When the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks renew their rivalry this Sunday at Candlestick Park, several key storylines will unfold in the regular season debut for both teams. 49ers.com will examine the key topics of every 49ers game in a weekly column titled, "Five Things." So to kick-off the 2011 regular season, let's take a look at five important factors for Sunday's NFC West matchup.
1. Stopping Gore
Frank Gore's eyes must light up when he sees Seattle on the schedule. But that's not quite the case according to Gore. "It doesn't matter who it is to me," Gore said. "I treat every game the same." Gore has respect for the Seahawks defense, but for whatever reason, the two-time Pro Bowl running back tends to have his best performances against the 49ers foes from the Pacific Northwest.
The seven-year veteran has averaged 127.6 yards from scrimmage against Seattle, the most by any player in the NFL since 2005 with a minimum of five games played. Gore wasn't aware of his high rushing average against Seattle, but added, "I hope I can get another one." Seattle will have to limit Gore's success in order to be victorious, and hope they can do so with the interior changes to the defense.
Former middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu was released by the team this offseason and remains unsigned. Fourth-year vet David Hawthorne takes his place in Seattle's starting lineup and will rely on the front push of stout defensive tackles Brandon Mebane and free agent acquisition Alan Branch, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals.
Perhaps what gives Gore the most confidence heading into Sunday is his respect for his new coaches. "We have a coaching staff ready to lead us and show us how it's supposed to be done. When you see that on the offensive side of the ball, when you get that belief in your coaching staff, knowing what they're talking about and seeing what they're talking about on film – that makes you want to play that much harder."
2. Quarterback Safety
Pass protection looms large in this opening regular season contest, but as 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman pointed out this week, scheme isn't as important as desire. "It's not what we know as coaches, it's what the players know and execute," he said. "Within the timeframe we've been together, it's more about execution and what the players can do and what they can execute."
Both teams experienced hardships in the preseason when it came to protecting their respective quarterbacks. The 49ers allowed 12 sacks compared to Seattle's nine. Clearly, not all of those sacks were given up by each team's respective first-team offensive lines, but both units are working in new starters. For the 49ers, free agent Jonathan Goodwin will make his first start for the 49ers at center, along with team's four remaining starters from 2010. The 49ers might not have to face Seattle's top pass rusher, defensive end Chris Clemons. The eighth-year veteran led the Seahawks with 11.0 sacks last season, but reportedly suffered an ankle injury during Thursday's walk-through and is listed as doubtful for Sunday.
For Seattle's offensive line, two rookies are currently listed as starters on the team's depth chart. First-round pick James Carpenter lines up at right tackle while third-round pick John Moffitt plays next to him at right guard. Waiver wire claim Breno Giacomini could start at right tackle, too. Free agent acquisition Robert Gallery is listed as doubtful and the starting left guard could miss the season opener.
3. Testing Browner
Seattle's defensive backfield has had a constant presence with nine-year veteran Marcus Trufant lining up each season for the team at left cornerback. This season, however, the Seahawks have added a newcomer opposite of Trufant, a player who hasn't enjoyed the same type of career stability. Brandon Browner, a 27-year-old journeyman, who's played mostly in the Canadian Football League, will make his first NFL start on Sunday.
49ers wideout Joshua Morgan sees Browner as a player who fits into Seattle's scheme and also presents a challenge to the 49ers receivers. "They've always had a good secondary – big and physical players," Morgan added. "It's going to be a tough task for us, but we're ready. That's why we work." Browner stands 6-foot-4 and could present an entertaining perimeter matchup if he were to defend a player like wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who stands 6-foot-3.
4. Whitner vs. Miller
Nothing brings more attention to a particular matchup than a tweet from one of the main participants. Earlier this week, new 49ers safety Donte Whitner singled out the challenge of facing Seahawks tight end Zach Miller. The two share the same agent, and Whitner was eager to face one of the league's top pass catchers in the first game of his 49ers career.
On Sept. 6, Whitner tweeted: "I'm looking forward to covering ZACH MILLER this Sunday. I hear that he's one of the best at his position. & they say I can't cover TE's." Days later, Whitner explained the comment. "I would say he's their 1-B (option), in terms of who they go to when they need a play. I look forward to being the guy who's covering him on that play."
At the age of 25, Miller ranks fifth among all NFL tight ends in receiving yards over the past three seasons. Limiting his production will be a key for Week 1. Seattle will also be without the services of John Carlson, who was placed on Injured Reserve because of a shoulder injury.
5. Limiting Leon
Leon Washington, Seattle's return specialist, totaled 222 return yards at Candlestick Park last season on Dec. 10. The 49ers have certainly not forgotten about his big day, which included a 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Rookie fullback Bruce Miller wasn't with the team last season, but was made well aware of Washington's performance in the team's special teams meetings this week. "We took a look at those films first to get that out of the way," the former college defensive end said. Miller, who could see time on the 49ers special teams coverage units, said the key to stopping Washington is to stay in cover lanes and maintaining leverage. "He's one of the best returners in football and keeping him contained is going to be one of the big keys for this week. We can't let him get loose on the returns."