Sunday, September 15, 2013

Final Pre-Game Thoughts: Seahawks vs. 49ers

Here we are. The hype cycle has run its course to the point where The Seattle Times was running anti-hype stories today about why this is not necessarily as unique of a regular season home game as many have made it out to be. Hogwash. There has never been a regular season home game in Seahawks history where the two teams most consider the best in football, who are division rivals, who hate each other from the front office to the janitor's office, have faced off on national television. I am not sure there has ever been a time in Seahawks history where they were considered the best or second best team in football (there were plenty of national doubters in 2005 due to the weakness of the NFC West), let alone played the team competing with them for that title. This game will set the course for the 2013 season of both these teams.

Forget Every Week Is Equal

Pete Carroll is absolutely right to be espousing a philosophy of consistency across his team. That does not mean his message is factually accurate. This game is infinitely more important than next weeks game. There is a reason the NFL structured tie-breakers to value conference games more than non-conference, and division games more than conference games. They matter more. Beyond the facts, one team will exit this game with tailwinds and the other with headwinds. A win for Seattle writes the narrative that the Seahawks have won two in a row against the 49er juggernaut, and did so without many of their best players. It would force San Francisco to face the reality that the win last season for the Seahawks was not an aberration, and fertilize the seeds of doubt planted last year. A win for the 49ers lets them write off the loss last season, and confirm their belief that nobody has it better than them. It would leave Seattle already one game down at home, and needing to win in San Francisco to have their best shot at winning the division. 


Which Flaw Is Fatal?

Seahawks fans are familiar by now with the struggles they have had defending the run. Nine of their last twelve opponents have rushed for 4.2 yards per carry or greater, including Carolina last week. When this defense is playing elite football, they are holding opponents under 3.5 yards per carry. No team will challenge that more than the 49ers, who came away with only 82 yards rushing in the last match-up, but still averaged 4.3 YPC. In a closer game, that would have factored into the outcome far more. Seattle re-signed Clinton McDonald, who has a limited upside overall, but is among the most aggressive run defenders on the squad. It would not be a shock if he was active despite only being signed yesterday.

The story that nobody is telling is the overall collapse of the 49ers defense. Yes, you read right. San Francisco opponents have scored an average of 35 ppg in the last seven games (including the playoffs). That was explained away last season as a result of the Justin Smith injury. Everyone across the NFL was toasting the 49ers after a big win against the Packers last week, but they surrendered 28 points and 385 yards, and only managed to win by six against a team that turned the ball over twice while SF had zero giveaways. The easy explanation is that Rodgers is the best player in football and nobody can hold him down. The 12 points he scored in Seattle last year says otherwise. So do the 22 points and 324 yards SF held them to in Green Bay in last year's opener. 

The 49ers have a badass defense, plain and simple, but there is evidence of weakness most are unable or unwilling to see.


Ian Williams is a name to know

San Francisco has a new nose tackle. His name is Ian Williams, and he just might be the next dominant 49er lineman. He replaces Isaac Sopoaga, who left in free agency, and looks far more athletic and disruptive. His weakness, though, can be easily exploited. Williams only played ten snaps last week because he comes off the field when the 49ers go to nickel. Every time the Packers went to three or four wide, Williams sat down and a weaker secondary player came in. 

Seattle will have a conscious decision to make about how best to attack SF. They now have the personnel to go to four or five wide if they so choose, but their identity is not to spread teams out like that. More likely, they will go with a lot of two tight end and three receiver sets. That may still get Williams off the field, and create favorable run match-ups.

Luke Willson and Derrick Coleman will be tested

It is exciting to play for the first time in front of the 12th Man. Drawing blocking duty all day against the likes of Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Justin Smith and Ray McDonald is not quite as thrilling. Willson showed some jitters last week with an illegal motion penalty, and was not targeted as a receiver. He could play a key role in this game both in blocking and as an outlet receiver SF knows little about. The same holds true for Coleman. There is no time for easing in for these youngsters. 

Stephen Williams has a serious advantage

Finding snaps for Williams will be tough, but Darrell Bevell needs to do it. Which aging 49er cornerback is going to keep up with him and out-jump him for a throw down-field? The answer: none. 

Oh my Russell Wilson

Russell Wilson is kinda good at Century Link. In eight career games at home, he was only failed to reach a 100.0 or better passer rating twice. Once, was a 99.3 versus Green Bay. The other was 88.0 versus the Cardinals during a 58-0 stomping. He was the best home quarterback in football last year, and has yet to lose at Century Link ever. Not in the pre-season. Not in the regular season. 

Special Teams will play a major role in outcome

We can debate until we pass out from exhaustion about which quarterback is better, which defense is better, and even which offense is better. The truth is, they are pretty darn even across the board. The area where either team has the biggest advantage is on special teams. Seattle is one of the best in the NFL. San Francisco is not. I have a hunch Steven Hauschka has a 55+ yard killer kick in him waiting to happen. The coverage teams are elite, and the return game could break one. A blocked field goal returned for a touchdown broke open the game last year. Watch for the big special teams moment tonight.

If only this game was played in the 80s

The weather looks dreary for this evening. Two teams with bad intentions and unmatched physical talent square off. But they can't hit each other. At least, not like teams used to. I'm not begrudging anyone for making the game safer, but I sure wish we could see these two teams play with the old rules. That would be something.

Kaepernick not yet proven on the road

Everyone remembers the glory of Colin Kaepernick last year. He was otherworldly at times. Many forget how uneven his play was on the road. He was over 100.0 passer rating in every home start except for his playoff start against Green Bay when he still was at 91.2. He was under 100.0 in three of his five road starts, including two games under 84.0. All three of his regular season interceptions came away from Candlestick. His completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown rate, interception rate and sack rate were all considerably worse on the road. 

Wilson had similar struggles early on, but his passer rating has been over 100 in five of his last seven away games, including the playoffs. His two low marks in that stretch were a 92.9 showing in Washington and a 96.8 outing in Detroit. Kaepernick had stellar performance in New England and at Atlanta in the playoffs. The rest have left a lot to be desired. That has led to a 2-2 regular season road record in his starts. 

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