That one has to sting, San Francisco. Leading 20-17 with just over two minutes to go, the 49ers saw their season and home opener yanked from their grasp by the growing legend that is Russell Wilson. The full ESPN crew was on hand with plenty of pomp and circumstance to witness what may be the two best teams in the NFL facing off on Monday Night Football, and both teams lived up to their billing. The 49ers, buoyed by the emotion of celebrating their Super Bowl appearance last year, got off to a fast start and led most of the way. Seattle, with the help of many of their new additions, managed to walk away with a key 24-20 road division win against their biggest rival.
Colin Kaepernick wasted little time in taking advantage of his new weapon on offense, Anquan Boldin. Boldin had three catches on the 49ers opening possession, two of them converting on third down, before Kaepernick found Vernon Davis for a touchdown. Boldin would not have a catch the rest of the game as he was throttled by Brandon Browner much of the time.
It took all of 13 seconds for Seattle to respond as Percy Harvin took his first kickoff return in a Seahawks uniform back 103 yards for a touchdown. Jim Harbaugh complained after the game that the officials allowed Harvin to run too quickly, and that Seattle blockers were allowed to continue pancaking his players even after Harvin crossed the goal line.
The teams settled in from there. San Francisco pounded away on the ground, with Kendall Hunter getting the bulk of the carries and yards. The Seahawks found themselves backed up to the shadow of their goal line when new 6’7″ defensive tackle Tony McDaniel batted down a Kaepernick throw intended for Boldin in the end zone. Phil Dawson knocked in a short field goal to give the 49ers a 10-7 lead.
Seattle unveiled their new wrinkle to the read-option with Harvin sprinting in motion across the formation before each snap. It was hard to tell if the package was ineffective because the Seahawks were still getting acquainted with the timing or because the 49ers defense is uniquely equipped to handle it. Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman were fast enough to chase down plays to the edge, and the combination of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald made it difficult for Wilson to have the space he needed to run the option with Marshawn Lynch.
“It felt great to be back out there playing at 100%,” Smith said. “I just wish the result had been different.”
The early indications are that Harvin will be taking snaps from a number of players on offense, including Lynch. Golden Tate may have been impacted the most in this game as the team ran two tight ends much of the night and chose to keep Sidney Rice and Harvin on the field when they went with only two receivers. Seattle ran a number of 2 X 0 sets with both Rice and Harvin on the same side of the field. That created some nice space for the Seahawks to run bootlegs to Zach Miller, with Rice or Harvin running crossing routes further down-field behind Miller.
It will take some time for the Seattle offense to figure out how best to utilize their new weaponry, but it was clear they will present impossible challenges to defenses once they hit their stride.
Harbaugh and the 49ers took advantage of a slow first half from the Seahawks, and enjoyed a 17-10 lead heading in for halftime. A fumbled Seahawks punt setup the 49ers second touchdown as Hunter found the corner for a 10-yard score. A couple nifty catches from Doug Baldwin helped the Seahawks get in position for a field goal just before both teams hit their locker rooms.
The second half was all Seahawks. Kaepernick was blasted several times while running the pistol as newcomers Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, along with K.J. Wright repeatedly ignored the ball carrier and lit up Kaepernick. The entire Seahawks defense was eagerly kissing their biceps on every big hit. San Francisco right tackle Anthony Davis became angry and found a Seahawks ball boy to beat up, pounding his chest as the 120 lb young man was sprawled on the ground in front of him.
“Those Seahawks can’t come into our house and disrespect our quarterback like that,” Davis said afterwards. “I will continue to find the smallest person on the field to pick on until they get the point.”
Wilson was nearly perfect after halftime. If not for a missed field goal and several drives that started inside their own five-yard line, the game may not have been close. Tate began the second-half by grabbing a contested pass along the left sideline for a 50-yard gain, followed by a Lynch 17-yard rumble. Harvin took a swing pass the remaining 13-yards for a touchdown that tied the game at 17.
The score would stay that way through much of the half until the 49ers took advantage of a 47-yard Kaepernick scramble to setup a go-ahead field goal. Seattle had its only three-and-out of the second half after the 49ers took the lead, and it was looking like the home team was going to run their way to victory as they had the ball in Seahawks territory with just over two minutes to play and a three point lead.
New Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn surprised Kaepernick with a blitz on 3rd down with Bruce Irvin and Bennett coming from the left and Malcolm Smith and Avril coming from the right. Irvin destroyed Kaepernick, but not before he was able to let loose a throw toward Michael Crabtree. Richard Sherman read the play the whole way and picked off the pass.
“They were avoiding me all night,” Sherman said. “It was nice to finally get a chance to make a play.”
Wilson and the Seahawks took over the ball with just over two minutest to play at their own 35-yard line. The team went exclusively to their new scorpion package, featuring Harvin as a single back, Miller at tight end and Tate, Baldwin and Rice at receiver.
“We have high hopes for that package as the season progresses,” Seahawks Offensive Coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “It stresses the defense in so many ways.”
The drive started with two swing passes to Harvin for 18 yards. San Francisco became acutely aware of Harvin, leaving them susceptible to a double-move from Baldwin for another 14 yards over the middle. A slant to Rice netted another 10, putting the Seahawks at the 49ers 23 yard line with 45 seconds to go.
Wilson then faked a handoff to Harvin, who ran a wheel route to the right side, taking two defenders with him. Tate ran a post from the left side and Baldwin dragged across the line to the right. The left side of the field opened up, and Wilson avoided an oncoming Aldon Smith before breaking into the open field for a go-ahead touchdown.
“The guys did a great job of blocking up front,” Wilson said. “And once things opened up on the left side, it was easy from there.”
The 49ers had a one more chance with 35 seconds to go and all three of their timeouts. Bennett, however, sliced into the back-field, forcing a rushed throw by Kaepernick that settled into the waiting hands of Kam Chancellor, sealing the emotional Seahawks win.
San Francisco officials were pleased the night ended with only five stabbing deaths in the stands following the disappointing outcome.
“That puts us way off of last year’s pace,” County Sherriff Todd Dipstick said.
Seattle now heads home to the friendly confines of CenturyLink Field to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while the 49ers get a second home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
These two teams will not meet again until the final game of the season in Seattle. Getting a win against their toughest road opponent to start the season puts the Seahawks in a strong position to grab the division title back from the 49ers. Harbaugh was not available for comment after the game as he was still complaining about the referees from the Super Bowl.
Seahawks players insisted their bus driver honk his horn repeatedly as they left for the airport, hearkening back to the incident last season when Harbaugh allegedly honked and taunted Seahawks players following the 49ers home win.
The rivalry between these two teams is reaching a fever pitch, and the first clash of the season left the 49ers wondering if their championship window may be closed prematurely by this talented young Seahawks squad.
Wilson summed things up as usual before boarding the team bus, “Go Hawks!”