Former 49ers linebacker and now 49ers Radio Network Analyst Gary Plummer is back with his latest Points of the Game column. This week, Plummer recaps the previous meeting between these two NFC West opponents and points out some of the keys to getting a win this time around.
The first thing that comes to mind when you think of the last meeting between the 49ers and the Seahawks was the poor pass protection by San Francisco. Six sacks in a half is almost unheard of in the NFL, and that's why the 49ers fell behind 13-0 in the first half.
Defensively, the Seahawks had 20 sacks in their four victories and only 3 sacks in the four losses. As their pass rush goes, their defense goes. They gave up only one rushing touchdown total in their four wins, but two rushing touchdowns in each of their losses. If there is ever a time for the 49ers to get their ground game on track, it is this week against the Seahawks. This is the team Frank Gore shredded twice last year. Obviously he didn't get on track that first game. It seemed like an area the 49ers could have exploited in that first game, but it just didn't happen. They are a little undersized in the middle as is, and defensive end Patrick Kerney was hurt in the last game against the Browns and had to leave the game. That would be a huge advantage for the 49ers to run the football, because his back up, Baraka Atkins, is a rookie.
The 49ers obviously have to contend and handle linebacker Julian Peterson. He comes from everywhere. There was one blown assignment in that earlier game on a play where Jim Hostler called a max protect, which was a formation with the tight end and a running back in the backfield to help block along with the five offensive linemen. You would assume as the quarterback you are going to have a lot of time to throw the ball because you don't see teams normally bring more than seven guys. In fact, rarely do you even see teams bring more than six guys. So you have to assume that the quarterback is going to have all day to throw the ball on that play, but Delanie Walker just completely missed his assignment and allowed Peterson to run untouched to the quarterback.
So the first thing for the 49ers is executing assignments. Peterson ran a few trick moves where he started at the outside linebacker position or defensive end and starts up the field and ended up between the guard/center gap. It's a simple twist, but he runs it very well and exploited the 49ers. Execution by the offensive line and the backs is going to be a key to the game.
Other changes to this game are that the team will have both Alex Smith and Vernon Davis playing on Monday.
Once Alex left the previous matchup with the shoulder injury, the Seahawks knew that Trent Dilfer wasn't the most mobile quarterback in the league, so they went after him with max blitzes. It doesn't happen a lot with Alex because you are going to see a lot of half rolls and bootlegs, and if the defense guesses wrong and blitzes inside and Alex is on a bootleg or roll out pass those blitzes will never get there. That makes you vulnerable to a big play down field. So the Seahawks will be less prone to bringing those all out blitzes against Alex.
Also, Vernon Davis has had two strong showings so what is going to start happening because of that recent effectiveness is teams are going to start double teaming him. You would think the Seahawks would do exactly that especially after last week when they gave the Browns tight end Kellen Winslow 11 catches for 125 yards. Vernon is going to watch that film and just salivate. But in the NFL, they understand it is a copycat league and the 49ers would look to go to that area. The Seahawks will recognize that and change things up, so having Vernon in there should give the other wide outs more opportunities.
Normally when a player has an opportunity to play against his former team, he gets jacked up. One bad thing that happened in the last meeting was that Trent Dilfer seemed almost like he was forcing the ball to Darrell Jackson to put it in the face of the Seahawks. There is a comfort level that has occurred between Alex Smith and Darrell Jackson, but he has also thrown the ball to Arnaz Battle and Vernon a lot longer, so that shouldn't be a problem. I think Alex will be able to spread the ball out a lot more.
Last week you saw the 49ers trying to get the other receivers more involved in the game. You had a wide open Walker and Bryan Gilmore. In those situations, you had the perfect play call, execution up front by the offensive line, execution by the wide receivers, and a lack of execution by the quarterback. It's not very often that you have the opportunity for a big play offensively. When that opportunity arises, you have to execute. That's got to be another key for the offense. They just have to set their jaw and decide to be the same team that dominated the line of scrimmage on offense. It looks like that was happening at times last week against the Falcons. It was great to see Larry Allen exhorting the offensive coaches on the sidelines to continue to run the ball. He was jacked up. I can remember that exact same attitude and posture from the offensive line last year, particularly two times last year against the Seahawks. They need to get that attitude back this week.
One thing that sticks out when you look at the Seattle offense is the decreased productivity from running back Shaun Alexander. He has been playing with a sprained wrist, and he's still wearing a brace which is affecting him as he has dropped a lot of balls. I think that's prevented them from throwing to him as they did in the past. He's also dealing with knee and ankle injuries right now.
Another issue for Seattle is that the offensive line hasn't performed as well as they have in the past. Although interestingly, they put Maurice Morris in quite a bit last week and he performed a lot better behind the same offensive line, running nine times for a 6.1 average against the Browns.
Still, it's not the same line as when Alexander set the touchdown record. The combination of Steve Hutchinson and Walter Jones was so dominant. They've changed a couple of guys on that line, so that comfort level of knowing where you could cut back to that left side or run power plays to that side is gone. Those guys were opening up big holes. Alexander is more of a glider who will run alongside the line of scrimmage, wait for the opening and then hit it. That just doesn't happen with this offensive line. Morris is a different kind of runner, more downhill. If the hole is between the guard and tackle on the right side, that's where he is going to run it. He's not waiting for a big hole to open up on the backside, which is where a lot of Alexander's big runs came from.
Another problem for Alexander is that Seattle's opening day full back, Mack Strong, had to retire earlier because of a neck injury. Obviously there is a comfort level between those guys. Those guys played together for Shaun's entire career, so that has something to do with his decreased productivity.
Personally, I hope Alexander does go instead of Morris, because he is banged up, hurt, and is not playing like the Shaun Alexander of two years ago.
As for Seattle's passing game, their best receiver in Deion Branch has a sprained foot and hasn't practiced this week. He will probably be a game time decision. D.J. Hackett played for the first time against Cleveland since the first week and caught a touchdown pass. The guy that had a great game last week was Bobby Engram who had 14 catches, so they have a lot of weapons whether Branch is in there or not.
The thing the 49ers are aware of is that Seattle's Mike Holmgren is frustrated with the run game. He had a tendency earlier in his career both with the Packers and Seahawks of throwing the ball too much. He liked a 60-40 pass to run ratio, and I could see him going back to that against the 49ers, especially if he is not confident with Alexander, especially given the emergence of Hackett and Engram.
If Walt Harris is not back again, you are going to see Shawntae Spencer starting and you will also see a lot of other 49ers defensive backs playing in this game because Holmgren will go with three, four and even five receiver sets.
Matt Hasselbeck has been the most consistent part of an inconsistent Seattle offense. He's a Pro Bowler, and if you allow him to sit back there, he will pick you apart. There was an article I read earlier where a writer interviewed Joe Montana. He said from his perspective, when he was in a rhythm, he wondered why defensive coordinators didn't go after him. Even if you don't get to the quarterback, you throw him off his rhythm by blitzing. I would say the 49ers have held pretty well in man to man coverage. You are paying Nate Clements a lot of money, so lock him man to man on somebody, double cover the other receiver(s), and just bring the house. Obviously you can't do that on every play, but when you do that it changes the mentality of your defense if you can get to a quarterback early. It just makes you more aggressive. When the 49ers were playing aggressive early in the year, they were playing well. They need to get back to that.
The special teams for the 49ers this year has been the one high point. When you get one portion of the team that plays well like the special teams, there is a pride factor. They don't want to be part of the problem. They want to be a part of the solution and they have done exactly that. I think this unit will welcome the challenge of facing a returner like Nate Burleson, who has returned a kick off and a punt for a touchdown. I don't think the 49ers have to worry because I have never seen it done better in terms of punt coverage. So many times when you have a guy punting the ball 50 yards as Andy Lee has done, you are not letting the punt cover team get down there to do their job because of out kicking the coverage. That's not the case for the 49ers as each week it seems like it is someone new who is stepping up and becoming the special teams standout. Keith Lewis had been doing a great job in that area, but has been out for a month, but the guys who have gone in for him have done a great job.
The one that was really fun to watch was Jason Hill. He hadn't played all season long, gets in there two weeks ago, and gets two special teams tackles. It is also rare to have a running back be your special teams tackle leaders like you have in Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson, but even last week in having to play a lot on offense, they still both contributed on special teams. The 49ers special teams unit has been fun to watch, and I expect them to be up for the Monday Night challenge.