ReFo: 49ers @ Seahawks, NFC Championship
Ben Stockwell offers analysis of some notable performances from the NFC title game that saw the Seahawks push past San Francisco and into Super Bowl XLVII.
ReFo: 49ers @ Seahawks, NFC Championship
So after one almighty slugfest between two incredibly physical football teams the stage is set and the Seattle Seahawks head to their second Super Bowl hoping to win their first Lombardi Trophy against a former AFC West foe.
The San Francisco 49ers made the all-important fast start taking some of the energy out of the stadium by forcing a turnover from Russell Wilson on the game’s first play. However, they failed to take full advantage and their missed opportunities and crucial errors came back to bite them as the Seahawks rallied from a 10-point deficit to take their second conference crown since rejoining the NFC.
The 49ers battled hard but came up just short in another big game at the climax of the postseason. They will be desperate to get it done next season or risk joining the likes of the 2000’s Eagles and 1990’s Bills as consistently excellent teams that just couldn’t finish the deal.
For the Seahawks they have set up a Super Bowl between the two No. 1 seeds and a popular pick for the Super Bowl matchup from preseason. Their defense stood tall to minimize the impact of Wilson’s opening error and consistently came up with timely plays as their offense fought its way back into the game and eventually the lead through the second half.
Now headed for a mouth watering matchup with the league’s best offense, we’ve got two weeks to wait before the Seahawks have their shot at finishing off a special season in the Pacific Northwest.
San Francisco – Three Performances of Note
Starting Off Right
Heading into such a fevered atmosphere a big play early in the game is always a prime objective for the road team and the 49ers could barely have got one sooner than the one Aldon Smith provided for them. After Phil Dawson boomed the opening kickoff through the end zone to prevent the Seahawks from whipping the crowd up further with a big return, Smith stayed disciplined on the first snap from scrimmage. A rollout by Russell Wilson saw Smith capitalize on some sloppy ball security from the Seahawks’ signal caller to force and recover a fumble, setting up his offense in the red zone 10 seconds into the game.
Including that first sack, Smith turned his most productive game as a pass rusher in his playoff career (tied with two others) notching seven total pressures including two sacks. The spurned opportunities for Smith, though, came in the running game where he missed a trio of tackles on Lynch, two of which would have been for losses had he been able to finish them.
Offense Comes Up Short
The narrative for this game might revolve around Colin Kaepernick as the losing quarterback, but it would be unfair to focus on one player in what was a group struggle against a terrific defense. Kaepernick certainly made mistakes and there is no getting away from those errors, but he also made plays with both his arm and his legs to provide almost all of the impetus in the 49ers’ offensive display yesterday.
This was not the disastrous display from Week 2 in the same stadium, but at the end of the day he came up just short of (and let’s not forget this context in what he came up just shy of) a second straight trip to the biggest game of them all. There was no support on the ground with Frank Gore and the 49ers running game swamped by the Seahawks’ defense; the SF runners unable to come up with Marshawn Lynch-esque heroics to overcome the defensive penetration. The quartet of Gore, Kendall Hunter, Anthony Dixon and LaMichael James gained only 7 yards before first contact on 17 carries; less than half a yard per attempt.
In the end, injuries and the Seattle defense caught up with the 49er offense.
One More Big Play for Bowman
NaVorro Bowman’s season deserved a better ending than it got as he fell victim to a freak injury just as he made (though review rules prevented him from getting full credit) a play that contributed to a goal-line stand by the 49ers as the Seahawks were threatening to go up by two scores. As Jermaine Kearse spun away from fellow inside linebacker Patrick Willis, Bowman ripped the ball free from Kearse’s grasp which, even though he wasn’t credited with the recovery that he clearly appeared to have, prevented the Seahawk receiver from wriggling into the end zone.
Even on a night where he wasn’t a real force working off of blocks and driving to the line of scrimmage (picked up a few times on second level blocks by the Seahawks’ guards) Bowman still found a way to register six defensive stops. His stop and forced fumble to end his participation in the game helped ensure an overall grade of +1.0 or above for the fifth time in his last six games. We can only join all football fans in wishing him a full recovery and see if he can pick up where he left off when he returns to the field.
Seattle – Three Performances of Note
Lynch Rolls Again
The furore over Richard Sherman’s post-game interview has rather stolen a little of this great game’s thunder and with it another special playoff performance from Seattle’s offensive MVP, Marshawn Lynch. Just a week after breaking 13 tackles to take the Seahawks past the Saints, Lynch again proved tough to bring down notching just shy of 5 yards per carry against the usually stingy 49er defense which included 3.8 yards per carry after first contact.
His 40-yard score taking advantage of some uncharacteristically poor angles and discipline from the San Francisco run defense sparked Seattle back into the game when the 49ers were making it difficult for the Seahawks to do that. His seven missed tackles as a runner take his season total as a runner to 95 and his all-around total past the century mark, a scarcely believable marker which he has one more opportunity to extend. Turning it up when it counts, Lynch notched his sixth straight positive rushing grade last night and his 12th in the Seahawks’ last 14 games, tremendous consistency.
Bringing the Heat off the Right Side
The setup of Seattle’s defense is such that you’re never quite sure where the big performances are going to come from, but this week followed the recent trend of the big pass rushing games coming from the offense’s right flank. Of their 16 defensive pressures 11 came from the trio of Michael Bennett (+3.1 pass rush), Cliff Avril (+2.8 pass rush) and Clinton McDonald (+1.6), with only two of those 11 pressures coming against anyone to the left of 49ers’ center Jonathan Goodwin.
Bennett has made a habit this season of making his presence known with big plays as interior pass rusher but he was limited to only two hurries from the inside this time out. However, that didn’t stop him from making his presence felt off the edge registering a strip sack from a defensive end position midway through the third quarter — an effort Cliff Avril matched while pursuing Colin Kaepernick in the right flat just less than five minutes into the fourth.
With McDonald providing the pass rushing presence from the inside again this week, the Seahawks laid out the shared responsibility of their pass rush. Up against Louis Vazquez, Orlando Franklin and the Broncos’ quick-release offense in two weeks, it will be fascinating to see how and when the duo of Avril and Bennett in particular can have an impact.
Run D Strong on the Edge
One of the key facets of the San Francisco 49ers’ ground attack is sealing an edge defender and bringing power around the corner with pulling blockers. While the loss of their top two fullbacks shouldn’t be discounted as a factor in their struggles, two men who walk away with great credit for their hard work in shutting down San Francisco’s running game yesterday are Red Bryant and Chris Clemons.
Bryant’s terrific work has come to be expected and if you are going to leave him unblocked as the 49ers did mid way through the first quarter, then a failed run attempt is an inevitable outcome. Perhaps the unexpected contributor of the two, however, Clemons was a persistent nuisance and took advantage of the 49ers trying to take care of him predominantly with tight ends as he controlled those encounters against the likes of Vance McDonald and Vernon Davis.
Clemons hasn’t been a big contributor as a pass rusher for a while now (only one sack and one hit since Week 8), but he has rarely been a weakness or a target point for opposing ground games and he timed his highest-graded game of run defense since 2010 extremely well.
– The 49ers’ 11 missed tackles on defense last night was only their third time in double figures this season and their most (11 MTs also vs Indianapolis in Week 3) since Week 1 last season when they missed a dozen in Green Bay.
– Kam Chancellor set a season high with five defensive stops and in his last six games has notched 20 of his 37 stops for the season.
– In his first action since the last Seahawks-49ers game, K.J. Wright played 16 snaps, eight each in run defense and pass coverage registering one stop but also missing Colin Kaepernick on a 12-yard scramble in the second quarter.
PFF Game Ball
Over 100 yards against the 49ers’ stifling run defense Marshawn Lynch was once again the engine powering the Seahawks’ offense breaking tackles and grinding out yards after contact to keep the offense moving forward.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.