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NFC Championship Preview: The Game We All Wanted

The 49ers have revenge on their minds as they head to Seattle for another epic showdown

If you showed game tape of San Francisco’s performances in Seattle over the past two years to this 49ers team, I’m not sure they would recognize themselves onscreen. The 49ers got their revenge for two Pacific Northwest blowouts at the hands of the Seahawks with a 19-17 win in Week 14, giving Colin Kaepernick his first victory against Russell Wilson. In his two road starts against Wilson, though, Kaepernick had been outscored by a combined 71-16 margin, with those two games representing Kaepernick’s two largest losses since taking the starting gig from Alex Smith last year. Now, in the NFC Championship Game, Kaepernick and his team have an even bigger goal in mind: to prove they’re the better team of these two NFC West juggernauts by winning in Seattle’s cauldron of noise. Oh, and if they pull that off, they can knock an even bigger item off their to-do list by making a return trip to the Super Bowl.

It’s easy to conflate those two losses with games that the Niners had no hope of winning, but after being blown out from just about the beginning of the first Kaepernick-Wilson matchup in Seattle last year, they were actually competitive for most of the rematch in Week 2 this season, really only collapsing early in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, in Kaepernick’s first win over the Seahawks last month, the game basically came down to Frank Gore beating Earl Thomas on one snap late in the fourth quarter. It was that close.

That would seem to suggest that the Seahawks should be comfortable favorites in this game; with that being said, that’s not really the case. I would be lying if I didn’t say that it feels like the 49ers are playing their best football of the season, and while that’s usually just nonsense, San Francisco is on an eight-game winning streak that has seen it welcome key contributors like Michael Crabtree and Aldon Smith back into the fold. It just outmuscled the 12-4 Panthers in Carolina in what was probably the team’s most impressive win of the year.

The Seahawks, meanwhile, are in the middle of a relatively mild run. The fortress-like protection afforded them by their home turf slipped a bit after Seattle lost to Arizona in Week 16, leaving Wilson with his first home loss as a pro. Then, last week, Wilson’s offense scuffled in the drab weather against a prepared Saints defense for most of the first three quarters, allowing the Saints to hold on and make what should have been a finished game a contest in the fourth quarter. If you believe in that stuff, it would be hard to argue anything besides the idea that San Francisco is trending up and Seattle is trending down right now.

Of course, it takes one game to stop all that. And this might very well be that game. Let’s start by figuring out what San Francisco can do to stop its string of miserable trips up north.

Take on Them

At their best, the 49ers are physically dominant on both sides of the football, especially at the line of scrimmage, where they win on a seemingly weekly basis. They mix ruthless efficiency with the occasional big play, often a takeaway, as they consistently come up on the right side of the turnover margin. Well, the 49ers gave the ball away five times during their last trip to Seattle, which is pretty scary considering they’ve turned the ball over only four times during this eight-game winning streak.

If you want to start forecasting a 49ers upset in Seattle this weekend, you might as well start by predicting they’ll win the turnover battle. The 49ers did come up with a rare victory while losing said turnover battle against the Packers in the wild-card round, but that brings their record in games with a negative turnover margin under Jim Harbaugh to just 2-9. They’re 39-4-1 under Mr. Walmart Khakis1 when they win the turnover battle. They tied Seattle with one turnover apiece when the 49ers beat Wilson & Co. in San Francisco last month, but to be fair, Seattle’s giveaway came on what amounted to a Hail Mary attempt by Wilson with 21 seconds left. The 49ers will probably need to force a turnover in the first 59 minutes and 40 seconds of the game on Sunday to come away with a trip to New York.

Of the two, it will likely be easier for San Francisco to force a takeaway from Wilson’s offense than it will be for Kaepernick & Co. to avoid turning the ball over to the Seahawks. Seattle had the league’s fifth-lowest giveaway rate this year, but as I wrote last week, it forced turnovers on 20.1 percent of opposing possessions, the highest rate in football. San Francisco has done a good job protecting the football, as it has the fourth-lowest giveaway rate in the league, with 9.4 percent of its possessions resulting in turnovers. No team threw fewer interceptions than San Francisco’s eight, all from Kaepernick, although that is also affected by the 49ers having the fewest pass attempts in football this year.

Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers

Red, Red Whine

The problem hasn’t simply been that San Francisco turned the football over in its games against Seattle; it’s where they’ve offered up those giveaways, too. In his three starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has thrown a total of five interceptions. Even worse, three of those interceptions have been picked off either in the Seattle end zone or on the Seattle 1-yard line, taking scoring opportunities off the board for the 49ers, often while they still had a chance to compete. It’s not typically a problem for Kaepernick, who has three picks against two touchdowns in the red zone against Seattle … and 24 touchdowns against one interception in the red zone against the rest of the league.2

Look at the two picks from this season and you see a talented passer making young quarterback mistakes. In Seattle, Kaepernick has a brief window of opportunity to hit an open Vernon Davis in the end zone for a score, but it’s a window that is basically daring Kaepernick to try to squeeze one through. If he was staring at Davis the moment he came free and happened to be on the same side of the field as his tight end, Kaepernick could probably fit this through for a score. As it were, Kaepernick was standing near the opposite hash and saw Davis a moment after he came free; by the time the ball is released, Walter Thurmond is able to drive on the route and knee the ball up in the air for Earl Thomas to nab as an easy pick.

Then, in the win over Seattle in the Bay Area, Kaepernick gives away a red zone possession with an underthrown pass to Crabtree. Watch the play and you can understand what Kaepernick was thinking. He has a one-on-one matchup with Crabtree against the weakest member of the opposing secondary, Byron Maxwell, which becomes clear when Kam Chancellor tries to hop into the flat on that side. It’s the right idea. Maxwell might not be an All-Pro candidate like the other guys in his defensive backfield, but he’s still a Pete Carroll cornerback, which means he’s awfully good. Here, he plays the pass perfectly, shielding Crabtree away from the football while turning at exactly the right time to make a play on the pass. It’s a shockingly easy interception. Kaepernick needs to put this ball on the pylon, in a place where only Crabtree is going to have a chance at making the catch. If it’s an overthrow, well, it’s first-and-10 in the third quarter of a two-point game; he’ll get another chance. Instead, the 49ers leave a likely three points on the field.

And then, it’s not just the turnovers on the offensive side; the 49ers have been strangely generous with the Seattle offense on the opposite side of the football, too. Seattle and San Francisco have identical performances in the red zone this year on offense, scoring 5.0 points per trip. They differ on defense; the Seattle defense has allowed a league-best 3.7 points per red zone possession, while San Francisco is a respectable 11th at 4.63 points per trip.

The biggest difference between these teams in the first three Kaepernick-Wilson matchups has been what they’ve done in the red zone. They’ve each made it to town about as frequently as the other; Seattle has made 11 red zone trips3 in its three games against Kaepernick, while San Francisco has 10 trips in those three games. The difference? Seattle has averaged a whopping 5.9 points per red zone trip, which would be the best red zone scoring rate in football over a full season, thanks to eight touchdowns and three field goals. San Francisco, meanwhile, has put up an average of just 2.6 points across its 10 red zone trips, which would be nearly a point and a half worse than Jacksonville’s league-worst figure of 4.0 points per red zone possession. And that’s without docking the Niners an extra seven points for when they kicked on fourth-and-goal from the 3-yard line in the first half of last year’s game and had Red Bryant block the kick before Richard Sherman took it the length of the field for a fumble return touchdown.4 The 49ers just have to do better in the red zone on both sides of the football to have a good shot at winning this game.

New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks

The Shermanator

Sherman, of course, is the thorn in San Francisco’s side and the guy who signifies the divide between these two franchises. He’s the Harbaugh product from Stanford who had to leave the nest and go to finishing school in Seattle, where Carroll is secretly one of the best defensive back coaches in football. If you didn’t read Chris Brown’s wonderful piece yesterday on Carroll, the Seahawks, and their defensive scheme, go do that now and come back.

Welcome back. Don’t you feel smarter now? Anyway, Sherman has tormented the 49ers and been used in a number of different ways to help defeat them. In the Kaepernick-Wilson game last year, his most notable impact was on that blocked field goal, although he also chipped in with an interception and four pass deflections, matching the output of the entire 49ers defense in those categories.

During the first game between these two teams in 2013, the Seahawks got away from the traditional Cover 3 scheme (described by Brown in yesterday’s piece) by Sherman’s request. With opposite cornerback Brandon Browner injured and Anquan Boldin coming off a 208-yard game against the Packers in the season opener, Sherman famously asked Carroll to let him shadow Boldin all across the field throughout the contest, which he then executed with aplomb, as Boldin finished Week 2 with just a lone seven-yard catch to his name.

The Seahawks could get away with that in Week 2 without worrying too much about the consequences because the other starting San Francisco wideout was Kyle Williams, who was cut by the organization in November. By the time the rematch rolled around in Week 14, Williams had been replaced by Crabtree, and the Seahawks couldn’t leave Sherman on Boldin. They reverted back to their typical Cover 3, with Sherman lining up to the right side of the offense and a rotation of Maxwell and Jeremy Lane lining up on the left side.

You can probably guess where Kaepernick went with his throws. Twenty-two of his 28 passes were thrown to the left side of the field, with Kaepernick going 11-of-22 for 127 yards with a touchdown and an interception on those passes. He threw one incomplete pass over the middle, and finished up by going 4-of-6 for 48 yards to the right side of the field, where Sherman lurked. That included a 27-yard bomb to Boldin against Sherman that basically saw them wrestle for seven seconds until Boldin happened to turn around and use his body to shield Sherman from a lob. Otherwise, the 49ers played on one of the few weaknesses of that Cover 3 by making Sherman honor the speed of their receivers downfield before curling and coming back to the football for short catches. Maxwell and Lane knocked away a combined six passes, and Maxwell picked off that goal-line pass, but they also each committed penalties that resulted in first downs.

Expect to see a roughly similar game plan for the 49ers’ passing game on Sunday. There’s just not much to be gained from testing Sherman, and while the occasional eight-yard comeback to keep him honest will keep the 49ers on schedule, it’s not going to be the thing that makes or breaks this game. They’ll need to complete passes on Maxwell, who has kept his starting job on the opposite corner block, and now-backup Thurmond, who will split time with Maxwell and play as the third corner. Crabtree went missing a week ago in the win at Carolina, but Boldin had a huge game against rookie free agent Melvin White. This week, given Seattle’s bigger, stronger cornerbacks, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the roles were reversed and Crabtree’s speed was played up.

Seattle might also get linebacker K.J. Wright back from the broken foot he suffered the last time these two teams played, a move that would help both against the run and in terms of slowing down Davis in coverage. To be honest, it’s hard to find a place where it’s safe to throw against Seattle. What is clear is that you want to avoid the outside, where Sherman and Maxwell will catch passes for money. On passes outside the numbers, opposing quarterbacks have posted a 34.2 QBR against Seattle, the worst figure in the league. That’s also important to remember for Wilson, since San Francisco’s 40.9 QBR on throws against them in those same spots is the second-toughest in football. Seattle had plenty of success going over the middle to the right side of the field last time out, including two big catches on deep crossing routes by backup tight end Luke Willson, producing 68 yards and a touchdown in the process.

The more important matchup might be the collision between last week’s heroes. The Seattle front four had another excellent game against the New Orleans offense, with Michael Bennett — perhaps the defensive MVP of these playoffs so far, with Kaepernick as the offensive MVP — laying waste to Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans. It will be matched up against San Francisco’s offensive line, which bounced back from a dismal regular-season showing against the Carolina front four by producing a dominant display, keeping Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson off Kaepernick’s back all day while creating running lanes for Frank Gore & Co. And hey, speaking of …

Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Green Bay Packers

Gore! Gore! Gore!

The 49ers, to be honest, would be happier just running the ball 40 times and throwing it on 15 play-action passes. If the game works out that way, it’s because the Niners got out to an early lead and kept running to pick up chunks of yardage while killing clock. A run-heavy game plan does make sense against Seattle unless (until?) you get behind by a couple of scores, because it’s the relative weak link of the Seattle defense. The Seahawks’ linemen are versatile and — as Brown mentioned yesterday — have an imaginative hybrid one-gap/two-gap scheme, but most were signed for their ability to rush the passer, including Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons. Seattle would love to line up Avril, Clemons, Bruce Irvin (moving down from linebacker), and Bennett on third-and-long and dare you to try to block them with six. It doesn’t work very well. When you’re running the ball well, Seattle can’t get in that front.

While Seattle’s a relatively consistent team, the one aspect of its performance that really seems to oscillate wildly from week to week is its run defense. Here are its performances over the past 10 games:

The frustrating thing is that it’s not something consistent, in which the Seahawks have poor games against great rushing attacks and play well against the bad ones. They played both the Saints and Rams twice over this time frame, and their performances from game to game against those teams were wildly inconsistent, too. The one missing piece of good news is that the Seahawks just don’t allow rushing touchdowns; when Khiry Robinson plunged in from a yard out last week, it was the first rushing touchdown Seattle had allowed since October 17. It hasn’t allowed anybody all season to score on a run longer than three yards. A challenge for you, Mr. Gore?

The Niners averaged 4.9 yards per carry the last time these two teams played, even with star 49ers guard Mike Iupati out of the lineup and replaced by utility lineman Adam Snyder. That being said, most of those yards came on one play, the 51-yard run by Gore in the fourth quarter that set up the game-winning field goal from Phil Dawson. That run came after a third-and-1 plunge by fullback Bruce Miller, which extended a 49ers drive after a similar Miller plunge earlier in the game was stuffed. After Gore’s big run, the 49ers ran the ball twice before picking up a third-and-7 with Kaepernick running the famous 49ers quarterback sweep left — which Smith ran in for a touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs after the 2011 season — narrowly picking up the first down and allowing Dawson to try his field goal with about 30 seconds to go in the contest.

That 51-yard run is gorgeous to watch, especially if you’re a 49ers fan or someone who loves downfield blocking. The 49ers get four men through the line of scrimmage to the second level to block, notably right guard Alex Boone, who shows off his freakish athleticism by getting five yards downfield in what appears to be two strides. The four downfield blockers manage to seal everyone off, with Chancellor overrunning the play and getting blocked out of it by his own man.

The defender of last resort is the center fielder, All-World safety Earl Thomas. I’ve said glowing things about Thomas this year and I don’t regret them. But, given the high leverage, this was his worst play of the year. Thomas got flat-footed at just the wrong time, almost exactly as Gore made his cut and headed upfield. Gore is not going to win many footraces with Thomas in 2013 (or 2014), but Gore with a head of steam running in one direction is going to beat a totally still Thomas facing the other direction just about every time. Most safeties probably dive here to make a desperate lunge at a tackle, but I don’t think Thomas would have been able to stop him, dive or no dive. The 49ers had a 55 percent chance of winning this game before the Gore run; by the time he went down on the Seattle 18-yard line, the Niners’ chances had improved to 82 percent. Tip your cap to Gore. Even the best get beat sometimes. Just don’t expect it to happen again; this was the longest run Seattle allowed by nearly 20 yards, and the Seahawks allowed just five other runs of 20 yards or more all season.5

Divisional Playoffs - New Orleans Saints v Seattle Seahawks

Rush Hour

I hadn’t really seen much of a Wilson backlash until the past few weeks, when his presence as a downballot MVP candidate and All-Pro option started to create rumblings that he was a product of his great defense and running game. You know, like he’s a short Mark Sanchez or something. It’s a silly argument that takes about 30 seconds to rip apart. Wilson contributes as a runner (which adds to his cumulative value); he does a ton in terms of improvising and creating plays out of nothing, especially on third down (without also including the heavy turnover rate that a guy like Tony Romo does as part of his improvisational package); and he’s had to play for most of the season without his two best linemen (Russell Okung and Max Unger) and his two best wide receivers (Percy Harvin and Sidney Rice). If you think Wilson is the fifth-best quarterback in football and not the second-best, that’s fine. If you think he’s the 15th-best quarterback in football or something like that, you’re probably not cut out for player analysis.

Some fuel was poured on that fire when Wilson and the Seattle passing offense had a disappointing day against the Saints, especially after Harvin went out with a concussion. Wilson did little, going 9-of-18 for 103 yards, and he missed on a couple of slants thrown behind his receivers,6 but it seems likely that he was as affected by the subpar weather conditions in Seattle as Drew Brees was.7 I suspect that he’ll be back to his usual self as a passer this week. Getting Harvin back would be nice, but at the moment, it looks like he’ll be unable to go Sunday. 

Regardless of how Wilson is throwing the football, just the threat of him getting out on the edge and making plays terrifies the Niners. Normally, you think about that in terms of the zone-read, which Seattle used with some success, especially toward the end of the 2012 season. Against the Niners, the Seahawks have mostly used the threat of Wilson running to the edge as part of their play-action package, with Wilson lining up under center and bootlegging to his right after faking a handoff to Marshawn Lynch.

In a way, what then happens is the traditional play-action narrative spun backward; instead of the run setting up the play-action, the threat of the play-action sets up the run. Take Lynch’s 11-yard touchdown run against the Niners during the last game these two played. You can watch the play here, but you can check out the dilemma the 49ers face in stopping the run in the GIF below:

As you can see from Troy Aikman’s trusty telestrator, Ahmad Brooks is stuck. His responsibility is to ensure that Wilson can’t just run play-action and bootleg off to the sideline with the opportunity to either find an open receiver or run into the end zone himself. Brooks honors that responsibility by staying wide and setting the edge. Unfortunately for him, Wilson has no designs on play-action; he just hands the ball to Lynch, whose cutback lane happens to go right through the gap that Brooks would otherwise be sealing if he weren’t afraid that Wilson would take off with the football. The result is an 11-yard touchdown run where the Niners did exactly what they were supposed to do and still got burned.

The Seahawks will hope for a better game from left tackle Russell Okung than the one they got in Week 14. Hell, Okung will hope for a better game than the ones he’s had against the 49ers this year. In the first game between these two teams, Okung suffered a toe injury on the first series after the hour-long weather delay8, and it kept him out for the next eight weeks. Then, during the first half of the second game this year, he committed a holding penalty, got pushed back into Wilson by Aldon Smith on the opening play from scrimmage, and gave up a sack on a twist stunt from Ray McDonald. Okung is still not back to 100 percent and won’t be until after the season is over, but the Seahawks will need him to resemble his usual self. Smith doesn’t quite look like the terror of 2011-12 since returning from rehab, but he does manage to look like his old self for a couple of series per game, during which he is mostly unblockable.

It All Comes Down To …

Execution. It doesn’t quite take a perfect game to beat the Seahawks in Seattle — remember that the Cardinals managed to do it while overcoming Carson Palmer’s four interceptions — but you need to do something really well on both sides of the ball to build a meaningful game plan towards victory. For Arizona, that was running the ball effectively and playing incredible pass defense. It’s not unreasonable to imagine San Francisco following that path to a win. It just seems a little more reasonable to see Seattle’s own stifling pass defense and excellent running game holding up, too, with one big play against somebody like frequent playoff target Donte Whitner coming up as the difference between these two teams.

Filed Under: NFL, Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49Ers, Colin Kaepernick, Michael Crabtree, Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson, Bill Barnwell

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell

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