The Seattle Seahawks come into this week’s game against the San Francisco 49ers looking to secure a spot in the playoffs.
With a win, the 49ers would take the NFC West division title. But with a 6-0 record at home, the Seahawks look to force San Francisco into beating the Arizona Cardinals at home next week.
Both teams come into this game looking significantly different on offense. In their Week 7 meeting, Russell Wilson had improved from previous weeks, but several dropped passes plagued the offense. For San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick was still on the bench behind Alex Smith.
Seattle’s defense comes into the game with the disadvantage of not having played against Kaepernick and his zone-read offense. Of course, the Seahawks defense has the fortune of practicing against their own quarterback who’s also having success with it.
One big question for the Seahawks is who will be starting in their secondary come Sunday, and it might just be the key to the game on Sunday.
Golden Tate: Catching the Football
It wasn’t just Golden Tate dropping key passes against the 49ers in the previous matchup; Robert Turbin had a sure touchdown fall through his hands on the Seahawks’ opening drive.
Tate failed to catch a single pass in the Seahawks’ first meeting with San Francisco—the only game this season it has happened.
When receivers begin to get more concerned about the physical style of defense the 49ers play rather than catching the ball, we see what happened in San Francisco. Seattle receivers have only 19 dropped passes this year, but four of those came against the 49ers.
Another stat to keep in mind: The Seahawks are 5-0 when Tate catches a touchdown.
The 12th Man: Bringing the Noise
There’s one thing Alex Smith has going for him over Colin Kaepernick. He has demonstrated he can play through the noise at CenturyLink Field and win.
There’s no doubt Jim Harbaugh has prepared Kaepernick for it this week, but even veterans like Tony Romo, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady struggled in Seattle this year. Brady did throw for nearly 400 yards, but also threw two interceptions.
Younger quarterbacks like Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, John Skelton and Ryan Lindley played terribly at CenturyLink.
The 49ers are going to have to jump out on the Seahawks early and by a significant margin to have any hope at quieting the 12th Man.
K.J. Wright and the Seahawks’ Linebackers
In their previous matchup, the Seahawks secondary forced the 49ers to throw a lot of short passes. Seattle’s linebackers weren’t effective in coverage and the 49ers took advantage.
Alex Smith was 7-of-8 when throwing short over the middle and 12-of-13 on all passes under nine yards. The 49ers threw at K.J. Wright five times, Bobby Wagner twice and Leroy Hill only once.
Where the 49ers really had success was after the catch; of 81 total yards, their receivers picked up 63 after the catch against the three linebackers on eight plays.
It’s going to be important that the Seahawks get a solid game out of Wright if they’re going to pick up a win.
Keep Feeding Marshawn Lynch
This should go without saying. Marshawn Lynch is second in the league only to Adrian Peterson and is averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
In their matchup in Week 7, Lynch ran for 103 yards on 19 carries.
Even with Lynch going over the 100-yard rushing mark the last two weeks, it feels as if Lynch should be rested up having carried the ball only 10 times against the Bills and 11 times against the Cardinals.
He simply hasn’t had to fight for the tough yards these past few weeks. Seattle can’t expect the big holes to be there against this San Francisco defense. It’ll be back to pushing for every inch, but those are the situations in which Lynch always wants to excel.
Defending the Option
Not only do they have to be concerned with stopping Frank Gore, but this time around Colin Kaepernick plays a big role in the 49ers running game.
Kaepernick has averaged about 45 yards per game since coming off the bench. But 100 of his 268 yards over that stretch have come on two big runs.
In his Thursday press conference, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said that it’s going to come down to how well the Seahawks execute their fundamentals.
“It is difficult because they have a lot of different personnel groupings, and now with Kaepernick in there too, a lot of different elements with the option game off of it,” said Bradley. “It’s really going to come down to our fundamental principles that are going to come into play.”
Russell Wilson: Performing Under Pressure
Russell Wilson has been one of the most pressured quarterbacks in the league this season. Fortunately, he has an excellent sense of when the pressure is coming and has the ability to escape, look downfield and make big plays.
The 49ers have one of the best defensive lines in the league, but it may be affected by an injury to Justin Smith. Though Jim Harbaugh said earlier this week that he expects him to be on the field against the Seahawks (ESPN.com), his arm injury could make him less effective.
With the fast, swarming defense the 49ers have, Wilson may not have the same success as in recent weeks. But the improvement he’s shown since Week 7 should slow down San Francisco and offer more opportunities than were available in the previous matchup.
Special Teams Coverage: Ted Ginn, Jr.
Between Jon Ryan and the Seahawks special teams, opposing teams only have eight yards worth of punt return yardage over the last six games. Five of those yards came on two returns by Arizona’s Patrick Peterson, one of the best return men in the league.
In the Seahawks previous matchup with the 49ers, Ted Ginn, Jr. returned three punts for 70 yards.
In 2011, Ginn had a punt and kick return for a touchdown against the Seahawks.
Against the Patriots, LaMichael James showed he can give the 49ers a big boost in the kick return game when necessary. If the Seahawks are going to win, they’re going to have to make sure they don’t give San Francisco a short field.
Focusing on Third Down on Offense and Defense
On offense the Seahawks and 49ers are both right around the middle of the pack, succeeding on 37 and 36 percent of their third down plays, respectively.
While the Seahawks may have a slight edge there, the defensive side of the ball is where they struggle most, whereas it is one of San Francisco’s strengths. The 49ers are holding their opponents to only 30 percent on third-down conversions, second only to the Houston Texans.
The Seahawks are allowing opposing offenses to convert 40 percent of the time. Just last week against the Bills they even allowed a conversion on 3rd-and-20—although it did take a spectacular catch by Steve Johnson.
Over the last four weeks, the Cardinals are the only opponent they’ve been able to hold below 30 percent on third-down conversions. The Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Buffalo Bills were all above 40.
Limiting penalties and getting into 3rd-and-short situations will be a bit part of the Seahawks’ success on offense against this stingy 49ers defense.
Cornerbacks: Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell
Walter Thurmond and Marcus Trufant sat out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday, Brandon Browner is out for his third-straight game for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing drugs, and Richard Sherman is scheduled to appeal his four-game suspension Friday.
Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today reported that Sherman sat out of practice today and the move was “non-injury related.” Most likely this is diligence by the team to make sure the younger guys are ready to play than a forecast of the appeal’s outcome.
Overall, there is not a lot of good news to report in regard to the Seattle secondary.
Unless all goes well with Sherman’s appeal and Thurmond and Trufant are able to practice on Friday, Jeremy Lane and Byron Maxwell will play a significant role against the 49ers along with cornerback Ron Parker.
How these young players show up in one of the biggest games of their careers will determine Seattle’s success on Sunday.
Stopping Frank Gore
Frank Gore’s best performance of the season came against the Seahawks this year. He averaged 8.2 yards per carry on his way to 131 yards. He had five receptions for 51 yards, which was also his best on the year.
Gore hasn’t had a 100-yard rushing performance since the two teams faced off in Week 7. One might think it has to do with Kaepernick running the ball more than Smith, but Gore has been averaging about 19 carries per game and less than five yards per carry.
Apart from their most recent game against San Francisco, the Seahawks have done well at containing Gore. They’ll need to get back to that this week.
A big factor is going to be whether Alan Branch will play. Branch injured his ankle in last week’s win and coaches will likely find out at Friday’s practice (Seahawks.com) if he’s going to be able to play. If Branch makes it into the lineup, expect Gore and the 49ers to test him early.
With the Seahawks defense giving up just over 100 yards per game, they’ll be doing well if they can combine to hold both Gore and Kaepernick to that number.