Leading up to the NFC West showdown in Candlestick, the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry had lost some of its flavor because of Seattle's dominance in the past two meetings. Pundits claimed that the rivalry was one sided as the Seahawks had won 71-16 in the past two meetings and that Seattle was simply too physical for the 49ers to handle then and now. While all 49ers fans wanted to point out that both resounding losses came in the Northwest where Seattle is undefeated over the past two seasons, they were right, the 49ers needed to hold serve to remain in the conversation as an NFC contender.
With the sunny skies of California overhead and Niners Nation cheering them on, the 49ers had no excuses this time. Regardless of where the game was taking place, the 49ers needed to find a remedy for their offensive woes against the Seahawks defense. The previous two losses were dominated by the fact that the 49ers were unable to do anything with the ball and managed to muster only 16 points, 7 of which came in garbage time.
While every team struggles against the Seahawks defense, the 49ers had showed an alarming inability to handle the hyper aggressive Seattle defensive alignment. Despite being listed as a 4-3 defense, Seattle often plays a 6-2-3 defense of sorts with safety Kam Chancellor and their weakside linebacker on the line of scrimmage. It's an extremely aggressive defense that relies heavily on their elite secondary on the back end and embodies everything the Seahawks have become: mean and physical. Simply put, lining up against such a power house defense set to attack can be downright intimidating.
Having seen Pete Carroll's defense twice a year for the past three years and being coached by a borderline psychopath (I say that in loving terms), the 49ers are far from intimidated by the Seahawks. But on the field the Seahawks defense has dominated the 49ers offense by challenging them at the line of scrimmage both inline and on the outside.
Due to the amount of focus Seattle puts toward limiting Frank Gore, they leave multiple one-on-one matchups on the outside with press coverage. Let's look at how the 49ers attacked those matchups early and often with multiple downfield throws.
Game Situation: 1st Quarter, 06:44, 2nd and 10 at the SEA 31, 49ers 0, Seahawks 0
Formation: Ace Strong
Offensive Concept: Back Shoulder Fade
Defensive Scheme: Cover 3 (Press man on the outside)
Pre-Snap: The 49ers come to the line of scrimmage with both tight ends, Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald, inline left, with Michael Crabtree spilt out wide left and Anquan Boldin out wide right. Seattle responds with their 6-2-3 with S Kam Chancellor at the line of scrimmage. On the back end, CBs Byron Maxwell (in for the injured/suspended CB Browner) and CB Richard Sherman are in press coverage with S Earl Thomas in a single high safety look.
Post-Snap: Both Crabtree and Boldin release outside on fade routes down the sideline with the cornerbacks in coverage playing inside technique. In the pocket Colin Kaepernick takes a 3 step drop all while looking left towards Crabtree.
In an effort to take away crossing routes or comebacks, Seattle's linebackers and Chancellor drop into four underneath zones across the field. Additionally, Vernon Davis' seam route forces Earl Thomas to slide left into coverage. This means that Crabtree is isolated on Maxwell, something that Kaepernick sees and decides to attack with a back shoulder throw.
Despite being blanketed by Maxwell, the back shoulder throw means Crabtree must stop, something Maxwell isn't expecting, which creates separation. With room to operate, Crabtree goes up and grabs the football uncontested, coming down inbounds for a 17 yard gain.
Summary: One of the hardest plays to defend, the back shoulder fade is a perfect weapon against the press coverage of the Seahawks. With the cornerback playing inside and looking towards the receiver it is nearly impossible for the defender to react in time to defend the play. Also, the outside release goes with the inside technique of the Seahawks' corners, eliminating some of the difficulties getting off the line of scrimmage.
It is no coincidence that Kaepernick was looking left from the start of this play as 49ers attacked the left side of the field, 16 of the 20 passes outside the numbers went left, to avoid Richard Sherman who plays exclusively on the right side of the defense. With Browner out, the Seahawks weren't able to impose their will with press coverage because of Maxwell's inability to shut down Crabtree or Boldin one on one.
Overall, the back shoulder fade has become one of the 49ers weapons to attack the press coverage they faced seemingly every week. It started in New Orleans and has continued in every game since. The return of Michael Crabtree has only furthered the frequency of the back shoulder throw and it has and will continue to get more effective as Colin Kaepernick becomes comfortable throwing into what seems to be tight coverage.
Frank the Tank: After a big punt return by Golden Tate and the ensuing go ahead field goal, the 49ers received the ball at their own 20 with 6:20 to go down a point. As a 49ers fan there was nothing more you could ask for, young quarterback and resurgence offense against the best defense in the league. It was the time to see what Kaepernick and the 49ers offense were made of.
While most teams would have relied on their quarterback to lead a game winning drive, the 49ers did it the only way they know how, on the ground. Let's look at how Frank Gore was able to capitalize on the Seahawks crowding the line of scrimmage and exposing the lack of second-level defenders for a critical 51 yard gain.
Game Situation: 4th Quarter, 04:44, 1st and 10 at the SF 31, 49ers 16, Seahawks 17
Offensive Personnel: 1 WR (Anquan Boldin) 2 RB (Frank Gore, Bruce Miller) 2 TE (Vernon Davis, Vance McDonald)
Formation: Power I
Offensive Concept: 97 G Rub (Power Run)
Defensive Scheme: Man 1
Pre-Snap: The 49ers motion McDonald across the formation to create a Power I formation with Boldin as the only receiver spilt out wide left. Seattle responds in their usual 6-2-3 but with only one wide receiver, Sherman is on the line of scrimmage and Chancellor is in a LB position creating a 6-3-2 of sorts.
Post-Snap: A combination of a power and a sweep blocking scheme emerges as Staley blocks down while Snyder pulls to kick out the edge defender. McDonald and Alex Boone slide out to the second level to engage two of the three Seattle second level defenders.
With the tackle blocking down and the playside guard pulling, it looks as if the run is designed to go off the left edge to the outside. Keyed by theses actions Bobby Wagner and Kam Chancellor flow outside allowing McDonald and Bruce Miller to get good blocking angles for the designed cut back run. With the backside sealed off by Boone the only defender left to make a play is Earl Thomas. He too overruns the play allowing Gore to continue cutting back right into the open field. Gore eventually falls downs in bounds for a 51 yard gain that put the 49ers in field goal position.
Summary: According to post-game interviews, offensive coordinator Greg Roman had been holding this play in his back pocket the entire game. Apparently it was with good reason, as the unusual block scheme confused the Seattle defense and it turned out to be the deciding play in the game.
This play highlights how the Seahawks defensive identity is a high risk/reward endeavor because of how many defensive players they have at the line of scrimmage. If the offense is able to get beyond them, as the 49ers were able to do, mainly because of Staley's great down block sealing any pursuit, there aren't many defenders to prevent the big play. Also this alignment put a huge responsibility on Earl Thomas, who is one of if not the best safety in the NFL, as he is often forced to make touchdown saving tackles.
All in all, this game will likely have little impact on the NFC playoff standings as the 49ers will most likely secure the No. 6 seed and the Seahawks will get home field throughout the playoffs. That said, it was still what Vernon Davis called "a statement game" because of the recent Seahawks dominate wins and the likelihood for these two powers playing again in January.
And while Frank Gore's big run or Phil Dawson's 5 field goals Sunday won't affect the score in that potential playoff rematch, Sunday's game shows the 49ers move the ball against the vaunted Seahawks defense. With a more aggressive passing game that attacks press coverage and the ability to gash the Seahawks on the ground, the 49ers finally have an offensive game plan that is proven effective against the Seahawks aggressive defense.
With the 49ers in position to grab a playoff spot, the focus will turn to recreating this performance in the most hostile place in all of the sports, Centurylink Field.