Over the last two years, the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers have formed one of the most bitter rivalries in the NFL. There is no love lost between these two teams. Head coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh absolutely despise one another. They have since their days in the collegiate ranks.
As far as head-to-head matchups go, Harbaugh owns Carroll. In his college and pro coaching career, he’s 6-3 against his NFC West counterpart.
However, things have proved to favor Carroll when the Seahawks and 49ers play in Seattle. Since the start of the 2011 season, the 'Hawks are 2-1 in front of the "12th Man" when they host the Niners. Heading into the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, it's hard not to like Seattle's odds versus San Francisco.
Yet, home-field advantage won't be the be-all and end-all. The 49ers defense is playing at an unprecedented level right now, and the offensive side of the ball is firing on all cylinders. The Seahawks defense will have to do its part to slow down offensive coordinator Greg Roman's offense, and quarterback Russell Wilson will have to step up to neutralize defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's defense.
Undeniably, this game will be a dogfight between two evenly matched teams.
In two playoff games, the 49ers offensive line has physically imposed its will on the opposition. Right tackle Anthony Davis has kept quarterback Colin Kaepernick clean in pass protection, left tackle Joe Staley has been dominant in the run game, and right guard Alex Boone has shown the masses that he is a Pro Bowl-esque player.
With the exception of center Jonathan Goodwin, the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) have awarded every member of San Francisco’s offensive line with a positive overall grade. This is encouraging based on the fact that offensive line coach Tim Drevno’s group has squared off against some stiff competition over the course of the past last two weeks.
Nevertheless, the pass rush of the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers can’t hold a candle to the Seahawks’ pass rush at CenturyLink Field. In nine home games this season (playoffs included), defensive ends Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons amassed 10.5 quarterback sacks and five forced fumbles.
The last time the 49ers and Seahawks played in the Pacific Northwest, Week 2, San Francisco looked atrocious upfront. The offensive line surrendered two quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits and 14 quarterback hurries, via PFF. Clearly, Seattle’s vaunted pass rush is a whole different animal when it can get after the quarterback with a lead and the “12th Man” in its pocket.
If the Niners fall behind, it’s going to be a long day for the team’s most talented unit. Why? Because the Seahawks’ front four has been known to tee off on opposing quarterbacks when an offense becomes one-dimensional.
Amid San Francisco’s eight-game win streak, Kaepernick has been playing the best football of his career. Since Week 12, the third-year signal-caller out of Nevada has thrown 12 touchdown passes, garnered 1,818 yards passing, completed 59.7 percent of his passes and thrown two measly interceptions on 223 pass attempts.
What more could fans and media members alike ask for? It seems like numbers of that nature should get the job done on Sunday, yet pundits wonder if Kaepernick can even get close to registering those types of numbers against the league’s most ferocious pass defense.
When the regular season concluded, the Seahawks had the league’s No. 1 pass defense and the most interceptions (28). Additionally, the Legion of Boom held opposing quarterbacks to 172 yards per game through the air and a quarterback rating of 63.4. In today’s NFL, figures like that are unheard of. For a case in point, examine the Cincinnati Bengals pass defense.
Cincinnati finished with the No. 2 pass defense, and its statistics paled in comparison to what the Seahawks did. The Bengals surrendered 209 yards per game, and opposing quarterbacks were able to register a quarterback rating of 74.2 versus their secondary.
This, in turn, means they gave up 37 more yards passing, and their passer rating against was 10.8 points higher than the Seahawks. It’s safe to say, Seattle’s pass defense was one of the most potent pass defenses in NFL history.
Can Kaepernick up his level of play with wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the lineup and lead the 49ers to their second straight Super Bowl appearance? That’s the million-dollar question right now.
In addition to having a skilled offensive line, San Francisco has a proficient running back in Frank Gore. In 2013, Gore tallied his third straight 1,000-yard season, recorded his third Pro Bowl appearance in as many years and averaged over four yards a carry for the ninth straight year.
At 30 years of age, it’s evident he just keeps going and going on an annual basis. However, Gore has struggled to put together top-notch performances versus the Seahawks in Seattle. In his last two contests at the CLink, the Pro Bowl tailback has registered 44 yards on 15 carries and zero touchdowns.
Against the ‘Hawks, in front of their home crowd, that’s simply not good enough. To silence the “12th Man,” opposing teams have to pound the rock and control the clock. Obviously, a lot of the blame falls on the offensive line’s shoulders because it isn't winning one-on-one matchups in the trenches. Yet, at the same time, there’s no question Gore has to do a better job of finding open running lanes and breaking tackles.
Nevertheless, that’s easier said than done. The Seahawks front seven is a formidable group that prides itself on stopping the run. Seattle finished the regular season with the league’s seventh-best run defense. It only allowed six runs of 20 yards or more and one run of 40 yards or more.
Furthermore, based on PFF’s rating system, the Seahawks had 16 players who finished the year with positive grades against the run. But that’s not to say teams can’t run on defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense. In the divisional round of the playoffs, the Saints averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 26 carries and scored one touchdown.
Gore will face an uphill battle in the NFC Championship Game, but he has a chance to break through if everything falls into place around him.
By no means is this a news flash, but Crabtree has been an absolute monster since he returned to the starting lineup. In seven games (playoffs included), the fifth-year wideout has accumulated two 100-yard games, averaged 14.3 yards per catch and caught six passes that gained 20 yards or more from Kaepernick.
It’s amazing how much he means to the 49ers offense.
Aside from putting up gaudy statistics, Crabtree also means a great deal to wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. Like No. 15, both players are integral parts of Roman’s offense.
Crabtree’s presence on the field encourages one-on-one matchups across the board. Earlier in the season, opposing defenses would find a way to neutralize Boldin and Davis by double-teaming them at particular points throughout the game. Teams can no longer do that thanks in large part to Crabtree.
With that being said, one would be crazy to trust Crabtree, Boldin and Davis versus the most intimidating secondary in the NFL. The Legion of Boom has three defensive backs who play at an All-Pro level week in and week out. Not to mention, right cornerback Byron Maxwell is well on his way to stardom as well.
In six starts (playoffs included), he has played well enough to compile a PFF coverage grade of plus-6.1. Moreover, in 570 snaps, Maxwell has notched four interceptions, while holding opposing quarterbacks to a 47.2 quarterback rating when they throw into his coverage area.
Without a doubt, he will prove to be the difference-maker on Sunday. When these two teams met Week 14, he held Crabtree in check and picked Kaepernick off near the end zone. Maxwell, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have too much talent to not come out on top in Seattle’s biggest game of the season.
Experts are quick to compliment Seahawks offensive line coach Tom Cable for the job he has done in the Emerald City. Yes, he has sent two players (Russell Okung and Max Unger) to the Pro Bowl under his watch, yet you can’t ignore the fact that the hog mollies up front have struggled in 2013.
The left guard position has lacked stability, the right tackle position is in need of an upgrade, and Wilson has been sacked 44 times this year. Don’t get me wrong—Cable is one of the best in the business, but it’s apparent his unit has struggled mightily this year.
The bad news is things don’t get any easier for the Seahawks offensive line this week. Defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald are two of the highest-rated players at their position, and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey is having a career year. According to PFF, he has 27 defensive stops and three tackles for loss.
Smith and McDonald have been equally impressive when it comes to shutting down plays before they get started.
Smith has 30 defensive stops, and McDonald has 21. To make matters worse, both players can rush the passer as well. The defensive end duo has totaled 10.5 quarterback sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 61 quarterback hurries, per PFF.
Center Unger, left guard Michael Bowie and right guard J.R. Sweezy are in for a long afternoon. The interior of the Seahawks offensive line doesn’t stand a chance against Smith, McDonald and Dorsey. They are too experienced and stout at the point of attack.
Make no mistake about it: Despite his recent struggles, Wilson is still a dynamic playmaker. He can beat opposing defenses in a wide variety of ways. Whether it’s his escapability in the pocket or playmaking ability down the field, the second-year signal-caller plays like a modern day Houdini.
Yet, one can’t overlook his porous play that dates back to Week 14. Over the course of the last five games (playoffs included), Wilson’s averaging 6.55 yards per pass attempt, 157.6 yards passing and 19.8 yards on the ground per game. That’s a stark contrast in comparison to his first 12 games of the season.
Prior to Seattle’s Week 14 contest in San Francisco, Wilson averaged 222.6 yards passing per game, 8.79 yards per pass attempt and 1.8 touchdowns. Sure, the Seahawks’ wide receiving corps hasn’t offered him much help along the way. Nonetheless, it is his job as the team’s franchise quarterback to elevate his level of play.
With a slumping Wilson, the 49ers pass defense has a clear advantage over him in the NFC Championship Game.
In the playoffs, San Francisco’s pass defense is surrendering 194.5 yards per game through the air. Of the postseason teams that are still alive, that’s the second-best mark in the NFL. The majority of the 49ers’ success, against the pass, can be attributed to the play of inside linebacker Patrick Willis and safeties Donte Whitner and Eric Reid.
All three players have upped their level of play, while playing the bulk of the team’s defensive snaps. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio rarely substitutes players in and out of the lineup, which means Wilson will have to find a way to take advantage of San Francisco’s starters.
On paper, it looks like it will be a daunting task for the Pro Bowl quarterback.
Everyone always talks about how well the Panthers front seven played in 2013, yet it’s indisputable that the finest front seven resides in the Bay Area. The 49ers front seven is littered with Pro Bowlers. In fact, 71 percent of San Francisco’s front seven are Pro Bowl selections.
No matter which way you slice it, that’s impressive. Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Ray McDonald and Glenn Dorsey have all earned high marks from the folks at PFF for their ability to stop the run. Of the seven players I mentioned above, all of them have positive run defense grades in the playoffs.
Willis leads the way with a plus-3.2 grade, McDonald has a plus-three grade, Justin Smith has a plus-two grade, Brooks has a plus-two grade, Aldon Smith has a plus-1.5 grade, Dorsey has a plus-0.6 grade and Bowman has a plus-0.2 grade.
As you can see, there isn’t a weak link versus the run. Couple the unit's strong play with the dismal play from the Seahawks offensive line, and things just got that much harder for All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch.
Yet, you can't dismiss the fact that he has had success against the 49ers front seven in the past. The last two times these teams met at the CLink, Lynch combined for 209 yards rushing and three touchdowns. In front of the "12th Man," in the playoffs, the Skittle-eating running back finds a way to unleash the beast more often than not.
Surely, this will be one of the game's most intriguing matchups.
For the majority of the season, the Seahawks wide receiving corps managed to get by without "first-round" pick (Percy Harvin). That’s no longer the case: At the moment, Seattle is desperate for a playmaker at the wide receiver position.
Aside from his huge catch late in the game versus the Saints, Doug Baldwin has disappeared. Golden Tate is struggling to consistently get open, and Jermaine Kearse hasn't caught more than three passes in any game this season. The Seahawks’ roster lacks a true No. 1 wide receiver, and it shows.
With Harvin’s status for the NFC Championship Game up in the air, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell needs to act quick. He has to find a way to get Wilson dependable help. If he doesn’t, the Seahawks won’t be able to utilize the play-action pass and will become one-dimensional in a hurry.
Undoubtedly, that’s a disaster waiting to happen with the way the 49ers front seven is playing.
On the surface, the Seahawks' struggles at the wide receiver position wouldn’t look so bad if the 49ers secondary was declining, but that’s not the case at all. San Francisco’s secondary has only gotten better since the playoffs started, thanks in large part to Whitner and Reid.
Keep in mind, San Francisco’s secondary is starting to get healthy as well. The organization is hoping cornerback Carlos Rogers will be healthy for this week’s game. His return would be monumental based on the fact corners Tramaine Brock and Perrish Cox have struggled in nickel and dime sets.
The edge has to go to the unit that is making the most plays. And right now, the 49ers secondary is making more plays than the Seahawks receivers.
By going back and analyzing the areas of emphasis, it’s obvious that these teams are evenly matched.
The 49ers have the edge in three categories, while the Seahawks also have the edge in three categories. Moreover, two categories were a push. If this game weren't being played in Seattle, you would be idiotic to bet against San Francisco. Coach Carroll hasn't ever beaten Coach Harbaugh at Candlestick.
Fortunately for Carroll and the Seahawks, this weekend's game will take place in familiar territory. On back-to-back occasions in Seattle, the 'Hawks have outplayed the Niners in front of their home crowd. Harbaugh will be out for vengeance, because of the way things went down at the CLink in 2012 and 2013, but I’m still inclined to pick the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The Seahawks secondary and defensive line will be the discrepancy in the outcome. Kaepernick will melt down the same way he always does in Seattle, and the "12th Man" will turn out to be a key factor as well.
Yet, the score will be incredibly close.
In the waining moments, Wilson will notch the 10th game-winning drive of his career, while Steven Hauschka kicks the game-winning field goal.
Seahawks win 23-20.