If the San Francisco 49ers are holding on to any dreams of taking the NFC West crown, Sunday’s game against the Seattle Seahawks is a literal must-win—if Seattle wins the game, they not only clinch the division in front of the 49ers home crowd, but they also guarantee themselves a bye week in the playoffs.
It is San Francisco’s last realistic chance to keep alive any dreams of Candlestick Park going out with a final home playoff game, not to mention a huge game to win for potential wild-card seedings. This is, by far, the biggest game of the 49ers season to date.
It’s also a chance to get a degree of retribution after the slaughter that was the Week 2 matchup between the clubs. The 29-3 final score actually understates the level to which Seattle dominated. San Francisco came out flat and were hit in the mouth. If they let Seattle do that again, we will see the first Seattle victory in San Francisco since Pete Carroll took over the reins.
Here’s what went wrong in Week 2, and how the team can avoid a repeat in Week 14.
Colin Kaepernick has struggled some this season, and his nadir was the Week 2 matchup. In the game, Kaepernick was 13-for-28 for 127 yards, three interceptions and three sacks. Anquan Boldin, who was coming off of his stellar Week 1 performance, was held to only one catch for seven yards—it was a nasty performance all the way around.
The Seahawks game plan was simple—they sat back in coverage, rather than sending extra pass-rushers, daring Kaepernick to beat them through the air. On 35 Kaepernick dropbacks, the Seahawks blitzed only five times, and those blitzes weren’t particularly effective—the Niner QB averaged 11.3 yards per attempt on those five plays, as opposed to 3.4 yards a go when Seattle dropped back into coverage.
Boldin was blanketed by Richard Sherman, and he wasn’t alone. Both Sherman and fellow cornerback Walter Thurmond gave 49er wide receivers no chance to get open downfield. Kaepernick targeted them 10 times in the game, for only four completions and an interception. Yes, Kaepernick had some accuracy issues, but the greater problem was the inability of his receivers to get open downfield.
Play after play after play, there was simply nowhere to throw the ball. Take a look at the three interceptions Kaepernick threw:
Blanket coverage up and down the field. No one, anywhere, running free. It’s disastrous, and it was a regular occurrence that night. There isn’t any easy fix for that, either: Sherman’s the tenth best cornerback in football, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and four more members of the Legion of Boom grade out positively. Football Outsiders also has the secondary rated best among pass defenses.
What can San Francisco do to avoid another nightmarish matchup?
Personnel helps. In the Week 2 matchup, Boldin was accompanied by only Kyle Williams and Vernon Davis on the majority of passing snaps. Williams has since been released, and Davis was hampered by a strained hamstring late in the game.
By comparison, last week saw Michael Crabtree back with a surprisingly solid game in coming off of his Achilles injury. There are very few words to describe the difference in talent between Crabtree and Williams; even a still-recovering Crabtree is a threat as a possession receiver, and he showed some promising speed and an ability to change directions on a 60-yard reception last week. His presence allows everyone else to slide down a role, essentially boosting everyone else’s individual matchup.
The 49ers receivers shouldn’t be overwhelmed to the same degree this time around.
The Seahawks are also missing some players in the secondary—Walter Thurmond will miss the game with a suspension, and Brandon Browner is not only banged up but his status is also pending his appeal on a one-year suspension.
That’s not to say the 49ers are going to come out throwing and go for 300 yards through the air, but it would be hard to imagine the passing attack being as dismal as it was in Week 2. And any success through the air will help open holes for the ground game.
Here’s where San Francisco is more likely to be in trouble.
One of the reasons that Seattle didn’t blitz much in the Week 2 matchup is that they simply didn’t have to—they hurried Kaepernick 14 times without sending extra pressure, in addition to the pair of sacks they racked up.
Pro Football Focus had the Week 2 drubbing as the worst game of the year for both San Francisco offensive tackles (Joe Staley and Anthony Davis) as well as 49er left guard Mike Iupati and center Jonathan Goodwin. Iupati alone allowed six quarterback hurries, as Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Red Bryant and Brandon Mebane seemed to find their way into the backfield with very few problems.
Making matters worse, both Staley and Iupati are banged up, each nursing an MCL sprain. Staley returned to practice Thursday, which is a huge relief to the 49ers. It saves Joe Looney from having to start, and while Looney had a solid game against a tough St. Louis pass rush last week, his inexperience would have not been an asset against Seattle.
Adam Snyder replacing Iupati is less encouraging news, especially considering how Seattle was able to dominate the left guard position in the first matchup. Snyder gets the benefit of avoiding the terrible Seattle crowd noise, but that’s still not a good matchup for San Francisco.
They need to find a way to slow down Bennett and Avril on the outside. If the San Francisco OL can keep the pocket from collapsing instantaneously, which it failed to do back in Week 2, there will be chances for Davis, Boldin or Crabtree to work their way open. The Legion of Boom is fantastic, but they’re not perfect—given enough time, receivers could find their way open.
That’s easy to say, much harder to do; Seattle has the most effective pass rush in football. The Seahawks average 14.5 quarterback hurries per game—or one every three plays or so. They just overpower people.
This shot is from the Week 2 loss:
Note how Anthony Davis is practically on the ground, trying to stop Bennett’s sack. Note how Staley, Iupati, and Goodwin have been pushed back three yards in an attempt to keep the pocket clean. It’s not good!
The pass rush also takes away screen passes. Seattle ranks second in the league at covering running backs out in the flat, partially due to being able to generate pressure without blitzing and partially because teams often find themselves having to leave backs in to block in order to keep their quarterback upright.
The best odds San Francisco has, then, of beating both the pass defense and the pass rush is a trip back to the old West Coast offense and its quick, short throws. The ideal passing offense against Seattle will get Crabtree and Boldin together on quick passes underneath, getting them off the cornerbacks and onto linebackers. Kaepernick's unikely to have all day to hold onto the ball, so getting it out of his hand quickly might be the best way the game plan can help San Francisco's banged-up offensive line.
The final score makes it hard to remember, but the 49ers were only down 5-0 at halftime in Week 2 in Seattle.
The defense played a very solid game overall, especially when it came to pressuring Russell Wilson. Aldon Smith had a pair of sacks, and Justin Smith added four more hurries. This was before the full extent of the Seahawks’ offensive line injuries, so there’s every reason to believe San Francisco can continue to apply pressure come Sunday. The four-sack, fourteen-hurry performance they enjoyed in Week 2 should be a benchmark, and consistent pressure will be a crucial part of San Francisco’s winning strategy.
Aldon Smith will be key—he has been going full speed since his return from rehab, and to slow down the Seahawks, he’ll need to keep up that pace. Take a look at this play from Week 2, as Smith comes off the edge:
Smith bowls over Paul McQuistan on his way to knocking Wilson down. Seattle tackle Russell Okung will be a tougher matchup, but Smith is hard to stop when he gets going. Okung also is short on actual snaps this season, having played in only four games as he’s coming back from a knee injury. I think Smith wins that matchup and keeps the Seahawks' offense off balance.
Where San Francisco really struggled against Seattle's offense was in pass defense.
Both Craig Dahl and Nnamdi Asomugha had very poor days. Dahl allowed a 51-yard back-breaking reception to Doug Baldwin, while Asomguha missed three key tackles in an overall sloppy performance. Fortunately, neither will play major roles this week—Asomugha isn’t even on the team any more. Dahl has had extensive playing time only when Eric Reid suffered a concussion.
Reid being able to play, as well as Eric Wright replacing Asomugha as the nickel cornerback and Tramaine Brock taking over the right cornerback position, will solidify that pass defense significantly. Add in the fact that Sidney Rice won’t play this time around and Percy Harvin is doubtful as he works back from his hip injury, and you have to like San Francisco’s chances of shutting that offense down.
So, what would a 49ers win look like? It’d probably be low scoring—the Seahawks ferocious defense is likely to keep the number of big plays to a minimum. So San Francisco has to match them play for play on the defensive side of the ball.
With the passing game in trouble, it would probably take a big day for Frank Gore on the ground, and his counterpart for Seattle, Marshawn Lynch, can't be allowed to get rolling when the Seahawks want to establish the run.
Seattle is definitely beatable, especially away from the noise amplifier that is CenturyLink Field. San Francisco will have to learn from their Week 2 defeat, but they have better personnel now and can pull off the victory if a few bounces break their way.