The San Francisco 49ers travel to the Pacific Northwest later today for a Christmas Even divisional battle with the Seattle Seahawks. The 49ers defeated the Seahawks in their season opener, thanks in large part to a couple big Ted Ginn returns for touchdowns. The 49ers never gave up the lead in the game, but they did let the Seahawks back into the game in the fourth quarter. The defense has developed a bit more consistency, but if Doug Baldwin is able to play it will be interesting to see how he does against the 49ers pass defense.
I took a few minutes to chat with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls to get a better handle on his Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are one of the hotter teams in the NFL right now having won five of six. They need significant help to win the wild card, but they remain alive, which I think could make for a tough battle on Saturday.
Niners Nation: The Seahawks are playing solid football having won five of their last six. What changed following the 2-6 start?
Field Gulls: In short, the offense. The Seahawks offensive line was very shaky to start the year, with good reason, starting two rookies on the right side, and the offensive output suffered. The pass protection was poor, the run game was almost non existent, and the quarterbacking was pretty suspect. As the year has gone on though, Tarvaris Jackson's play has improved and a big part of the credit can go to improved run/pass blocking by an offensive line unit that finally started putting things together. Marshawn Lynch began to shoulder the offensive attack, not Jackson, and the role of "game-manager" suits Tjack much better.
The result has been three straight games with the Seahawks scoring 30+ points (though the defense has accounted for some of those points as well), and a rushing attack that's been formidable, putting up 100+ games six straight weeks until facing the Bears' defense last week (where they ran for 60).
One other thing to note is that the Seahawks actually had the toughest first half schedule of any team in the NFL. This, combined with all the issues I described above, led to an awful 2-6 start. Of course, people began to talk about Sucking for Luck at that point, but thankfully that discussion is now over as the Seahawks sit at 7-7.
NN: Marshawn Lynch grabbed two more scores this week. He has been on fire during this recent run. The 49ers have not given up a rushing touchdown this season, setting the record for most games to start a season without allowing a rushing TD. Does Lynch snap that streak? What do the 49ers need to do to contain #BeastMode?
FG: Well, I suppose if anyone is going to break that streak it might be BeastMode, for a couple of reasons. First, his physical style of running means he'll occasionally break off a huge run despite being seemingly bottled up by the defense. Second, (until last week anyway, I haven't seen a stat this week) Marshawn Lynch has rushed for more yards than any other running back in the NFL in the last six or seven weeks. He's also scored a touchdown in 10 straight games. That said, of course, it's going to be extremely difficult for him to get past the ridiculous 49er run defense into the endzone.
In terms of stopping the run, I would simply say the Niners need to keep doing what they've been doing. Stay assignment correct, and make sure they wrap up and gang-tackle Lynch once he's been slowed. I have the feeling it's going to be a rough game rushing for Lynch but we'll see.
NN: The Seahawks secondary has been getting some praise. Can you tell us about how the unit has developed this year?
FG: Earl Thomas is a budding star - he's a free safety with a ridiculous amount of range and speed. He's also got very good instincts and the Seahawks have played aggressively with him, moving him up to the line of scrimmage or roaming about in the secondary. Next to him is Kam Chancellor, a hard hitting, 6'4, 225 pound sophomore safety that has been making some noise of late. He's been better than expected in pass defense, picking off four passes thus far on the season, and regularly makes a big hit or two per game in run support.
The cornerback duo of Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman have been impressive. They're strongest in jamming and rerouting receivers and tend to match up well with the bigger guys in the league. My hope is that this carries on to Saturday's game, where they'll look to take Michael Crabtree out of the game and frustrate him. It's a tall order of course, but Browner (a first year guy that played in Canada the past four seasons) and Sherman (a rookie out of Harbaugh's Stanford) have been very good this season against teams' number one receivers. This success has been, to put it lightly, a huge boost.
NN: Aside from Doug Baldwin, who has been the biggest surprise for the Seahawks?
FG: There are a couple of guys that I'd put on that list - first off, C Max Unger has been a nice surprise as the leader of the offensive line and a big part of the reason the Seahawks' run game has finally gotten some traction. Along those lines, G/T Paul McQuistan, a veteran journeyman that was signed prior to the season as a street free agent, has been great, filling in at guard for Robert Gallery when he went out for a few weeks, and now serving as the left tackle with Russell Okung's injury. He's not what you'd want in a starting left tackle obviously, but he's good enough to get the job done.
Obviously, Tarvaris Jackson has been a pleasant surprise. Not many fans believe he's the long-term answer necessarily, but he's probably looked at in a similar fashion to how 49er fans look at Alex Smith. We had low expectations for Jackson when he came in, but his toughness - both mentally and physically - has endeared him to the fanbase. If he manages to not turn the ball over too often and mixes in an explosive play once or twice a game, he gives the Seahawks a chance to win. He's a good leader and beloved by his teammates.
On the defense, Alan Branch has been a nice surprise, plugging up the middle of the defensive line and bringing some tenacity to that unit. Finally, Red Bryant, the strongside defensive end, has lived up to his play from early last year by putting on an arguably Pro-Bowl type of performance this season.
NN: Score prediction, and why?
FG: I'm going to say 13-10, Niners. A low scoring, sluggish game dominated by long drives and ball control. Field position and special teams will be key, as we saw in these two teams' last matchup. As much as I'd like to pick my Seahawks, for some reason my gut tells me this will be a heartbreaker. That said, I really do feel like this has the makings for a very memorable battle. Both teams have a lot on the line and both teams are playing for NFC West pride. The Carroll-Harbaugh "What's Your Deal Bowl Part II" is compelling and I'm sure there's no love lost between players on both teams. The CLink is a fun venue and I have no doubt it's going to be chippy on the field. Can't wait.