It's no secret that the San Francisco 49ers have the best linebacker corps in the NFL, with Defensive Player of the Year-candidate NaVorro Bowman leading the way in front of Patrick Willis, Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith.
The prowess of San Francisco's linebackers makes Sunday's NFC Championship Game particularly interesting because they'll be tasked with stopping Marshawn Lynch, the Seattle Seahawks running back who isn't interested in being tackled.
But the 49ers linebackers know this, and they'll be prepared come Sunday's matchup.
"We understand what kind of team they are, and we know what it's going to take to get it done," Willis said, via USA TODAY Sports' David Leon Moore. "We understand they love to run the ball."
49ers have allowed five 100-yard rushing games since the start of 2010... Three of those belong to Marshawn Lynch— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 16, 2014
Willis then continued, mentioning his admiration for Lynch. "He's a strong guy," Willis said. "He runs real low to the ground. He runs underneath his pads, gets good leverage. He's tough to bring down, no question."
This year, the 49ers have done an exceptional job of containing Lynch, which deviates from prior results. In each of the previous three meetings between the 49ers and Seahawks heading into 2013, Lynch rushed for 100 yards. But in the two games this season, the Niners held Seattle's dynamic running back to under 100 yards each time.
Most importantly, Lynch averaged only 3.5 and 3.6 yards per carry, respectively, in each of the two matchups this year. Clearly, stopping Lynch overall hasn't proved to be an issue for the 49ers. But when the Seahawks reach the red zone, that's a different story.
|Game||Rushing Yards||YPC||Rushing Touchdowns|
|Week 16, 2011||107||5.1||1|
|Week 7, 2012||103||5.4||0|
|Week 16, 2012||111||4.3||1|
|Week 2, 2013||98||3.5||2|
|Week 14, 2013||72||3.6||1|
Indeed, despite his struggles in each game, Lynch found the end zone four times in total, including three rushing touchdowns, against the 49ers this season. With quarterback Russell Wilson's recent struggles, keeping Lynch out of the end zone and thus limiting the Seahawks to field goals will be paramount to the 49ers' chances of winning on Sunday.
The Seahawks offense has indeed relied on Lynch particularly heavily in the red zone lately, as Wilson hasn't been getting the job done. The Seattle quarterback has only four touchdown passes in his last five games, including none in the divisional round in which Lynch found the end zone twice on the ground.
For the 49ers to stop Lynch in the red zone, they'll need to be especially physical and aggressive, like they were against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The Panthers came up empty on all three of their red zone trips, a result the 49ers must try to replicate in the NFC Championship Game.
Whether they prove successful in that endeavor will likely determine who advances to the Super Bowl.