Seahawks vs. 49ers: 5 Storylines to Watch in Week 1 Matchup
The San Francisco 49ers are to the NFL what Notre Dame is to college football. Always classy in appearance and operation (at least on the surface), their tradition of winning is an organizational calling card. Great in the '80s, still solid in the '90s, but in recent years they've been more reputation than results.
So now the Niners, like the Fighting Irish, have broken ground on another rebuilding project—this time led by a highly-touted new coach (Jim Harbaugh in San Fran, Brian Kelly in South Bend), but with the kind of quarterback uncertainty expected from a franchise in flux. In both cases, for fanbases that have grown accustomed to a certain level of success, realistic expectations are constantly threatened by impatience with the current losing trends.
The first real test for the new-look Niners comes Sunday against the defending NFC West champion Seattle Seahawks, another rebuilding team whose coach faces messianic expectations and whose quarterback situation is shaky.
Here are five storylines to watch in both teams' 2011 season opener:
Battle of the Below-Average Beasts
Part of me wishes Howie Long could step out of the FOX studio and do color commentary on this game, just to see if he could contain himself from laughing at both offensive lines.
Seattle and San Francisco field what may be the two worst O-lines in the NFL. At 51 years old, Long could probably get a sack and a half if he snuck into the action on Sunday.
Last season the 49ers gave up 44 sacks, tied for sixth-highest in the league, and from that line they lost starting center David Baas and longtime standout Eric Heitmann. The Seahawks' front five paved the way for 89 rushing yards per game last season, second-worst in the league. Since then they've introduced four new starters to the group, and left guard Robert Gallery and left tackle Russell Okung go into Week 1 nursing respective knee and ankle injuries.
Seattle QB Tarvaris Jackson spent this preseason running for cover like he was in a horror movie, and San Francisco QB Alex Smith didn't fare much better behind his first-unit line; he was sacked four times in his limited exhibition appearances.
Granted, neither the 'Hawks or Niners defenses are stacked with pass-rushers who will keep offensive coordinators awake late on a Saturday night. But if the preseason was any indication, it's open season for any and all defenders against these two offenses.
Game Management 101
I'm pretty sure that when Tarvaris Jackson and Alex Smith were growing up dreaming of being NFL quarterbacks, the schoolyard fantasy didn't go like this:
Two minutes left in the Super Bowl, down by three, coach pulls QB aside before the last drive and says, "Just don't lose the game for us, OK?"
Through some fault of their own and some circumstances beyond their control, Jackson and Smith have become classic examples of "game management" quarterbacks. Nobody expects them to throw for 300 yards per game; in fact, nobody wants them to even try for 300. Just hand the ball off to the running backs, complete the short passes, go deep every now and then to keep the defense honest, and don't give the ball away to the other team.
This season, at least in the eyes of the general public, Jackson and Smith have added "seat-warmer" to their titles. Jackson is expected to play the course and keep himself alive behind Seattle's developing offensive line while the Seahawks scout which college star they want to draft as their new franchise quarterback next year. Smith is apparently holding down his starting job only until rookie Colin Kaepernick is ready to audition as the next Steve Young.
This week we'll see which one of the QBs does the best job of not losing. Or, as you may call it, winning.
Godzilla + Walter Payton = Frank Gore
San Francisco's offense revolves around Frank Gore. Seattle's chances of beating San Francisco revolve around preventing Frank Gore from stomping all over their defense.
In Gore's lone appearance against the Seahawks last year, he was held to 38 rushing yards in a blowout loss. Stark contrast to the early-season matchup two years ago when Gore racked up 207 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a decisive San Francisco win. Gore also had a 212-yard game against Seattle a few years ago in a 49ers win.
Gore is about six-to-eight good weeks away from passing Roger Craig as San Francisco's second-leading rusher of all time, yet he's never played in a playoff game with his franchise. With that bit of motivation—plus a new contract extension and the fact that he hasn't played in a regular-season game since a hip injury cut his 2010 campaign short after 11 games—I'm seeing another monster performance this weekend.
Seattle's Big Receivers vs. San Fran's Little Cornerbacks
Sidney Rice (shoulder) is hurt, but so far hasn't been officially ruled out of what would be his regular-season debut with the Seahawks. Mike Williams is healthy, assuming a leadership role, and itching to prove his breakout 2010 season wasn't a fluke.
Together, they give Seattle a pair of wide receivers who go 6'4" and 6'5" respectively: a rangy deep-ball threat in Rice and a powerhouse possession receiver in Williams.
Meanwhile, the 49ers don't employ a cornerback who stands taller than 6'1". If the O-line allows Jackson time to throw and the receivers have time to run their routes, that's a size advantage Seattle could expose in key spots.
Marshawn Lynch vs. Patrick Willis
Remember that episode of "Friday Night Lights" when RB Smash Williams had to go back to his hometown and face LB Junior Silverio? From what I gathered, Silverio had approximately 57 tackles and 11 sacks in that game, but Smash only needed one big play to steal a win for Dillon High.
That could be the storyline when LB Patrick Willis in unleashed on the Seahawks. The best inside linebacker in the league is good for 130 or so tackles every year, and with only Seattle's young offensive line and fullback Michael Robinson standing between Willis and the football, it could get ugly.
The Seahawks' best counter-attack for Willis is RB Marshawn Lynch. He was held to 29 yards rushing in his only meeting with San Francisco last season, but in his previous stint with Buffalo, one of Lynch's best performances was a 134-yard effort against the 49ers.
No matter how good or bad his O-line may be, at some point a running back simply has to make defenders miss. Lynch is elusive, but he prefers to run people over. Whether or not Lynch can get out of Willis' way—or get Willis out of his way—enough times on Sunday, could prove the difference in this game.