Last year’s starting quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck, threw an interception on the season’s first play before passing for 170 yards. Tarvaris Jackson threw for 197. Last year’s running backs combined for 23 rushing attempts and 77 yards, a 3.3 average per carry. This year’s backs went 22 for 64 yards and a 2.9 average. The defense held the 49ers to 1-15 on 3rd down conversions last year, compared to 1-12 this season. The similarities continue, but it is the differences that will reveal why this game was lost.
The obvious place to start is special teams. Ted Ginn Jr. had 268 return yards and two touchdowns, after the 49ers managed just 94 total return yards in Seattle. Turnovers played in a key role in both games, with Seattle getting a pick-6 that led to the way to a 2-1 turnover advantage last year, but getting pummeled 3-0 in turnovers this year. There were other minor differences, but those two areas are where the game turned. Some will point to Jackson as the prime suspect since he was involved in all three turnovers. Some will point to the offensive line that surrendered five sacks and eight quarterback hits. Lost in all the scapegoating is an appreciation for a virtuoso defensive performance and a remarkable recovery from a young and injury-depleted offense in the 2nd half.
In case you missed it, the Seahawks defense blew the doors off yesterday. Earl Thomas just made another play while I wrote this sentence. His battery mate, Kam Chancellor, went for 10 tackles and two tackles for loss (TFL) in his first career start. Between the two of them, they accounted for 19 tackles and four TFL. If there is a better young safety tandem in the NFL, I haven’t seen it. These were not touchdown-saving tackles 20 yards down-field. These were two players attacking the line of scrimmage and punishing opponents. The Seahawks appear to be using both safeties more like linebackers, shooting gaps instead of providing support. This could be fun.
The defensive line was breath-taking. San Francisco was so intent on running the ball down the Seahawks throat, but they spent most of the afternoon choking on it as the Seahawks absolutely stoned them. These weren’t just pig-piles either. Frank Gore and his buddies were getting hammered. Gore ended the game with a 2.7 YPC. Only two teams have held him to a lower YPC in his last 12 games, Tampa Bay (1.1) and your very own Seahawks in last year’s opener (2.2).
Lofa Tatupu was nowhere to be seen, but the linebackers did not miss him. Aaron Curry started the game with a couple great tackles, and Matt McCoy ended it with one of the best Seahawks hits in recent memory. McCoy got snaps as the team’s nickel linebacker, and played extremely well all day. Tatupu’s back-up, and arguably the team’s best linebacker, David Hawthorne, didn’t even play. Rookie K.J. Wright filled in admirably, only being noticed when making positive plays.
Poor Brandon Browner deserves his own spotlight for playing the best game the referees never saw. The pass interference call against him on 3rd and 1, from the goal-line with Seattle trailing 9-0, opened the door for a decisive 16-0 lead. Replays showed 49ers receiver Braylon Edwards was the one grabbing Browner’s jersey and pushing off. Those are tough plays to call, but when a guy blocks an opponent on the shoulder and gets called for a block in the back, that is inexcusable. Leon Washington was sprung for a huge return on a great block by Browner that was called back [Note: Pete Carroll has since said the penalty was called against Atari Bigby]. And then Browner was the victim of a phantom roughing the kicker call that gave the 49ers a 1st down from the 1-yard-line. The ensuing second goal-line stand was the exclamation mark on a day full of inspired play from the defense.
The lack of a pass rush was a concern, but not cause for alarm. San Francisco spent much of the day relying on quick drops. There were only a couple of times where Alex Smith had the chance to scan the field for more than a few seconds. Even without a pass rush, coverage was great. Explosive plays were a bugaboo for the Seahawks defense last season, giving up the 2nd most pass plays over 20 yards in the NFL (71), for an average of nearly four per game. The 49ers only managed two such plays yesterday, and were stuck on one until late in the 4th quarter. A much stronger test comes next week in Pittsburgh.
Focusing only on the defense would be ignoring an offense that will have many fans wringing their hands. After all, this was an offense that managed only 37 yards in the first half, and an offensive line that surrendered five sacks and eight QB hits. The offense was inexcusably bad in that opening half. The offensive line was so bad that it did not appear any sustained drive was realistic. That is what made the team’s second half performance all the more remarkable. Jackson and team took the opening possession of the second half 56 yards for a touchdown, out-gaining their entire first half in three minutes. The touchdown play to Golden Tate was beautifully designed by Darrell Bevell and well executed. The offense was not exactly dynamic on its way to 182 yards in the second half, but it was competitive. Jackson ended with a 78.3 QB rating, which was higher than all but five of Matt Hasselbeck’s regular season games last year. Take away his Hail Mary interception at the end of the first half, and he would have been at 89.6. It is too early to decide who Jackson will be at quarterback, but some patterns are emerging.
Jackson’s leadership and poise are going to be a valuable asset as his offensive line will likely get him pummeled regularly. If he gets up and keeps playing hard, what excuse does anyone else have not to? His block on a Ben Obomanu reverse was bad-ass. He also has a tendency to hold onto the ball too long, which is a bad combination with this line. His throws tend to be high, which can also lead to turnovers. He will not win many games based on his talent or performance, but his second half play yesterday gives hope he could grow into more than he is if he can get 5-6 starts in a row.
The offensive line played a retro game Sunday, circa 1992. That group surrendered 4+ sacks per game, and 67 for the season. The biggest disappointment yesterday was Russell Okung. He can be an elite left tackle, and players of that caliber do not play as poorly as he did in the first half no matter how much practice and off-season they missed. He must play better for this line to have any chance at stability. James Carpenter can officially be put on the “trouble” watch list. Forget left guard, right tackle, inexperience and every other excuse. Carpenter is getting physically beaten on a regular basis. Lineman, big and small, are bull-rushing him and speed-rushing him with almost equal success. If Robert Gallery can return next week, I’d guess Carpenter sits. Fellow rookie John Moffitt was not great, but was far less of a liability. Breno Giacomini was not a lot better than Carpenter, but was better. The trouble on the line forced Zach Miller to stay back and block, which was made worse when FB Michael Robinson left early with an ankle injury. Miller ended up playing some fullback as well. That’s not how the team envisioned their $18M tight end being utilized. Expect Mike Karney, or another fullback to be signed this week if Robinson is out for an extended period.
Doug Baldwin had an impressive debut that included a 55-yard TD that would have put the team in great position to win if the special teams remembered to tackle. The rest of the receivers were hard-pressed to get the ball, and did not appear to be getting open very often. What looked to help the team more than anything was playing with great pace. The speed at which the team reached the line and snapped the ball was dramatically faster in the second half. It is not a cure-all for a lack of cohesion, but it certainly helps.
Judging this team solely by wins and losses will almost certainly lead to frustration and anger. Fans in that camp will miss the story of Brandon Browner, the development of an elite run defense, and the dual Pro Bowl threat at safety. Imagine that defense playing in front of the 12th Man at home. The offense will struggle. There are no guarantees it will ever find its footing this season, but the experience will improve the offensive line. Things get tougher next week in Pittsburgh, but there is victory in going into their house and punching them in the face, even if the final score doesn’t make fans smile.