Head coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers are embarking on familiar territory this week.
In addition to appearing in their third straight NFC Championship Game, the Niners will be heading to the Pacific Northwest for the second time this season and squaring off against the Seattle Seahawks for the third time.
Obviously, this game has huge implications for both teams. San Francisco is seeking its second Super Bowl outing in as many years and Seattle is seeking its second Super Bowl appearance since the 2005 season.
Based on the ramifications, Sunday’s matchup is shaping up to be one of the best NFC Championship Games in recent memory.
There are countless storylines that could potentially play out this weekend, yet none will be bigger than the effectiveness of the 49ers' front seven. San Francisco’s front seven has been the heart and soul of its defense ever since Harbaugh took over in 2011.
The coaching staff inherited key cogs like Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks and Justin Smith, which meant the foundation was already in place before the current regime took over.
However, the team’s previous regime doesn’t deserve all the credit.
Harbaugh, general manager Trent Baalke and the rest of the front office staff have improved the 49ers' front seven as well. They’ve added two key playmakers in outside linebacker Aldon Smith and nose tackle Glenn Dorsey. Additionally, the staff has coached all seven players up and challenged them to perform at a higher level.
That says a lot about the team’s current regime, because it seemed like San Francisco’s front seven underachieved on an annual basis when Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary were roaming the sidelines at Candlestick Park.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), it’s evident that the 49ers' front seven has exceeded expectations in 2013. Bowman and Willis finished the season as the highest-rated players at the inside linebacker position and Aldon Smith garnered the highest overall grade on Vic Fangio’s defense.
Furthermore, defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald combined for 51 defensive stops in the run game while tallying 10.5 quarterback sacks, 13 quarterback hits and 61 quarterback hurries as pass-rushers.
Pundits always talk about how well the Carolina Panthers' front seven played in 2013, yet it’s indisputable that the finest front seven resides in the Bay Area.
With that being said, San Francisco’s front seven will have to continuously play lights-out against All-Pro running back Marshawn Lynch. Over the course of the last two meetings at Century Link Field, Lynch has made a mockery of the 49ers.
In 2012, he carried the ball 26 times, garnered 111 rushing yards and scored two total touchdowns. In 2013, he amassed 98 yards on 28 carries and scored three total touchdowns.
When one takes the time to take an even deeper look at his numbers from those two games, it becomes evident as to where the 49ers' front seven struggled.
On four carries in Week 2, Lynch averaged 6.5 yards per attempt when he ran off of left guard James Carpenter’s back side. Furthermore, he averaged 4.3 yards per attempt when he ran off of right guard J.R. Sweezy’s back side.
This, in turn, means McDonald and Justin Smith were the biggest underachievers. PFF awarded both players with negative run defense grades.
Outside of McDonald and Smith, the rest of the 49ers defense held up quite well against the Seahawks' offensive line. Nevertheless, there are still a couple of key areas San Francisco needs to clean up as a whole.
First and foremost, the defensive side of the ball has to tackle better. It missed seven tackles total and six of them came in the run game. Lynch forced five missed tackles and quarterback Russell Wilson forced one.
The fact that Lynch led the way with six shouldn’t surprise anyone. In 16 regular-season games, he forced 75 missed tackles. In two years' time, he has forced 133 missed tackles. That’s easily the league’s highest mark since the start of the 2012 season.
What can San Francisco’s front seven do to slow Lynch’s roll on the ground?
Clearly, it’s a daunting task, but teams have had success in the past. In fact, the team that had the most was the St. Louis Rams. Head coach Jeff Fisher usually has his club well-prepared on a weekly basis, yet the Rams defense seemed overly prepared Week 8.
St. Louis’ strategy was a bold one, but it paid off. Play after play, the Rams defense would stack the box with eight and sometimes nine defenders. It dared the Seahawks offense to throw. Aside from one long, infamous play from wide receiver Golden Tate, the approach couldn’t have worked more perfectly.
Lynch was held to 29 rushing yards, while his longest run of the night spanned nine yards. Moreover, he was only able to force one missed tackle. Without a doubt, the Rams set the blueprint for shutting “Beast Mode” down.
With the way Wilson has struggled under center, the 49ers' front seven could experience a great deal of success if Fangio gives it additional help at the line of scrimmage. Obviously, San Francisco shouldn't stack the box on every play—that would be foolish—but it can take calculated risks like the Rams did.
No matter which way you slice it, the Niners have to keep Lynch at bay. It’s going to be a long day, for all 11 defensive starters, if the four-time Pro Bowl selection is allowed to run wild.
Secondly, the 49ers' front seven—especially Aldon Smith and Brooks—has to contain Wilson in the pocket. It can’t allow him to get outside the tackle box. Once he gets outside the tackle box, it’s game over. The second-year signal-caller out of Wisconsin has burned San Francisco one too many times.
He doesn’t always burn the Niners by tallying gobs of rushing yards, he burns the 49ers' front seven outside the pocket when the play breaks down. Wilson is so good at improvising and extending the play. More often than not, he keeps his eye level up and finds his pass-catching options deep down the field for explosive plays.
For a case in point, take a look at Wilson’s escapability versus the New York Giants on this 22-yard pass play:
As you can see, the 49ers' front seven will have to mind its P’s and Q’s on Sunday. Undoubtedly, Wilson will make San Francisco pay dearly if it can’t contain him on the edge. He’s a modern-day Houdini when he’s in the pocket, which means he can evade pressure at a moment’s notice and slip out the backdoor for a big gain.
San Francisco has the talent to shut him down, but it won’t be easy. Here’s what Harbaugh told Terry Blount of ESPN.com about Wilson earlier in the season:
He’s a fantastic player, a wonderful, wonderful player and competitor. You see his arm talent, his mobility and his great field awareness. He understands the scrambling lanes and escape routes out of the pocket. And then he has that feel, that only so many quarterbacks have ever had, to really extend plays. So he has a lot of great qualities, a lot of wonderful qualities about him. He’s just a phenomenal player.
Wilson and Lynch are both fantastic players. They are the lifeline of the Seahawks offense and set the tone week in and week out. But that doesn’t mean they are invincible. Opposing defenses have stopped them in the past at CenturyLink Field. The most recent defense to do it was that of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 16.
Can the 49ers be the next team to do it in Seattle? With the best front seven in the NFL, the odds are in their favor.