The big question going into this weekend's game against the Seahawks is whether the San Francisco 49ers are capable of beating a good team. Thus far, they've yet to do so. Yes, they beat the Cardinals who currently own a winning record, but few NFL disciples would qualify the Cardinals as a "good" team. Arizona is really just a mediocre team with a very good defense. The 49ers four losses have come at the hands of some of the NFL's best teams-Seattle, Indianapolis, Carolina, and New Orleans. Had the 49ers offense played a halfway decent game, they could have won at least half of those games.
In a world full of trivial statistics, the team's win/loss record against the NFL's best stands out as a very relevant and concerning one. A win against Seattle would not only show the league what the 49ers are capable of, it would also serve as validation and self-assurance for the team itself. A key, late-season victory such as this could springboard the 49ers to close the season strong and go into the playoffs with a full head of steam. As evidenced by the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers, and (unfortunately) the Baltimore Ravens over the past few years, it's less about playoff seeding and more about hitting your stride at the right time.
With Michael Crabtree back in the lineup and Joe Staley hoping to play, the offense's cupboard of excuses is now bare. It's put up or shut up time for Colin Kaepernick and the rest of this unit. Kaepernick needs to continue the trend he started in Washington a few weeks ago and build upon back-to-back solid performances. He looked much more comfortable, decisive, and evaded the pass rush better than he has for much of the season...but there's still much room for improvement.
He'll need to do all of that and then some against a vaunted Seattle front. Seattle's defense will likely sell out to the run, bring constant pressure, and dare Kaepernick to beat them with his arm under duress. In order to keep that defense honest, Kaepernick must make them pay by releasing the ball quickly and hitting his hot routes during blitzes. This would seemingly be an easier task with Crabtree back in the lineup but it obviously also hinges on Greg Roman's questionable play calling. Roman would be wise to dial up a few halfback screen passes and quick slants... something he appears to be allergic to so far. Doing so would give Kaepernick quick outlets against the pass rush and help him develop a rhythm early on.
Not only will more creative pass plays help against the pass rush, it will also enable the 49ers to get some more yardage after the catch (YAC). The Niners are pretty bad at getting their playmakers the ball in space. In fact, according to Sportingcharts.com, the 49ers rank 31st in the league in cumulative YAC this season with 1,008 total yards. It's usually Boldin catching a contested ball in traffic and being brought down right away, or a hitch route that forces the receiver to stop and comeback to the ball while the defender is 2 yards away, waiting to pounce. Vernon Davis gets the ball in space from time to time but that's about it.
It was a welcome sight to see Crabtree soundly beat his man on a move along the sideline and catch the ball in stride for a 60-yard play last week. That single play set the 49ers' season benchmark for longest reception and most yards after the catch. Part of the problem, as alluded to earlier, is the routes these receivers are running and up until Manningham returned (who still isn't a real burner), there was a dearth of speed at the position (with the exception of tight end Vernon Davis).
Crabtree is a physical wideout and not much of a speedster but he still commands attention and has enough speed to get behind defenders. There's no better receiver on this roster after the ball is in his hands than Crabtree. He can stop on a dime, change direction, and stave off defenders with his arms to find extra daylight after the reception. The 49ers need much more of that down the stretch, and dialing up some slants, screens, and post patterns will allow pass catchers to get the ball in space and beef up the YAC.
The success of the passing game is also going to be contingent upon the offensive line's ability to pass protect. It won't matter what receivers they're trotting out or what routes they're running if Kap can't get the ball to them. It's been a real issue for this unit and they didn't look too hot against Robert Quinn and company last week against the Rams. Compounding the problem are the absences of Mike Iupati and Joe Staley.
As mentioned earlier, Staley is hoping to play this weekend but he'll likely be a game-time decision and even if he does play, he's not going to be 100%. It would be wise for the 49ers coaching staff to practice some rollout plays (remember those) and do some situational game-planning for what Kaepernick can do outside of the pocket. Even if the line plays well, Kaepernick is going to be harried in his decision-making at times and will be forced to operate outside of the pocket; the more the coaching staff can anticipate this and draw up some reactionary options for the young quarterback, the better they'll be.
As for the running game, Frank Gore has been quiet the past few weeks, which usually brings the critics out of the woodwork to declare him washed up. Gore usually responds with a big game and Lord knows he's had his fair share of big games against Seattle during his nine-year career. Ranked 13th in the league against the run, the statistics say Seattle is middle of the pack in this category.
If you've watched their games, however, you've seen them get gashed by quality running backs. St. Louis' Zac Stacy and Tampa Bay's Mike James both had huge games against Seattle. Toby Gerhardt and Adrian Peterson notched 132 rushing yards against the Seahawks when they played Minnesota a few weeks ago. A lot of this falls back on the shoulders of the passing game. If Kaepernick can beat Seattle a few times with his arm to open up the tackle box, there's great potential for Gore and Hunter to have a big day.
The 49ers defense has been pretty spectacular all season. With Aldon Smith slowly returning to form, reserve players stepping up to the plate, and the secondary playing the way it has, this unit is championship caliber. The burden of responsibility falls on Greg Roman and the 49ers offense to capitalize on the kind of opportunities they've squandered throughout the season. Playing the NFL's top-ranked defense will be no easy task by any stretch, especially for a team that has struggled to move the chains the way San Francisco has, but if Kaepernick and company can perform well and come away with a win, it will be paramount in boosting confidence and catalyzing the rest of the season.