3TFO: 49ers @ Seahawks, Week 2
The best of the NFC West have been pumped up by pundits for months, and the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers did not disappoint us in Week 1. Russell Wilson’s gang left us last winter with memories of a super-charged offense, but much of their 2012 success came from low-scoring slugfests like the one we saw Sunday in Carolina. Meanwhile, the 49ers found a new way to torture the Green Bay Packers. After Jim Harbaugh spent much of the preseason touting his read-option running game, he had Colin Kaepernick throw the ball at will against Green Bay’s secondary. Those victories set both teams up nicely for a matchup that we’ve all had circled in our calendars since April. It’s only Week 2, but this grudge match featuring two of the top three teams in our Power Rankings could very well go down as the best game of the season. Let’s dive in to see where it could be decided.
49ers Offensive Line vs. Seahawks Run Defense
The primary challenge for any San Francisco opponent is handling the single-best position group in the NFL — the 49ers’ offensive line. Kaepernick’s athleticism makes the read-option tough enough to defend, but throw in the sheer dominance of his linemen at the point of attack, and it’s almost not fair. Joe Staley and Anthony Davis had the top two run block grades among offensive tackles last season. Evan Mathis was the only guard to post a better mark than Mike Iupati, and they have Alex Boone. But at least opponents don’t have to worry about weak link Jonathan Goodwin in the middle; he graded as only the eighth-best run blocking center in 2012. In the 49ers’ Thursday night victory over the Seahawks in Week 7 last season, Frank Gore rushed for 5.3 yards per carry before contact. Even in a Week 16 blowout loss in Seattle, when Harbaugh abandoned the running game, San Francisco’s line still earned good marks on film.
If the 49ers stay committed to the run this time around, the Seahawks may not have the strength to stop them. The wildly inconsistent Brandon Mebane is at times dominant against the ground game, but he’s notched only three stops in 92 run snaps in his past four games against San Francisco. Bobby Wagner earned the fourth-highest run defense grade of any linebacker last season, but he had little impact in his two matches with the 49ers. Newcomer Michael Bennett could provide a boost, as he’s always been one of the better run defending 4-3 defensive ends in the league, but Seattle will need big games across to board to slow San Francisco’s powerful front line. And if the Seahawks do sell out against the run, as the Packers did last week, the 49ers have other ways of moving the ball.
Anquan Boldin vs. Richard Sherman
There is no hotter wide receiver in the NFL right now than Anquan Boldin. In his past five games going back to last season’s Super Bowl run, he’s racked up 588 yards, five touchdowns, and 3.44 Yards Per Route Run. However, none of the cornerbacks he faced in those games are as formidable as Richard Sherman. The 2011 fifth-round pick earned our highest coverage grade last season, drawing comparisons to the great Darrelle Revis. The best grade of his young career came against Kaepernick, when he tallied an interception and three passes defensed in that Week 16 rout. Together with the rest of Seattle’s secondary, he held the 49ers’ quarterback to two completions, 6 yards, an interception, and a 0.0 QB rating on the nine drop-backs when Seattle got pressure.
The place where Boldin may find some room to work is an area where Sherman may not follow him: the slot. Boldin lined up inside on 62.2% of his pass routes in 2012, and he was there again on 22 of his 41 routes last week. His 114 yards from the slot were the highest total of any wide receiver in Week 1. Sherman, on the other hand, covered the slot on only 19 plays last season, allowing a reception once every 6.3 snaps to inside receivers, versus once every 15.4 snaps to outside receivers. Look for the 49ers to keep Boldin near the hashmarks, where this matchup tips back in their favor.
Russell Wilson vs. 49ers Pass Rush
Astute 49er fans will remember that their humiliating late-season trip to Seattle took place with Justin Smith watching from the sidelines with a torn triceps. Without its defensive leader, San Francisco wasn’t able to fully exploit Seattle’s spotty pass protection. The left side of the Seahawks’ offensive line didn’t surrender a single pressure that night. Compare that to this past Sunday in Carolina, where the Panthers’ defensive line pressured Wilson on 37.8% of his drop-backs, and you can see why Aldon Smith and company would be eager to make amends this time around.
However, it’s one thing to get to Wilson, and a completely different task to bring him down. The shifty Seahawks’ passer forced three missed tackles in the backfield in that Week 16 victory. At 10:11 left in the second quarter, Aldon Smith had him dead-to-rights for a huge loss and Wilson simply juked him out of his cleats. On the only sack the 49ers earned that night, it took them a full 7.60 seconds to bring Wilson down. While Kaepernick earned a career-low -2.8 grade because he couldn’t handle Seattle’s pressure, Wilson earned a career-high +7.7 on the back of a 128.3 QB rating when he was under duress. Throw in Wilson’s chemistry with Golden Tate, a connection that gained the fourth-most yards on scramble plays last season, and you can see how effective the Seahawks’ passing game can be even if its pass protection isn’t on point. If Wilson and Kaepernick want to keep their eyebrows, they’ll both have to raise some when the pressure gets to them.
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