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Beat Writer Breakdown: 49ers vs. Seahawks

Posted Jan 15, 2014

Beat writers of the 49ers and Seahawks break down the key matchups and storylines for Sunday's NFC Championship game.

The San Francisco 49ers are set to face the Seattle Seahawks for a third time this Sunday in the NFC Championship game.

We look at some of the key storylines, matchups and players to watch this week by welcoming Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com to answer three key questions on Sunday’s 49ers-Seahawks playoff matchup.

GALLERY: Kaepernick vs. Wilson

1. What do the Seahawks need to do best to beat the 49ers?

A: Win on third downs. It has been a problem for the offense during the past five games, when the Seahawks have converted 19 of 65 third-down situations. That’s 29 percent, and that’s just not good enough. It has prevented them from sustaining drives, which has limited the number of plays they’ve been able to run, which has taken them out of their offense – not just off the field. Three times in the past five games, the Seahawks have run fewer than 60 offensive plays (50 against the 49ers, 51 against the Cardinals and 56 against the Saints). Granted, they’ve played four Top 10 defenses during this stretch. But they have to be better on Sunday. The Seahawks are all about running the ball to setup the play-action passing game for Russell Wilson. Marshawn Lynch broke out of a six-game slump where he had not rushed for 100 yards with his 140-yard performance in the playoff win over the Saints. But Wilson has had only one 200-yard passing game during this stretch, and that was just barely (206 against the Giants). He is completing 57 percent of a passes (68 of 120), averaging 157.6 passing yards and has four TD passes and three interceptions. As with the third-down conversion percentage, that’s just not good enough.

2. Which individual matchup will be most key in the 49ers-Seahawks rubber match?

A: I’ll go with a unit, rather than one player, and it has to be the 49ers’ linebackers. It will start with the line’s ability to deal with NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis, who are so good at clogging the lanes that Lynch likes to exploit and also capable of applying pressure up the middle on Wilson. I tried to limit the topic to those two in talking to Pete Carroll, but he expanded it to include Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith. Just one more reason why he’s coaching team and I’m writing about it. The pressure Brooks and Smith can generate will force Wilson to spin and whirl to avoid them, which plays into the 49ers’ strength – the mobility and playmaking ability of those linebackers. As Carroll put it, “When we evaluate their defense, the great strength they have is their four linebackers are really fantastic. That’s really the heart of the problem is those four guys.”

3. How have the Seahawks accounted for the loss of Brandon Browner?

A: Quite well. When Browner went out with a groin injury, the Seahawks went to nickel back Walter Thurmond. When Thurmond was suspended for four games by the league, there was a collective gulp and they went with Byron Maxwell, who had played in 18 games in his first two seasons and mostly on special teams. Just as Browner was getting healthy, he also was suspended by the NFL. But as the third-option starter on the right side – opposite All-Pro Richard Sherman – Maxwell has played beyond expectations. It started with his goal-line interception of a Colin Kaepernick pass in his second NFL start in Week 14. Maxwell added two more the following week against the Giants, and a fourth in the season finale against the Rams – a game the Seahawks had to win to avoid allowing the 49ers to capture the division. Maxwell is not as physical as Browner (who is?), but he is better in coverage, especially downfield. Maxell has played so well that Thurmond has been limited to playing as the nickel or dime corner since his return.

In addition, I’ve also answered three 49ers-related questions on the upcoming game for Seahawks.com.

1. How have the 49ers changed from the team that played at CenturyLink Field in Week 2?

Michael Crabtree’s presence has sparked the entire 49ers roster. The return of the play-making, yards-after-the-catch-creating, fifth-year wideout has given a boost to the entire team, not just the offense. The 49ers are 7-0 with Crabtree back in the fold. In those games, Crabtree has opened up opportunities for San Francisco’s other offensive weapons, Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and Frank Gore. Because the 49ers have a formidable one-two punch on the perimeter, defenses are no longer able to roll coverage to one side of the field or stack the box to stop the team’s multiple running schemes. Furthermore, when the offense is able to produce 10-play scoring drives, it keeps San Francisco’s defensive fresh throughout the game. You could surely point to other aspects of the team improving since Week 2: things like solid special teams production, the offensive line playing as one of the top mauling units in the NFL or even the decision-making of Colin Kaepernick becoming more prudent as the season has evolved. All of those things have contributed to the recent run of success since Week 2. But when I sit here and evaluate the 49ers heading into CenturyLink on Sunday, Crabtree’s production and presence is what looms the largest. Kaepernick seems even more comfortable with single-covered weapons and the team is thriving off the clutch catches from Crabtree, who tore his Achilles in late May.

2. Which matchup is most key in the Seahawks-49ers rubber match?

So many to choose from, but I will bypass the low-hanging fruit and go with Brooks vs. Breno Giacomini. Brooks, a 2013 Pro Bowl selection, has 4.5 sacks in San Francisco’s two playoff games, the most in the NFL this postseason. He continues to find ways to disrupt opposing offenses. In last week’s win over the Panthers, Brooks lined up as an inside linebacker in a new goal-line scheme and stuffed Cam Netwon on a fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak. Brooks also added 2.5 sacks on Newton for good measure. The 49ers recorded five sacks on the day and held the Panthers scoreless in the second half. Aldon Smith was unable to sack Newton last week, but he still stands as one of the most disruptive pass-rushers in the NFL today. He’ll have a challenging matchup against left tackle Russell Okung, as will Brooks against  right tackle Giacomini. But when you consider the relentless play Brooks has been playing with in two posteason games, I think that matchup on the right side of the could have a big say in determining the rubber-match winner. If Brooks is unable to sack Russell Wilson, he’ll still have to keep containment on that side of the field and not allow Wilson to escape, buy time or become a run-pass threat.

3. How much confidence are the 49ers playing with after winning their past three games on the road to run their winning streak to eight in a row?

To steal a Jim Harbaugh saying, the team is “loose and focused.” I’d say the 49ers have certainly bonded from their road-warrior mentality. Spending so much time in airplanes, hotels and buses continues to keep this group close. From my vantage point, the locker room has been upbeat and confident throughout the postseason. I’ve never seen Harbaugh as giddy as he was following the Wild Card win in Green Bay. He was hugging reporters. No, that’s not a typo. Winning on the frozen tundra and beating an Aaron Rodgers-led Packers team in less than ideal conditions was a major victory for this 49ers team. It spoke volumes about their mental toughness and ability to execute in challenging circumstances. Last week’s win in Carolina was not the same type of atmosphere, but it offered another glimpse into the competitive makeup of this team. The 49ers were up 6-0, quickly lost the lead, but rallied to score 17 unanswered points on the road. The crowd was silenced after scoring drives of 12, eight and 13 plays helped the road team mount a 23-10 advantage. Now I don’t foresee Seattle’s home crowd ever quieting into a hush, but I do think this recent run of road success will keep San Francisco in the fight for all 60 minutes unlike in Week 2. 


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