league that Patrick Willis and Justin Smith don’t have a one-on-one advantage over, because, like them, he has his own beast mode.
Last year AP led NFL with 71 forced missed tackles. Marshawn Lynch is on pace for 89, Peterson 87 this year— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) November 15, 2013
Unless Lynch is tripped up, one man is not enough to bring him to the turf.
He’s so dense that defenses need to really contact him hard and wrap up. Schematically, there’s got to be total confluence up front, playing opportunistic team football. That means using the D-linemen to control the gaps, impede rushing lanes and allow the linebackers to flood and gang tackle.
Fortunately, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey has been a secret superstar in the middle, excelling at run stopping. For a good duration of the season, Dorsey has been one of league’s top-rated defensive linemen versus the run, according to the advanced statistics at Pro Football Focus.
Dorsey has a plus-12.1 grade versus the run, which is top-10 for defensive tackles (he is also top-10 in run-stop percentage).
Like Justin Smith, he is very good at using his legs and shifting his weight, where he is able to shut down a running lane or make a play on the ball-carrier, despite being engaged with an offensive lineman. Dorsey, along with Smith, will be pivotal figures in containing Lynch.
With their hulking presence, they’d be wise to work inside, creating congestion in the middle and forcing Lynch to bounce the run outside.
Marshawn Lynch had 3 carries for -4 yards when running outside the tackles.— Nathan Jahnke (@PFF_NateJahnke) September 9, 2013
According to Nathan Jahnke of PFF, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has limited Lynch’s carries outside. After all, he is not the most extraordinary tailback when it comes to stretching defenses horizontally.
Earlier in this season, Lynch was charted at an average of 2.5 yards per attempt outside of the tackles compared to 4.4 when running inside. Even today, his rate of success outside the hashes is not as high.
Perhaps the best way to slow down Lynch is to limit options on the field that play to his physical strengths, asking him to win as more of a finesse runner. Dorsey and Smith will want to clog the middle and make Beast Mode veer away from bruising between-the-tackle football.
By going outside, Lynch, a big bowlegged runner, gives the 49ers defenders more time to swarm him. And being outside, he’ll be away from his offensive line, providing Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and the safeties with some room to buckle up and take high-intensity shots on the Seahawks back.
This is arguably the most important thing the 49ers defense can do. Remember, if Lynch is going, not only will the 49ers defense be demoralized, but Russell Wilson will be in position to kill them down the field on play action. It is imperative they bottle up No. 24 this Sunday.
#49ers Of the five 100-yard rushing games the 49ers have allowed since Jim Harbaugh took over, Marshawn Lynch has three of them.— Bill Williamson (@BWilliamsonESPN) December 5, 2013
Amp the Creativity in the Red Zone
The 49ers have to cap off drives with touchdowns. It’s that simple. If this is one of those games where they’re forced to settle for field goals, they’ll likely be handed another loss.
According to Scott Kacsmar of Bleacher Report, sacks and an irregular run-to-pass ratio have plagued the 49ers' red-zone offense. In 2011, just 25.1 percent of the team’s red-zone plays resulted in a first down or a touchdown. It had been mostly field goals and an occasional turnover.
It hasn’t improved much either.
Last year, the 49ers’ run-heavy approach was stuffed, and Colin Kaepernick was 3-of-14 on red-zone throws in the end zone, tossing three touchdowns to one pick. Per Kacsmar’s findings, San Francisco could benefit from passing more and getting the ball out more quickly on high-percentage passes that have defined reads.
They also need to get the ball to their money targets:
With 10 touchdowns, 11 first downs and a collective first-down rate of 83.7, clearly Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis have been the go-to guys here. They need to design more quick hitters to these two, if not just because of how consistent they’ve been when given the opportunity.
But the 49ers are also in a position to use them as decoys or use the body of weapons around them to get them running open.
So, on Sunday, when San Francisco is faced with those tight situations where there is minimal field to work with, and it's dealing with the rigid press from the Seahawks corners, the coaches have to figure this is an ideal time to create space with route combinations.
They’ve done it before when they had lesser-name receivers (mostly because they had to).
It’ll be all the more effective this time around when your decoys are guys like Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. It becomes hard to match up with them across the board and then account for a backup tight end or a 5’8” running back.
Clear outs, picks and various combos out of bunch sets have the makings to be rewarding plays in tight goal situations. It’s safe, in terms of taking care of the ball, and beats the defense to the punch. Here is a two-point play the 2011 49ers converted using a creative high-percentage pass from their playbook.
Personnel: Posse (3 WR-1 TE-1 RB)
Formation: Split Backs, Twins Right
Down-and-Distance: Two-Point Attempt
On this play, the open side of the formation features Ted Ginn Jr. and Braylon Edwards flanked out wide. Not the greatest perimeter dynamic you’ll see, but they get the job done here. The point of the play is for those two to be decoys, running their routes to create a wedge between the defenders and where the ball is going.
Vernon Davis is also lined up as the in-line tight end, holding the safety on the weak side of the field, keeping him away from the action.
Michael Crabtree, lined up in the backfield (blue arrow), is the intended receiver. It is a play design where the ball is going to No. 15 or in the stands.
Crabtree motions out of the backfield to get a running start on his arrow route to the sideline.
Cornerback Corey Webster (No. 23) proceeds to trail Crabtree across the formation, but as you can see, he is impeded by his own defensive front. He is a hair behind the receiver here, which he cannot afford to be given the play design. Webster has way too much garbage in his path to get to a quick hitter on an out-breaking route.
So, the ball hasn’t even been snapped yet, and the 49ers offense has won half the battle.
The quarterback rolls to his right and lines up with Crabtree, who is working to fill in the open area created by Edwards and Ginn.
At this point, Webster is completely disengaged from the play.
And it’s an easy throw and catch. The quarterback had the option to hit the read or throw it away, and the play was there. Nobody was near Crabtree in the flat, simply because of the designed clear out from the wide receivers. It was a sharp passing play to call in that type of game situation.
The 49ers need to put forth more creative plays that emphasize beating the defense with scheme, not talent. The Seahawks are too good to give a lackadaisical effort or not extend them the respect they’ve earned.
The 49ers also need to take advantage of Kaepernick’s mobility in the red zone.
The Extra Point
- Rattle Russell Wilson: When pundits doubted San Francisco’s ability to defeat the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints because of their superstar quarterbacks, the 49ers answered by hitting. They brought it against Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Drew Brees, and the same must be done versus Russell Wilson. His will drives that team. They must find a way to break it.
- Use 3- and 4-WR Sets: After breaking his foot on Sept. 26, rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton continued practicing again on Monday, as confirmed by Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle. He got back in the rotation on Thanksgiving Day and hasn’t received any setbacks. Ideally, the 49ers could have him suit up and go pass-heavy while their run game is temporarily out of service.
Statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference, unless specified otherwise. Special thanks to Jeff Deeney at Pro Football Focus for advanced statistics. Screen grabs are provided by NFL.com Game Rewind (subscription required).