If you follow the NFL closely enough to be reading this, the following facts should come as no surprise: The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks played each other twice in the 2013 regular season. The first contest, in Seattle, was a 29-3 blowout. The second, a 19-17 49ers home victory.
The biggest difference between the two games was the venue.
The biggest difference on the field, though, should have been the addition of 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. An outstanding talent with size and speed, the threat he presents has helped the 49ers go 7-0 (including the Week 14 home game against the Seahawks) since he returned from a training-camp Achilles injury.
Crabtree, who had a breakout 2012 season that helped propel the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, didn't break out at all against the Seahawks. If the 49ers are going to play in Super Bowl XLVIII, he needs to catch more than four passes for 40 yards in the NFC Championship Game.
Standing in his way: All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman.
Sherman, as charted by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), held Crabtree to just one four-yard catch on two targets when they were matched up on each other.
How can Crabtree do it?
Sherman is big, fast, athletic and aggressive, sometimes a little overly so.
In the first quarter of the Week 14 matchup, Crabtree was isolated on Sherman:
Crabtree was lined up outside the numbers, which usually indicates the receiver plans to break inside. An outside-breaking route usually starts inside the numbers to give the receiver more space. Sherman, of course, knows this.
At the snap, Crabtree stutters to the inside and then breaks outside. Sherman turns his hips outside to face Crabtree and runs with him. Kaepernick executes a play fake, initially drawing the linebackers up—along with strong safety Kam Chancellor.
As soon as Kaepernick keeps the ball, Chancellor sprints out to help Sherman with Crabtree (and contain Kaepernick, should he choose to keep it himself):
Sherman has great initial position here, but Crabtree starts to pull ahead. If Kaepernick weren't rolling away from the Seahawks front four—and if the called route weren't a comeback—Kaepernick could have led Crabtree down the sideline and possibly hit him for a touchdown here.
Instead, just after this snapshot, Crabtree hit the brakes:
Sherman was so surprised by the outside break he actually spun around and fell!
Crabtree is now wide open, but Chancellor is closing in. Kaepernick tries to put it where only Crabtree can get it—high and outside—but it's too high and too outside. Crabtree can't come down with it in bounds.
Had the pass come a little quicker, or been a little bit more accurate, Crabtree could have turned this upfield into a big play.
Crabtree repeated this same formula against Sherman with 6:27 left in the third quarter: line up outside the numbers, take off to the outside, come back to the sideline.
It resulted in his only catch against Sherman all day long.
Outside Go Routes
In the Week 14 matchup, quarterback Colin Kaepernick was hesitant to test Sherman deep against Crabtree.
As big and fast as Sherman is, though, Crabtree is no slouch in either area. If he can get off of Sherman's initial jam, he can get open deep. As we saw in the above sequence, if Crabtree has a clear path downfield (and Sherman isn't latched on to his arm or jersey), Crabtree can accelerate past Sherman.
The problem, of course, is all of the "ifs" in those statements.
The Seahawks don't typically flip-flop their cornerbacks; Sherman mans the left side and Byron Maxwell the right. In Week 14, Crabtree often lined up against Sherman in the first half, but in the second half lined up more often against Maxwell.
It seemed as though Kaepernick was eager to pick on Maxwell whenever he was matched up with Crabtree. By my count, Kaepernick threw deep to Crabtree four times when he was lined up against Maxwell.
It didn't work. One of those times the ball came late and short, resulting in an interception. Pro Football Focus charted five targets for Kaepernick against Maxwell (subscription required): two catches for 23 yards, one dropped pass, one interception and just one yard gained after the catch.
Clearly, Maxwell isn't much more enticing of a matchup.
Another technique the 49ers used was sending Crabtree on shallow drag routes across the field, effectively leaving Sherman's area to weave through the slot corner and linebackers' space. This gets Crabtree away from Sherman, but the payoff will be limited.
The 49ers have to win this game, and the odds are stacked against them. Playing scared isn't going to get it done.
Kaepernick and the 49ers have to be brave enough to attack Sherman, especially in combination with receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis.
By being aggressive, not only will they open up the chance of a back-breaking play, they'll force the Seahawks secondary to play a little more softly to compensate (How many times must Chancellor backpedal until he just starts lining up deep again?).
That's critical to the success of Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick and the power run game around which this 49ers team was built. Come out throwing deep to Crabtree, get the Seahawks on their back foot early, and maybe—maybe—quiet down that CenturyLink Field crowd.
It's the 49ers' best hope for victory, if not their only hope.