The San Francisco 49ers, a franchise that dominated the 80s, and early 90s, before collapsing for over a decade to the point of irrelevance. They re-emerged last season as a team that bore little resemblance to the offense-driven Bill Walsh dynasty. No team in the NFL was tougher. No team did more with less on offense. They posted insane takeaway and giveaway numbers. They physically imposed their will on teams, ripping respect away from opponents and national media. By the time the season ended, they found themselves a play or two away from the Super Bowl. Seattle attempts to repeat history just a year later as they hurdle toward a true heavy-weight bout on Thursday night. There will be no game in the NFL this season that comes close to matching the intensity and physicality of what will happen tomorrow evening. Much is on the line for both teams, and both are capable of making life miserable for the other.
Just Two Years Ago Removed From Fox Disrespect
Seattle played in San Francisco late in 2010 when the Seahawks were 6-6 and the 49ers were 5-8. Nobody cared what happened in that game beyond Seahawks fans. Even 49ers fans were disinterested after another disastrous season. Fox broadcast the game and decided it was so worthless, and the fans watching it mattered so little, that they could use it as an experiment, playing a ridiculous soundtrack during various parts of the game. It was quite possibly the worst viewing experience in NFL history. In part, because it was clear that Fox was indirectly telling fans of both teams that they did not matter. They were worth no more than lab rats or focus group participants, without the compensation of course. Two years later, these two teams will collide on national television as two of the best teams in football.
This One Is On Marshawn, Not Russell
Many fans and sports radio folks have jumped on the Russell Wilson bandwagon after a sterling and stirring performance against the Patriots. He deserves the recognition. He also deserves appropriate expectations heading into this contest. There will be no 300-yard performance this week. There will be not be 3 touchdown passes. Wilson has faced two of the worst secondaries in football the past two weeks, and had great protection to throw down the field. The 49ers are an entirely different animal. They much more closely resemble the Cardinals defense Wilson faced the first week of the season. Wilson is a better player than he was then, but relying on him to carry the team this week is a recipe for certain defeat. Marshawn Lynch had his fewest carries of the season on Sunday (15), and fewest yards (41). He must bring his best on Thursday if the Seahawks hope to emerge with a win. The 49ers will geared up to stop the run. They will want to make this game about a rookie quarterback playing on the road. Lynch must not allow that. His offensive line must come prepared to play their best game. He managed 109 yards and a rare rushing touchdown against the 49ers in their last match-up. Pete Carroll mentioned finding a blocking scheme that was effective against the 49ers front after that game. Lynch’s play will matter more than just production. San Francisco will be looking to intimidate Seattle. Lynch is the guy that must fight back. Do not be surprised to see some big-time jawing happening, especially early on. The tone of the game will be set by what happens with Lynch. The team needs his best.
Emotions & Penalties
Both teams will be geared up for this game. Neither team likes the other. The Seahawks, especially, have reason to despise Jim Harbaugh and the team. Carroll’s Win Forever philosophy includes a concept of reaching the right balance of preparation, emotion and control. The team will need to find that balance point in a game that could swing on a single play. It is one thing for Lynch to go face mask-to-face mask with a defender who is barking. It is another for a Seahawks player to get a late hit on 3rd down, or personal foul after the offense makes a big play. That simply cannot happen if the Seahawks want to come out on top.
Expect The Heat, Protect The Ball
The 49ers are a shocking 26th in the NFL in sacks, with only 9 through six games. It has been a topic of conversation in their papers all week. Vic Fangio is a terrific defensive coordinator, who has not had to focus on the sack production while his team was dismantling opponents up until last week. He will bring out all the tricks on Thursday. Wilson will need to get rid of the ball quickly and make good decisions. A sack is preferable to a turnover every time. Robert Turbin and Leon Washington could play important roles on swing passes, although Wilson has been hesitant to check-down at times. That new third-down decisiveness he has been working on will be paramount.
Big Receivers, Big Plays
There are unlikely to be any moments that resemble wide open receivers running behind the defense like Sidney Rice did against the Patriots. There definitely could be a few jump balls that could be the difference between a completely unproductive offense and points on the board. Braylon Edwards will have reason to prove a point to his old mates. Rice, Tate, and even Evan Moore could find themselves needing to win a crucial ball in the air. Each is capable.
It is almost not worth mentioning, but whoever wins the turnover battle is nearly certain to win this game. The 49ers have the advantage there as they are creating more, and giving away fewer than the Seahawks so far, after an insane turnover season in 2011. Seattle’s passing game is the most likely source of turnovers. Wilson’s most important stat on Thursday will be zero interceptions. This is a game where fans should expect an offense that much more closely resembles what we saw in the first few weeks in terms of run-heavy and high-percentage throws. Ball control is crucial.
The 49ers have lost two games this season. They ran for less than 100 yards in both games. They average a league-leading 177 yards/game on the ground. This is legitimately the best rushing attack in football with a great run-blocking offensive line, three terrific running backs, and a back-up quarterback that can get into the act as well. Seattle’s 2nd-ranked rush defense will face no greater challenge all season. The 49ers rush offense can say the same thing. Seattle stared down the #1 passing offense in the NFL last Sunday. This will be a very different match-up, but the Seahawks are well-armed for the battle.
The 49ers do not have a clear weakness the way the Patriots did (pass defense). If there is any area that stands out as sub-par, it is the San Francisco coverage teams. According to FootballOutsiders.com, the 49ers kick coverage team is the 2nd-worst in the NFL. Their punt coverage team is not great either. In a game where yards will be hard to come by, a big return could be the difference. Expect some trickery from the SF kick teams as well. Fake punts, fake field goals, reverse returns, are all possible from a team that is always looking for a way to embarrass their opponent.