49ers vs Seahawks: An early look at keys to victory

Jeff Gross

In previewing the 49ers upcoming primetime battle in Seattle, we take a look at the keys to the game for San Francisco.

It's a game both teams have had circled on their calendars since the schedules were announced. In what promises to be another early season heavyweight challenge, the Niners travel north to take on the 1-0 Seahawks at the ever-deafening Century Link field. San Francisco is seeking vengeance for their late season collapse and as they prepare to return to the scene of the crime, we take a look at what will help them to walk away with another W in the win column.

OFFENSE

Strike early to mitigate crowd noise
This is the big one. If the 49ers want to remotely be able to hear themselves think, they're going to have to come out firing and put points up on the board as soon as the gun sounds. No doubt, Seattle is a talented team; but their stadium and its absurd decibel levels are what makes them truly formidable. Last week, they squeaked out a low-scoring, 5-point win against an average Carolina team. At home, the Hawks are a whole different animal. The fact that this is the home opener and that a fan group dubbed "Volume 12" (a constituent of the 12th man) wants to set a Guinness World record for crowd noise doesn't help things either.

The best thing the 49ers can do for themselves is start out hot. Unfortunately, that hasn't exactly always been their M.O. during the Kaepernick era. We've seen them come out guns blazing like they did in Kaepernick's debut vs. Chicago, against New England, and against New Orleans last season. We've also seen them start abysmally slow as they did against St. Louis, Arizona, Seattle, Atlanta in the NFC Championship game, and most the infamous of them all: in the Super Bowl. They can ill afford to dig themselves into a hole in this game. That's what sparked their demise against the Seahawks last season. Whether it's generating early turnovers and/or starting the game with a quick score, starting out fast will help keep that raucous crowd at bay. This, of course, is how every team would prefer to start every game, so it's much easier said than done. Converting on first and second downs would be a commendable start though...

...because last week, the team found itself in third down situations on 18 different occasions. I repeat, 18 DIFFERENT OCCASIONS. The Niners converted nine of those into first downs which isn't terrible-it's a coin flip-but it's far from ideal and will be all the more difficult to achieve on the road. Moving the chains on first down would go a long way in putting drives together from the get-go.

Establish wide receiver options other than Boldin during the week
Boldin is coming off an exception 200+ yard performance. That's already a colossal signifier for Seattle's defensive staff to key in on him. Additionally, Boldin's skillset plays into Seattle's strong suit in the secondary. He'll likely be matched up against Richard Sherman, who stands 6'3 and 195 lbs. and is known for his physical style of play. Practically all of Seattle's secondary is big and can handle receivers of Boldin's ilk. With that said, the 49ers are going to have to establish another receiving threat. Vernon Davis' two touchdowns and 98 yards receiving against Green Bay were largely overshadowed by Boldin's meteoric performance. As the team's most dynamic receiving option, Davis must carry that into this week's game and buck that Houdini-esque disappearing act he was known for in 2011 and 2012.

It's vital that another wide receiver get into the mix in this one as well. With so much focus being dedicated to Kaepernick, Davis, and Boldin, Kyle Williams has to make his presence felt when called upon. He had a pedestrian three receptions for 36 yards against Green Bay last week but almost came away with a big catch down the sidelines. He has ample speed to get behind defenses and can also make plays in the open field out of the slot, but those plays have been few and far between in his time with the 49ers. Rookie receiver Quinton Patton has the best upside and ability of the group behind Boldin but he was only on the field for four snaps last week. Will Harbaugh and Roman attempt to unleash the unknown commodity against Seattle, or do they feel he's not ready for the spotlight yet? I say throw the kid in the deep end and see how he responds; it looks like he can swim with the big boys.

Find a way to open up the running game
Thanks to former 49ers third-string QB Scott Tolzien being picked up by the Packers in the weeks leading up to the opener, there's a chance Green Bay had a better idea of where the ball was heading during run plays. In any event, the 49ers run game was virtually nonexistent against the Packers. Credit the Packers on this as well though, they did a great job of stifling the run early and often, forcing the 49ers to find yardage through the air (which they thankfully had no problem doing). Seattle's defense is considerably superior to Green Bay's but the 49ers must find a way to spring Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter loose against them. Gore has had incredible success against Seattle throughout his nine-year career. In fact, his two highest single-game rushing totals have come against the Seahawks: a 212 yard output in 2006 (a franchise record) and 206 yards in 2009. Just last year, he served as the catalyst for the Niners' Week 7 win against Seattle, slashing the Seahawks for 131 yards on the ground and 51 receiving yards. Then add Kendall Hunter in the mix, who despite seeing limited action against Green Bay, displayed some nice speed on a 23 yard run in the fourth quarter last week.

Seattle's new defensive end, Cliff Avril, was inactive against the Panthers and there's a chance he could also miss this week's game. If he sits this one out, look for the 49ers to try and take advantage on the side of his replacement, O'Brien Schofield. The Hawks surrendered 134 rushing yards to DeAngelo Williams, Mike Tolbert, and Cam Newton last week to the tune of 5.2 yards per carry. San Francisco has a far more dangerous rushing attack than Carolina so you can expect Harbaugh and Roman to look long and hard at that film for additional ways to expose Seattle on the ground.

DEFENSE

Slow Marshawn Lynch
The 49ers rush defense looked sharp against Green Bay but Eddie Lacy was an unproven rookie making his pro-football debut. Marshawn Lynch is a Skittles-devouring beast of a back. If you recall, Lynch was the one to break San Francisco's 14-game streak of not allowing a rushing touchdown in 2011. He's a punishing runner. Luckily for San Francisco, they have a pack of equally brutal defenders in Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, and NaVorro Bowman. They must try in earnest to replicate what Carolina did against Lynch last Sunday--limiting the bruiser to just 43 yards on 17 carries and no scores. Lacy is a comparable back to Lynch in terms of size but that's where the resemblance ends. Lynch has had success against the 49ers in the past and is a veteran back who absolutely refuses to go down on first contact. The 49ers have to mirror his aggression in making sure he doesn't find space and getting him to the ground, no matter how many defenders it takes.

Confine Russell Wilson to the pocket
Russell Wilson, much like Ben Roethlisberger, makes many of his biggest plays when flushed out of the pocket after the play has broken down. His small stature and lightning quickness allow him to evade defenders, wriggle away from tackles, and buy time; directing receivers open downfield for big gains. Check out highlights from the Panthers and Seahawks game last week and see for yourself.

The 49ers secondary has been known to have its lapses when the pass rush isn't there and Nnamdi Asomugha had some troubles with Green Bay. If the 49ers can bottle up Wilson and limit him to the pocket, they'll find it much easier to defend against him. His lack of height makes it harder to see over lineman and get an accurate downfield read from that vantage point. It comes as no surprise that the 49ers are keenly aware of this as well. Per a recent Matthew Barrows article, it appears likely that the 49ers will use rookie third-string quarterback B.J. Daniels as their Russell Wilson impersonator in preparation for Sunday's game. At 6'0, Daniels stands just a hair taller than the 5'11 Wilson while possessing similar mobility and arm strength. The 49ers didn't have that luxury last year, so it stands to reason that they'll take full advantage of it this time around.

COACHING/GENERAL

Put a muzzle on the penalties
The 49ers were flagged 11 times for 85 yards this past Sunday against Green Bay. That is not going to cut it this week. First, let's go back to that crowd noise factor. It's irrational to think the 49ers won't garner a single false start and/or offsides penalty, but they can't allow them to snowball and must do their best to keep in check. Relying on alternative visual cues when the ball is snapped will go a long way in helping to prevent this. The team also can't let emotions run too high (that includes you, Harbaugh) and garner penalties for late hits or scuffles. Players like Sherman will jaw at the opposition and you can be sure he's going to do all that he can to get underneath players' skin. The 49ers have to let cooler heads prevail and not get flagged for taunting, unsportsmanlike conduct, late hits, and penalties of that nature.

Correct clock management issues and tone down formation shifting
This issue was vexing enough within the friendly confines of Candlestick Park last week. Amid the sheer hostility of Century Link field, it's imperative the Niners get plays in on time, get set, and call the snap to avoid burning timeouts and delay of game penalties. To that end, it may do the team some good to tone down the formation shifting a bit. Yes, it's an integral part of the offense...but it was a little out of hand last Sunday and the Niners can ill afford execution like that this coming Sunday.

What I question is to what extent, if any, was ol' Benedict Arnold...er, Scott Tolzien's...role in all of that? The former backup quarterback's knowledge of San Francisco's formations, audible calls, and signaling could have been a contributing factor in helping Green Bay diagnose plays pre-snap. This may have, in turn, lead to the 49ers being overzealous in masking their formations until the very second ball was snapped; which would ultimately translate to the wasted timeouts and delay of game penalties we saw throughout the game. But this isn't the first time we've seen poor clock management with the 49ers. They've had their fair share of tribulations dating back to the Alex Smith era and hell...even before Harbaugh came on board. Regardless of the root cause, they must improve on that if they want to give themselves the best opportunity to win against Seattle.

So there you have it. Sounds simple enough right? Score early and often; spread the ball around through the air; establish the running game; contain Marshawn Lynch and Russell Wilson; knock off the excessive penalties; take it easy with the formation shifts.

If San Francisco nails all of those objectives they will not only win, they'll win by 35 points. Kidding and hyperbole aside, it would be almost impossible for the Niners to make good on all of those goals. That element of the unknown (coupled with the intense acrimony these two northwestern squads share) is what makes this matchup so exciting.

If the 49ers can at least put more checkmarks than they do red X's in these boxes, they should be in great shape. San Francisco should have no shortage of motivation between looking back on their total debacle in December last year and knowing that an important early division win is at stake.

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