Upon Further Review: 49ers Leave it Late
In a game that lived up to all the expectations heaped upon it in the week leading up to it, the 49ers used a dominating 11 play, 76 yard, nearly 6 minute drive to set up Phil Dawson’s chip shot field goal. While this W won’t shift the balance of power in the NFC – the Seahawks are still favorites to capture home field advantage – the victory is a confidence boost to a Niners team that had been embarrassed twice in a row against the Seahawks. Additionally, it’s a signal to the rest of the NFC that the 49ers will be one of the toughest outs in the playoffs.
In a game that featured two of the best defenses in the league, there was a noticeable lack of big plays. Besides Frank Gore’s 51-yard run late in the fourth quarter, the longest plays of the game were 39 and 27 yards. The 49ers struggled to get the run going for most of the game against the stout Seahawks front. However, in a game where neither team was going to runaway and hide, Greg Roman was able to stick with it. The 49ers ran 14 more offensive plays than the Seahawks, including 10 more runs. What was key was the disparity between Colin Kaepernick’s rushes and Russell Wilson’s. Kaepernick had 9 rushes, split evenly between designed carries and scrambles and only produced 31 yards. However, Wilson was contained in the pocket, getting just one rush. More on that later, but it proved to be an important development.
The 3 and 4 yard inside runs were there for the Niners, but for most of the game, the biggest runs for San Francisco came on the outside. Not usual for the Niners, but late in the game, they went back to an old staple. A power left run, in which Alex Boone, Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald, and Bruce Miller all reached the second level. Kam Chancellor, Bobby Wagner, Malcolm Smith, and Richard Sherman were all picked up on blocks, and Earl Thomas crashed down too hard, leaving Frank Gore a cutback lane. It was a thing of beauty, and moreover, Gore went down inbounds and left the clock running, which ended up playing a huge role at the end of the game.
The next big play on the game-winning drive came two plays later. After running Kendall Hunter and Frank Gore into the pile twice to set up 3rd and 7, Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh had to come up with a play that would pickup the first down, but safe enough to run some clock as well. Had the Seahawks stopped them, Russell Wilson would have nearly 3 minutes to put together a drive to put Steven Hauschka into field goal position. That could be considered a near-lock with how Wilson has been playing recently. Upon seeing the QB draw that Kaepernick converted for a first down, many compared it to Alex Smith’s TD run in the playoffs against the Saints in 2011. Both were QB draws to the left from the right hashmark, but while Alex Smith had a convoy of blockers and went untouched into the end zone, Kap had blockers but also had some work to do. He was hit about two yards from the first down and was able to stretch out and pick it up.
Colin Kaepernick had a much better game passing the ball than Week 2 in Seattle. That much is clear. He made one egregious mistake by getting intercepted in the red zone, but had some good reads and is certainly benefiting from having Michael Crabtree back in the fold. It’s another reason why the Niners will be a tough out in the playoffs. Crabtree is still working himself back into game shape, but the guy who’s benefited most from his return, besides Kaepernick, is Anquan Boldin.
No longer dealing with #1 cornerbacks and double teams, Boldin is able to move around freely and get open more easily. It also helps Kap through his reads. If Crabtree and Vernon Davis are his first two reads, he can avoid the pass rush, escape the pocket, look up, and know Boldin is there as a safety valve. The guy who provided that role for the Niners last season was probably Delanie Walker, so Boldin offers an upgrade there.
It will be interesting to see how the 49ers’ offense evolves over the last three weeks of the regular season. Mike Iupati should be back from his sprained MCL sooner than later, which would leave the Niners with the healthiest their offense has been over the entire season. Colin Kaepernick has been criticized for much of the season for his play, so he’ll have a chance to silence any doubters. Even so, against the Bucs, who are playing better, and the Falcons, the Niners likely don’t need their QB to put up big numbers. So, there are plenty who will be underwhelmed by Kap’s numbers following these next few games, but the 49ers are a team that’s built on their defense and run game. They’re not likely to give that up.
Outside of two straight touchdown drives in the second quarter that produced 152 yards, the Niners held the Seahawks to 87 yards. That’s a mind numbing stat when you consider just how dominant Russell Wilson and the Seattle offense have been over the last month or so. Marshawn Lynch was running with his usual physicality, but unlike recent games where Lynch has run over the Niners, the gang tackling and swarming defense usually held Lynch in check. NaVorro Bowman, in particular, was flying around the pitch, making plays. He recorded 7 defensive stops, mostly of Marshawn Lynch, and even pressured Wilson a few times.
And that was the key for the Niners for most of the game. Sure, they sacked Russell Wilson multiple times, and pressured him about a half dozen other times, but they knew the name of the game was contain, not pressure. They kept Wilson in the pocket, refusing to let him beat them with their legs. Seattle had a 3rd and 2 and 3rd and 3 in the game that normally would’ve been a prime situation for a Wilson read-option, draw, or scramble if he couldn’t find anything downfield. But, Aldon Smith, Justin Smith, as well as their All-Pro linebackers were ready to contain Wilson.
In the passing game, Russell Wilson identified a mismatch and took advantage of Carlos Rogers. Rogers gave up catches to each of Jermaine Kearse, Luke Willson, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin, yielding a total of 7 catches for 79 yards. He couldn’t handle the deceptive speed of Tate, and additionally, struggled with Tate’s after the catch ability. Patrick Willis was also exploited by Russell Wilson, but in the play-action game. He gave up a total of 85 yards on 4 catches, but 68 of those yards were on two plays to Willson. Sucking Willis in on play fakes to Lynch, Wilson hooked up with Willson for two big plays in the second quarter. The first helped to setup Lynch’s touchdown run, while the second put the Seahawks into the lead. Willis bit on both, leaving an easy pitch and catch for Wilson and Willson.
Besides those handful of plays though, the defense played brilliantly. Recently resigned Tramaine Brock continued to provide great play on the outside, seeing just two targets come his way. One fell incomplete and the other he broke up. For a secondary that has been plagued with injuries to Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown, Brock has been a bright spot, and looks to be part of the immediate future for the club at cornerback.
Shutting down a Seahawks offense that had scored fewer than 20 points just two other times all season was impressive. It’s easily the biggest win for the Niners this season, but more than that, a weight can be lifted off their backs. If these teams do meet in the playoffs, and the Seahawks had won on Sunday, the 49ers would face a hail storm of questions. “Three losses in a row to Seattle; are they in your head?” As it stands, these teams have split the last 4 games, with the home team winning all four games. No matter who goes into Seattle in the playoffs will be an underdog. That much is obvious. But, as it stands, the only NFC team to beat the Seahawks this season is the 49ers. Psychologically, San Francisco can sleep very soundly knowing they can upend their bitter foes.