Monday, December 9, 2013

The Morning After: 49ers Earn Victory Over Seahawks, 19-17

Logo by Kevin Gamache, Hammerhead 

There was a time when Seahawks fans would seek reassurance after a loss. The team they rooted for with all their heart was torturing their soul. Faith was tested. Today is not yesterday. This Seahawks team has proven their merit in victory and defeat. They are not infallible. No team is. But consider what it has taken to beat them so far this season. Indianapolis faced a Seattle team without three of their starting offensive lineman or their starting tight end, and still needed a touchdown turned safety and a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown to walk away with a win. San Francisco made this game their Super Bowl. This game clearly mattered more to them than any other they have played so far, and not only did they take a 3-point lead, but they blocked a punt that put them in fantastic position to distance themselves in front of a raucous home crowd. Against almost any other foe, that would be a recipe for a blowout. Instead, they were forced to settle fora field goal. In fact, they could muster only one touchdown all afternoon. For all their focus, and energy and excellent defense, it was the Seahawks who led late in the fourth quarter. Without Walter Thurmond and Brandon Browner, and eventually K.J. Wright and Max Unger, they led. On a short week, without a functioning run game, they led. That is who this team is. San Francisco earned a victory. Strip away the advantages they enjoyed and play this game again. The outcome would be different. Strip away those advantages and hand them to the Seahawks, the outcome would be certain.

Credit the 49ers for being the first team this season to truly beat the Seahawks. I saw that Colts game first-hand, and that game was Seattle's to lose, and they lost it. Sunday was different. The San Francisco defense played a fantastic game. Their secondary is much improved over what they ran out their last year, and even compared to the first game when Nnamdi Asomugha was still on the field. Seattle's offense was unable to find much in the way of repeat success, and the running game never got on track. Still, Russell Wilson had a 102 passer rating prior to his final hail mary interception. Seattle had twice the touchdowns that San Francisco did, and their excellent special teams got them into position for another road victory.

There has been a fair amount of hand-wringing on Twitter about Earl Thomas missing a tackle on the Frank Gore 51-yard run, and pointing the finger at other Seahawk defenders as well. Realize that the 49ers are very good at what they do. They run the ball. And on 32 of their 33 carries, they averaged 3.5 yards per tote. The standards for the Seahawks defense should be high, but to fret about one of the best running teams in football beating them on one play is a waste of time. The tougher run to swallow was the sweep by Colin Kaepernick on 3rd and 7 that essentially ended the game. Even there, the 49ers coaches deserve credit for a good play call that caught the Seahawks in a bad defense to stop it. Where was David Akers when you needed him? Phil Dawson has been nails for the 49ers all year, and his 48-yard and 52-yard field goals were a big part of this outcome.

It was just last year in San Francisco that Golden Tate had one of his most disappointing games. He had trouble getting open, and even more trouble hanging onto the ball. This, from a player who has become known for his hands. He looked great on Sunday, especially on third down. He finished with 65 yards on 6 catches, and a 38-yard punt return that nearly won the game.

FACT: Golden Tate's 710 yards receiving are a new career high with three games to go

Jermaine Kearse and Doug Baldwin made some nice plays, but were not involved enough to impact the game to the extend one would hope. Luke Willson led the Seahawks in receiving for the first time, and did something few people can claim. He ran away from Patrick Willis not once, but twice. That will get the 49ers attention when they review film, and it will effect how much coverage he demands the next time they meet.

As good as this offense has become this season, they still would benefit from some top-end speed. Percy Harvin is the name on everyone's mind, but who knows if he is going to be healthy enough this year to play, let alone be counted on? There is already a player on the roster with game-breaking ability. Christine Michael has been inactive the past few games. That probably continues through this week in New York, but his opportunities may come in the closing weeks of the season at home. He would be such a great compliment to Marshawn Lynch and give the offense a game-breaker. It is fair to assume the coaches know what they have, and are making reasoned choices for why Michael is not part of the rotation. Alvin Bailey, however, was kept on ice for too long, so there is some precedent for the staff being overly conservative this season. Get Michael five touches a game. Watch how it changes things.

The offensive line struggled early in pass protection, but improved as the game went on. It looked like they were about to kick-start one of those classic ground-and-pound Seahawks drives when Lynch broke it to the outside, but the penalty against Michael Robinson was a 30+ yard swing.

FACT: Marshawn Lynch becomes just the second Seahawks player to rush for over 1,000 yards and 10+ rushing touchdowns in three straight seasons

Lynch finished a mostly mediocre day, but his toughness is incredibly valuable in these street fights with the 49ers. He backs down from no-one.

The loss of Wright is a hard one. His reaction to the news shined a light on how deeply he wants to be a part of what is happening. Malcolm Smith gets a chance to step up, and played well once again in Wright's absence. As well as Wright was playing, Smith is the only true WILL linebacker on the roster. He will be an asset, not a liability. The issue becomes depth. The decisions to part ways with Allen Bradford and John Lotulelei earlier in the season in favor of special teams players like Heath Farwell and Mike Morgan have left the team with precious little options after Smith. O'Brien Schofield is a viable replacement for Bruce Irvin should the need arise, but there is no viable replacement for Smith, and the options behind Wagner are far more limited now. Speaking of Wagner, he led the team in tackles again, and played a good game against one of the toughest opponents for a middle linebacker to face.

The secondary did not have a great day. Perhaps the 49ers were doing things they had not seen on film, or they just were off their game, but they are better than what they put on tape yesterday. The holding and pass interference calls were legitimate, and a few others could have been added to the pile. Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane acquitted themselves well, but it was hard not to think a healthy Brandon Browner could have been a difference maker in this particular match-up. His strength is unparalleled at the line, and his ability to disrupt a player like Anquan Boldin is unique.

Seattle played a lot of zone in this game, and they did not look comfortable doing it. That is where communication and experience playing together makes such a difference. Maxwell and Lane may be talented enough to play, but there is no way to replace the experience Thurmond and Browner have with the other members of the seconday.

The Seahawks have one more road game to play. It will be in a place they hope to revisit. Their season story has been about overcoming injuries to key players, and that will only continue after the new losses they suffered against the 49ers. Losing is never a good thing, but it can help to inspire new learning and re-double efforts to be the best. The odds are good that Seattle will face the 49ers again this season. This game will be fresh in the memories of both teams. No honest evaluation of the game can leave anyone believing a San Francisco victory in Seattle is any more likely now than before. The 49ers may be the best-equipped team to face the Seahawks, but that does not mean they are well-equipped to do so. Steel sharpens steel. Seattle will be ready the next time these two teams meet.


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