The numbers from the Seattle-San Francisco game on Sunday certainly supported the common claim that the NFC West ranks as the weakest in the NFL.
The Seahawks and 49ers combined for barely 400 yards in offense. Together they went 6-for-28 on third-down and fourth-down plays. There were 12 punts. The Niners demonstrated particular sluggishness near the goal line, failing to break the goal line on two of three attempts inside the 20. In the second half they had six snaps inside the 8-yard line and had to settle for a short field goal.
The 49ers won, thanks in large part to Ted Ginn Jr’s two TD returns, but putting that aside, here are five things we learned about both teams on Sunday.
For all the tight sets and the amount of people crashing around the ball on inside handoffs, it looked like both teams played inside a telephone booth.
Seattle’s average per rush: a woeful 2.9, which was better than SF’s 2.7. Only 13 of the game’s 116 plays went past 10 yards, leading one to wonder if both coaching staffs were just very familiar with each other’s style. (It's possible, but doubtful considering the lockout and the addition of Jim Harbaugh.)
For Seattle, the lack of potency stems from new quarterback Tarvaris Jackson. Middle pressure on their weakened offensive line reduced his accuracy. Though he finished 7-for-11 in the first half, the 'Hawks netted only 25 throwing and 37 in all.
In contrast, the Alex Smith of the Niners was a little more effective than Jackson, but not much. Harbaugh obviously went very conservative in his first game. Frank Gore rushed the ball 11 times for 29 yards, and the Niners racked up 128 in all through two quarters. But the ineffectiveness in the red zone came back to haunt them. Better performance in that area would have resulted in four more points (four more per TD compared to FGs), which would have made it 20-0 after two.
In the third quarter the Seahawks turned into a better team. They had more plays and more yards and closed to within 19-17 early in the fourth quarter. Part of that could be blamed on a 55-yard TD catch and run by Danny Baldwin, which appeared to come off blown 49er coverage.
Nonetheless, the Niners prevailed. A big factor came in the fourth quarter, with a 15-play, nine-minute drive that, though the Niners again failed to score a TD inside the Seahawks’ 5-yard line, did put them up by two scores, 19-10.
Frank Gore of the Niners and Marshawn Lynch (pictured) of the 'Hawks had plenty of touches (Lynch: 13 rushes, two receptions for 47 total yards; Gore: 22+3=78 total), but neither had a major impact on the game and neither scored.
Is that a sign that both teams weren’t capable of providing enough running lanes for more yardage? Or is it that both defenses, in particular both defensive front lines, play the run really well?
Defensive linemen Chris Clemons and Brandon Mebane of the Seahawks are stellar performers, but it was safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor who led the team in tackles with nine and six, respectively.
Defensive end Ray McDonald and linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis led the Niners with six, six and five, respectively.
In short, the Seahawks jammed the area near the line of scrimmage and yet the Niners didn’t take advantage of that with deep play-action. In contrast, deep drops by Tarvaris Jackson resulted in constant pressure from the Niners, who recorded five sacks. But they rarely played eight near the line of scrimmage.
Michael Crabtree ran about two plays in the second half and was promptly pulled by coach Jim Harbaugh. Crabtree was limping and though X-rays proved negative on his troublesome left foot, it remains troublesome. Not a good sign.
On the other side, the Seahawks signed Sidney Rice to a large free-agent contract, but he has an injured shoulder and didn’t play. Last year he missed all but five games due to a hip injury. It appears staying healthy is difficult for these players. Given the money involved, that’s not a good sign.
More to the point is that both bring another dimension to their teams. Crabtree’s strong hands and ability to find the shallow-hole pass coverages make him a candidate to become Alex Smith’s favorite target. Throws to him can be a quick, consistent seven to eight yards.
Rice, on the other hand, has the capability to run inside as well as by the interior defenders, such as a strong safety. Jackson often found pressure and the need for a short throw to someone who could make do in such dire circumstances—that’s Rice’s specialty.
In short, both offenses are far from full strength.
It’s only one game, yet it does allow a bold statement: The Niners are getting better due to the improved play of Alex Smith. Jackson’s performance makes one wonder if the Seahawks will continue to struggle. His accuracy disappears when harassed and this will hinder the team’s ability to make plays.
In contrast, Smith was hurried only once and was not sacked. He finished 15-of-20, but gained only 124 yards. But watch his throws again and notice that his feet stayed steady. No tapping, no stuttering. His head moved easily through progressions and the throws came out with authority.
Granted, many of the throws were short, but they were not into double or triple coverage. There were no bad throws and no real bad decisions. He also ran out of the pocket several times for key gains, including the first touchdown of the season.
Niner coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game that Smith’s performance was as expected, maybe a little better. What Smith didn’t do is more telling. He didn’t force passes that could have led to turnovers. He read defenses correctly and audibled well. In other words, he didn’t lose the game.
Jackson did not lose the game for the Seahawks. Seattle’s offensive line for the most part was overmatched. Though the ‘Hawks got close early in the fourth quarter, it has to be said that the Niner defense controlled them for most of the game.
Throw out Danny Baldwin’s 55-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter and the Seahawks would have been well under three yards per pass attempt, which is very, very low. Smith was more than double that at 6.3 per attempt.
Coaches believe that a team makes its biggest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. Truth be told, the good teams—the ones that play deep into January—get better every week. They adapt and adjust while sharpening their strengths.
For its reputation as a weak sister in the NFL, the NFC West has produced two Super Bowl contenders in the last six years—Seattle and Arizona. Seattle also pulled off the biggest upset of last year’s playoffs against New Orleans.
These teams can surprise you. No one can tell how they will grow and change and adapt and adjust as the season progresses. Seattle is going to need lots of help getting its offense—its quarterback—into high levels of efficiency.
On the other hand, if San Francisco becomes more efficient when closer to the goal line, it will make its defense that much better. Playing from ahead in the NFL is like riding a skateboard downhill—the longer you do it, the faster you get to go. Jim Harbaugh (pictured) knows that.
Right now it’s easier to believe the Niners are ascending while the Seahawks are descending. Of course, their coaches and the players will have the ultimate say in where they end up.