San Francisco 49ers: Why Pass Rush, Pass Protection Are Keys Against Seahawks

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San Francisco 49ers: Why Pass Rush, Pass Protection Are Keys Against Seahawks
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
49ers edge-rushers Ahmad Brooks (left) and Aldon Smith will need to replicate this scene at Candlestick Park.

For a team that applies and surrenders quarterback pressure in equal amounts, the San Francisco 49ers must hope their pass rush and pass protection achieve equal measures of success against the Seattle Seahawks.

The 49ers defensive contingent has compiled 30 sacks in 2013. The offensive line has reciprocated—in both good ways and bad—with 30 sacks allowed.

Those marks come out to 11th-most and eighth-fewest, respectively, in the NFL.

True to form, both units matched positive and negative outputs in a microcosm-like performance during the Week 2 opening battle with their NFC West rivals.

San Francisco accrued three quarterback hits, four sacks and 14 hurries for 21 total pressures against Seattle’s Russell Wilson, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Pass-rushing force Aldon Smith led the charge with two sacks, one hit and three hurries. Fellow outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive end Justin Smith each produced an additional four pressures.

It was only the second loss for the 49ers this season when putting up at least a 20-spot in that category.

Unfortunately, the 49ers linemen charged with protecting the other side of the trenches gave up a similar number.

They allowed the Seahawks to hurry Colin Kaepernick 14 times, hit him twice and bring him to the turf on another occasion.

The usually All Pro-caliber left guard Mike Iupati was the worst of the bunch. He allowed one quarterback hit and an unsightly six hurries. Right tackle Anthony Davis surrendered another five pressures.

NFL Game Rewind
Davis (No. 76) misses his block against Michael Bennett, leading to a first-quarter Kaepernick sack.

Those failures in pass protection effectively negated any beneficial production generated from their defensive compatriots. Losing to Seattle came as little surprise considering that aggregate of 17 was the most pressure allowed by the 49ers this year.

It is now that we must invoke a fairly stale piece of analysis:

Everything begins and ends in the trenches for the 49ers.

Though unpleasant to the optic senses at this point of the season, it’s a concept that rings as true as ever heading into Week 14.

It’s how the 49ers win—and how they can do so against their division rival.

Let’s first paint the daunting but necessary picture of what lies ahead.

The Seahawks are the unquestioned class of the NFL. They sport the league’s best record of 11-1 and dominate nearly every facet of the game.

While the “Legion of Boom”—Seattle’s lauded corps of defensive backs—commands the most attention, it is the pass-rush personnel that are just as lethal—and just as deep.

To wit, twelve different members of the Seahawks’ front-seven have participated in a takedown of the opposing quarterback in 2013.

The 4-3 defensive ends—led by Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett—have notched 18 sacks. The Clinton McDonald-powered interior has tallied another six, while the linebacker corps has eight sacks to its name.

Worse yet, Chris Clemons, Bruce Irvin and their accompanying 5.5 sacks and 52 pressures will serve as yet another source of consternation for Kaepernick. The dynamic edge-rushers did not suit up for Seattle back in September.

Pro Football Focus currently awards the Seahawks D with the highest collective pass-rush score of 45.2.

Pro Football Focus.

Chalk that number up to the advanced statistical version of a gold star for the NFL’s No. 1 overall unit.

In short, the Dan Quinn-coached Seattle defense brings pressure from everywhere—and from everyone. Good luck, Kap.

Alas, the bad news for the 49ers does not stop there.

The Seahawks will bring their opening-week, top-caliber protection unit when they step onto the Candlestick gridiron.

Blindside protector Russell Okung and right tackle Breno Giacomini will play together for just the fifth time this season.

The former has not allowed a sack in limited on-field action, while Giacomini has given up just three—and none to the 49ers. Michael Bowie, on the other hand, gave up five sacks in eight games during Giacomini’s absence.

The most important variable in this equation is Paul McQuistan returning to his primary role at left guard.

McQuistan has surrendered all of one quarterback pressure—yes, one—at his normal position compared to a horrendous 34 while playing left tackle. That includes two sacks against the 49ers and eight in total in just nine games, which ranks as third most by any tackle this season.

Overall, of the 30 total sacks suffered by Wilson, only six arose from the starting group that will suit up against the 49ers this weekend.

San Francisco must abandon any notion of easily exploiting those once-salivating deficiencies now that Okung is back protecting Wilson and with McQuistan moving to the inside.

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The 49ers pass-rushers must find a way around blindside protector Russell Okung.

 

Attention 49ers Linemen: Please Bring Your A-Game When You Come to Work on Sunday

Part of that “A-Game,” sadly, might need to come from the 49ers’ B-worthy offensive line.

The aforementioned Iupati sprained his left MCL against the New Orleans Saints and has missed the last two games. Left tackle Joe Staley then fostered some camaraderie for his line-mate upon spraining his right MCL in Week 13 versus the St. Louis Rams.

Iupati and Staley sustained their comparable injuries in separate games. But at least one remains doubtful for this game with the Seahawks.

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Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee reported that the Pro-Bowl duo missed practice on Wednesday. Light spinning on the elliptical machines replaced any on-field work.

Yet, one day later, Staley was a surprising participant in Thursday’s practice. He performed well in “pass-blocking sets during warm-up drills” just four days after spraining his MCL, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area.

Iupati, however, was not as fortunate. Maiocco stated that he will more than likely miss Sunday’s crucial matchup.

In the still probable case that both are relegated to the sideline, a trio of 49ers backups will continue registering snaps in the trenches.

Adam Snyder is the first member of said trio. He began filling in for Iupati at left guard during the third quarter of Week 11.

It hasn’t been great for the nine-year vet thus far.

Snyder’s missed assignment in New Orleans resulted in a pivotal sack. Continual subpar pass-blocking forced Kaepernick out of the pocket four times against the Washington Redskins, followed by a sack and another pressure allowed to the Rams defensive front.

Furthermore, Staley going down set in motion a whole new series of positional changes.

Starting right guard Alex Boone switched to his backup role at left tackle. Second-year man Joe Looney then took over Boone’s spot for his first meaningful snaps as a pro.

Boone fulfilled his protection duties in exceptional fashion. He surrendered just one pressure and earned a positive grade from Pro Football Focus.

Said Boone himself, via CSN Bay Area’s Maiocco: “It’s like riding a bike…I’m back home, baby.”

Looney, for his part, nearly matched Boone’s work in pass-blocking.

NFL Game Rewind
Looney (No. 78) can be seen creating a wide open pocket up the middle for Colin Kaepernick.

Barrows reported that Looney was “aggressive off the snap and routinely made it into the second level of the Rams defense to make blocks.” Pro Football Focus awarded him a positive grade that was second only to his fellow guard’s score.

Boone also praised the sophomore lineman in an interview with Maiocco: “…I thought Joe Looney did a great job stepping up today—a helluva performance, coming off the bench…I know he’s going to be ready for next week.”

A prevailing question, then, is will Looney be ready for next week?

Will he and the backup-laden front line be up to task against the Seahawks’ intimidating rush if Iupati and/or Staley remain sidelined?

History says that Snyder will have the most difficult time battling McDonald on the interior and dealing with inside stunts by Seattle’s numerous edge-rushers.

He has already surrendered two sacks and five hurries in less than three complete games.

That latter dynamic applies to the 49ers right tackle as well.

One need only look at Davis’ season-worst performance of one sack and five pressures versus the Seahawks in Week 2. Potentially having an untested Looney alongside him will certainly not help matters either.

The same goes for Clemons and Irvin bringing additional speed and pass-rushing prowess off the edge in this latest matchup.

Game tape from that early-season battle also reveals that the entire O-line must improve as run-blockers.

NFL Game Rewind
The 49ers O-line cannot prevent Seattle's defensive front from swallowing up Gore for a two-yard loss.

Not one member of this group—veteran center Jonathan Goodwin included—received a positive mark from Pro Football Focus for their work in creating rushing lanes.

Indeed, running back Frank Gore has totaled just 15 or fewer carries and averaged less than 50 yards rushing over the past three games.

His offensive line played a particularly significant role toward this diminished production against the Seahawks defensive front. He amassed a season-low nine attempts for 16 ineffective yards.

Pro Football Focus

Most critical to the 49ers is the 0-3 in the win-loss column when Gore registered either one of those aforementioned statistical lows. It cannot happen again.

Beating the overmatched Redskins and Rams without consistent productive touches from Gore is one thing.

Taking down the No. 1-rated Seahawks’ pass defense without a steady rushing attack is another matter entirely.

The 49ers must utilize Gore to neutralize Seattle’s aggressive sack-artists and supply Kaepernick with a clean pocket and play-action opportunities.

The second-year starter is a far superior quarterback passing off play-fakes, as seen in the chart below.

Play Action
TD INT Comp % Yards NFL QB Rating
8 1 60.2 749 113.3
No Play Action
7 6 56.7 1,563 78.9

Pro Football Focus

A heavy dose of Gore and fellow back Kendall Hunter will also prevent the Seahawks from double-covering Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis with their safeties over top.

The success rate of Kaepernick’s top-seven downfield passing game will increase as a result.

By and large, a balanced, run-first game plan will benefit San Francisco’s offense across the board.

Whoever comprises the left portion of the offensive line—Staley/Iupati, Boone/Snyder, etc.—must create a stable front and fulfill all requisite blocking-duties to ensure that happens.

On the flip side, the 49ers pass-rushing contingent need only maintain its quarterback-killing performances of late.

In the spirit of corresponding numbers, three 49ers defenders have caused particular havoc for three field generals over the past three contests.

Brooks produced a would-be game-sealing strip sack of Brees in the fourth quarter of Week 11. A maddening but predictable roughing-the-passer penalty negated a perfectly executed takedown by the 49ers outside backer in crunch time.

Then, the dominant trio of Brooks and the “Smith Brothers” absolutely destroyed a helpless Robert Griffin III. Each recorded two sacks en route to a staggering total of 17 pressures.

NFL Game Rewind
Brooks (No. 55) looks on at the wreckage caused by fellow 49ers pass-rushers Justin (No. 94) and Aldon Smith (No. 99).

Even though all three essentially disappeared from the box score one week later, one member of the front-seven still dominated.

It amounted to Justin Smith collapsing the pocket in true, non-blitzing 49ers’ fashion.

Per Barrows of The Sacramento Bee:

Smith's signature move is known as a 'bludgeon.' It made its 49ers debut in the 2011 playoffs when Smith shoved 315-pound Saints tackle Jermon Bushrod into quarterback Drew Brees and then took both men to the ground. It returned - twice - on Sunday against the Rams. In the first quarter, Smith knocked St. Louis tackle Jake Long into quarterback Kellen Clemens, sending Clemens to the ground where he was sacked by Ray McDonald.

Score that among the tidy sum of 10 sacks and 55 combined pressures over this recent surge.

Most of all, the 49ers can bank off the fact that they produced nearly identical results against Wilson back in Week 2.

NFL Game Rewind
Justin Smith (left) and Ahmad Brooks (right) occupy multiple blockers so Aldon Smith (No. 99) can sack Wilson for an eight-yard loss.

Brooks and the Smiths racked up 14 of San Francisco’s 21 total pressures. That collective disruption reduced Wilson to something far beneath his usually prolific self.

The Seahawks’ MVP candidate registered his second-worst passer rating (63.9) and third-lowest QBR (25.9), average yards per attempt (7.47) and passing yards (142) of 2013. He also coughed up an interception and completed a season-low 8-of-19 passes (42.1 percent).

Russell Wilson vs. 49ers
Comp % Yards TD INT Passer Rating Sacks
42.1 142 1 1 63.9 4
vs. Rest of NFL
66.1 230 1.9 0.5 110.6 2.4

ESPN

Additional investigative analysis shows how much Wilson really crumbled beneath the 49ers’ pass rush.

He connected on just two of 10 attempts for 58 yards, one interception and a 20-percent completion rate when under pressure.

His one touchdown was more a product of Marshawn Lynch’s skill set and paled in comparison to a dreadful 45.0 passer rating and negative-2.2 score by Pro Football Focus.

Wilson was not the decisive catalyst toward the Seahawks victory in early September.

The top-five San Francisco defense, for its part, must keep that in place.

It must transform Wilson into a detriment and prevent him from returning to his upper-echelon status one more time. It must neutralize the NFL’s No. 1 deep- and play-action passer to the greatest extent possible.

Boil it all down, and the 49ers’ winning approach this week requires protection for their quarterback while laying waste to his positional counterpart.

Such a game plan facilitates a thriving environment for Kaepernick and Gore while stifling that possibility for Wilson and Lynch.

Win the trenches, and win the game—it really is as simple as that for the San Francisco 49ers.

Here’s to gridiron results materializing as easily as theoretical discourse.

 

Follow me on Twitter @jlevitt16

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