49ers Must Take Advantage of Struggling Russell Wilson in NFC Championship

Jasper SchererAnalyst IIJanuary 14, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 08:  Defensive tackle Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers sacks quarterback Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks for a loss of five yards in the first quarter on December 8, 2013 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California.  The 49ers won 19-17.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

It's no secret that the Seattle Seahawks haven't been scoring at a blistering pace lately. They've averaged just 20 points per game during their last five games, and they will be going up against a team with one of the top defensive units in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers, in Sunday's NFC Championship Game.

49ers safety Donte Whitner said his team has to focus on Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, according to Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle.

“You have to take [Lynch] away," Whitner said. "Like he said, he doesn’t run to get tackled. He’s one of the best backs in the National Football League. Very rough style. We have to take him away and make the quarterback beat us.”

That's certainly accurate, but stopping Lynch is only half the battle. In order to really stop the Seahawks' offense, the 49ers have to also take advantage of Russell Wilson's recent lackluster play. If recent success is any indication, the 49ers are set to have another solid game against an elite quarterback.

In the divisional round on Sunday, the Niners held Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton to just one touchdown while intercepting him twice and recording five sacks. (One could argue it should have been six, had the "roughing the passer" penalty not been called on Dan Skuta's would-be sack in the fourth quarter.)

Looking back further to the Wild Card round, the depleted secondary, which lacked starting cornerback Carlos Rogers, held Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, a top-three QB in the NFL, to 177 passing yards on 6.8 yards per attempt, while recording four sacks.

GREEN BAY, WI - JANUARY 05:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers gets sacked by Justin Smith #94 of the San Francisco 49ers during their NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Lambeau Field on January 5, 2014 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Jonathan Dan
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The takeaway from this is that the 49ers have what it takes to stop the NFL's best quarterbacks. They've done it during the playoffs, and they did it all season. For example, in the matchup between the 49ers and Seahawks in Week 14, the Niners allowed Wilson to throw for only one touchdown, limiting him to an 81.9 passer rating, well below his seasonal average of 101.2.

The 49ers won that game despite not completely containing Lynch. (He rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown, though he did compile just 3.6 YPC.)

Now, the 49ers are primed to hold Wilson once again. The Seahawks quarterback has eclipsed a passer rating of 90 in just one of his last five games. That includes performances of a 49.6 rating in Week 16 and a less-than-stellar 67.6 against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.

Better yet, one of Wilson's primary offensive weapons, Percy Harvin, is questionable to play on Sunday because of a concussion he suffered against the Saints. With Harvin's status in doubt due to the league's post-concussion protocol, the 49ers have even more reason to go after Wilson, who will be more limited with his options should Harvin miss the game.

In short, Wilson's struggles, combined with the 49ers' recent success against top quarterbacks, means Sunday's game is the perfect opportunity to pounce. The Niners should blitz early and often, which would prevent Wilson from getting into a rhythm to start the game.

Indeed, Wilson thrives on his ability to scramble around and create more time to find receivers downfield. If the 49ers can limit the amount of time Wilson has in the pocket (and outside of the pocket, for that matter), you can be sure that the Seahawks quarterback will have a long day.

Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio can certainly trust his defensive backs to make plays in man-to-man coverage, as the secondary as a whole has stepped up lately, thanks to solid play in particular from Whitner and Defensive Rookie of the Year-candidate Eric Reid. They should at least give Fangio the peace of mind to heap the pressure on Wilson.

Whitner recorded a key interception in Sunday's 23-10 victory.
Whitner recorded a key interception in Sunday's 23-10 victory.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Of course, this doesn't mean the Niners can't focus on stopping Lynch. That's where the deadly linebacker trio of NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks comes in. The 49ers have succeeded in stopping the run throughout the season, ranking fourth in the NFL in opponent rushing yards.

Indeed, they've done an exceptional job against Lynch, holding him to under four yards per carry in each of the teams' meetings in 2013. But if the 49ers can stop Russell Wilson early, it will be a downhill battle from there.