It's not a storied rivalry in the mold of Green Bay-Chicago, Dallas-Washington, or Oakland-Kansas City. It's not built upon decades and decades of tradition. When the San Francisco 49ers travel to play the Seattle Seahawks it will be just the 31st time the two teams have squared off. Really, it's a rivalry that's only just begun and Sunday's NFC Championship game will be the most important iteration to date.
The 49ers and Seahawks have shared a division since the NFL's most recent realignment in 2002, but the games have only recently begun to matter. Seattle's hiring of Pete Carroll in 2010 and San Francisco's subsequent hiring of Jim Harbaugh renewed a heated Pac-12 rivalry, making it easy for fans and the media to conjure up animosity between the two teams that hadn't been there in the years prior. More importantly, though, it set each franchise on the path to becoming a team that would challenge for a championship on a seasonal basis and competing for that ultimate prize is the quickest way to light a fire under a rivalry.
The storylines between these two teams are plentiful and have been thoroughly run into the ground over the past couple seasons. Jim Harbaugh vs. Pete Carroll; Colin Kaepernick vs. Russell Wilson; The Inconvenient Truth vs. Beast Mode; the arms race of free agent signings and waiver claims; you're familiar with all of it. And to be honest, absolutely none of it matters. Media narratives don't win football games – a shocking development, I know. So let's go to the field and look at some things that do matter.
The Turnover and Field Position Battle
I'm sure that if you asked all 32 NFL head coaches, every single one would tell you that it's important to win the turnover battle. Obviously teams that win the turnover battle win more games than those that don't. You don't need me to tell you that. However, it a game in which the quality and style of teams is so similar, it's something that becomes even more magnified. And, as Bill Barnwell of Grantland noted in his Wild Card preview, winning the turnover battle has been more important for Harbaugh's 49ers than you would typically expect. San Francisco is 39-4-1 when winning or tying the turnover battle and 2-9 when they lose it (note: I've updated the records to include the results of the 49ers' two playoff victories since the article was originally published) since Harbaugh took over.
Turnovers, or the lack thereof, have played an important role in the outcome of each of the 49ers-Seahawks games this season. In the Week 2 game up in Seattle, the Seahawks won the turnover battle five to one. To put that number into context, the 49ers have only turned the ball over four times over the course of their eight-game winning streak giving them +7 turnover margin over that time frame.
In that Week 2 game, a couple of those turnovers came late in the game when things were already out of hand, but the Seattle takeaways prior to garbage time were a huge factor in the game. A Kaepernick interception at the goal line took away an opportunity to jump out to an early lead and capitalize on a blocked punt. Another Kaepernick turnover midway through the second quarter, this time a fumble on a strip sack, led to Seattle's first offensive points of the day. A second interception at the beginning of the fourth quarter effectively ended any hope at a comeback.
The second time around, both San Francisco and Seattle committed just a single turnover. Kaepernick's interception midway through the third quarter took away a scoring chance, but after Byron Maxwell was tackled at the Seattle 3-yard line, it proved to be of relatively little consequence as the Seahawks would punt just a short time thereafter. Russell Wilson's interception came with just 26 seconds remaining and brought on the 49ers' victory formation.
On the season, Kaepernick has done a very good job at avoiding turnovers. His 1.9 percent interception rate is one of the better marks in the league. On a per drive basis, only our old pal Alex Smith and the Chiefs threw interceptions less frequently. That three interception performance against the Seahawks in Week 2 was his only multi-interception game of the season. He has gotten away with some dangerously close calls as of late. Micah Hyde dropped a tough interception that could've ended San Francisco's game-winning drive against the Packers before it ever got going. Carolina safety Quintin Mikell dropped a potential pick-six this past weekend. It seems less likely that Seattle's talented secondary fails to take advantage of those opportunities. It will be crucial that Kaepernick consistently makes better decisions and avoids turnovers.
One less obvious impact of turnovers is the effect they have on field position. Both San Francisco and Seattle are among the best teams in the league at winning the game of field position. According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers had a net starting field position advantage of 6.29 yards per drive, the second best figure in the league. The Seahawks were fourth at 5.42 yards per drive. Again looking at the two games from this season, turnovers played a large role in the starting field position for each team.
In Week 2, the Seahawks had an average starting field position of their own 44-yard line with five drives beginning in 49er territory. The 49ers average starting field position in that game was the 27-yard line. They had just one drive begin in Seattle territory, following the aforementioned blocked punt upon which San Francisco was unable to capitalize. As you might guess at this point, in San Francisco that field position advantage flipped. The 49ers began their drives with an average starting field position of their 31-yard line compared to a starting field position of their 25-yard line for the Seahawks. That difference of 19 yards for the Seahawks went a long way towards keeping the 49ers' defense out of disadvantageous positions.
Considering the conservative offensive philosophies that each of these teams employ, it's fair to say that winning the field position battle is an important bullet point for both San Francisco and Seattle. With two very good defenses, moving the ball the entire length of the field is going to be a tall order. The team that can generate takeaways and set their offense up with generous field position will be an important factor in deciding the outcome on Sunday.
Keeping Kaepernick Clean
Every quarterback is better when they have time to stand in the pocket and deliver the football. By that same token, every quarterback is going to be worse when they face pressure. But the difference in Colin Kaepernick's play when facing pressure compared to when he's given time takes him from an above average passer to one of the worst in the league.
According to Pro Football Focus's data, Kaepernick's 43.6 completion percentage under pressure during the regular season was the fifth-worst of any quarterback that played at least half of his team's snaps. Only a trio of rookies and Andy Dalton were worse. Kaepernick averaged 6.35 yards per attempt on those throws, well below his 8.16 yards per attempt average without pressure. It's an incredibly small sample, but so far in the playoffs he's been even worse with a completion percentage of 35.3 and putrid 3.82 yards per attempt when he's been pressured.
The difference in Kaepernick's play when he was under pressure was incredibly apparent in the two games against the Seahawks this season. In Week 2, Kaepernick was pressured on 48.6 percent of his dropbacks. The result was a season-worst passing offense DVOA of negative-71.2 percent. In Week 14, at 27 percent, he was pressured at a rate nearly half of that from the first matchup leading to a pass offense DVOA of 35.6 percent; a massive swing in the positive direction.
Seattle's pass rush has been effective all season long. They finished the season seventh in Adjusted Sack Rate, led by a deep defensive line rotation that saw six different players record sacks. The best of that bunch has been defensive end Michael Bennett. A free agent castoff from Tampa Bay, Bennett has had an enormous impact with his new team. Bennett will align all along the defensive line, primarily seeing action at Seattle's "Leo" weak side defensive end position when the Seahawks are in their base defense while kicking down inside when the Seahawks are in nickel. And because Seattle will flip their front depending on the strength of the offensive formation, it's likely that everyone on San Francisco's offensive line will see at least a few snaps matched up with Bennett.
One of Bennett's best games this season came in that first game against the 49ers. He had six total quarterback pressures, getting the best of right tackle Anthony Davis on numerous occasions. Late in the first quarter, Bennett beat Davis for his first sack as a Seahawk.
Bennett aligns wide to the right of the offense. After a bit of hand-fighting, Bennett gets by Davis with a dip-and-rip move and, despite Davis's effort to hold, is able to trip up Kaepernick before he can escape the pocket. Later in the game, Bennett shows off his speed, blowing by Davis right after the snap. If not for a slight rollout in the opposite direction, Bennett might have recorded sack number two.
Though, as mentioned, Bennett will see action at multiple spots on Seattle's defensive line, he spends the majority of his time on the defense's left. This means a large chunk of the responsibility in keeping Bennett off of Kaepernick will again fall on Anthony Davis. Davis did a much better job against Bennett in the Week 14 game against Seattle, allowing just a single pressure. In fact, Davis has been playing much better towards the end of the season. Throughout the 49ers current eight-game winning streak, Davis has yet to allow a sack, per PFF.
If San Francisco is to have any success throwing the ball against a Seattle pass defense that is unquestionably the best in the league, the offensive line is going to have to keep Kaepernick off the ground and give him time to throw. The 49ers had similar issues accomplishing that feat in the first game against the Panthers but were able to put together a much better performance in the rematch last week. They will need a repeat effort if the 49ers plan on leaving Seattle with a victory.
Attack Maxwell, Avoid Sherman
If the 49ers are able to keep Kaepernick upright and give him time to throw, he is still going to have to complete passes into tight windows against the best secondary in the NFL. To do that, the 49ers best chance of success will be throwing towards players that aren't Richard Sherman.
Sherman is an easy player for 49ers' fans to hate, but it wouldn't be worth the time or energy if he wasn't any good. By PFF's charting data, Sherman was one of the least targeted corners in the league yet he managed to top everyone with eight interceptions. As the 49ers saw first-hand in Week 2, it's almost always a terrible idea to test Sherman deep. To go along with his great size and leaping ability, being a former receiver, he's fantastic at locating and high-pointing the ball.
Early in the fourth quarter of that Week 2 game, Kaepernick attempted a pass deep down the sideline to Vernon Davis. Davis takes an outside release and immediately, Sherman jumps on his inside hip. Once Sherman is in position, he turns to begin tracking the ball. Davis isn't exactly a great jump ball receiver, but he never has a chance. Plays like that are frequent occurrences when teams attempt to throw over the top of him.
Luckily for the 49ers, the Seahawks make it easy to avoid Sherman completely. In Seattle's defense, Sherman mans the left cornerback position. Unlike some teams with a top flight coverman, Seattle's opts to keep their corners to one side of the field rather than having Sherman follow around the opposing team's top receiving option. With a receiving corps consisting of Boldin and a bunch of players who are no longer suiting up for the 49ers, Sherman requested to mirror Boldin all over the field in Week 2. However, with Crabtree back in the lineup for the rematch in San Francisco, Sherman returned to his usual spot on the right side of the offense.
In Week 14, San Francisco opted to spend most of their time attacking Byron Maxwell on the opposite side of the defense, staying away from Sherman for most of the game. Even though Maxwell ended up recording Seattle's lone takeaway of the game, the 49ers actually had a good amount of success when targeting him. Crabtree and Boldin combined for five receptions and 61 yards (Crabtree dropped another would-be reception) while also drawing one holding penalty with Maxwell in coverage, the most production against any single Seahawk defender in that game. The 49ers primarily went after Maxwell with out-breaking routes, staying outside of the numbers away from any potential help.
Here, the 49ers bring Boldin in motion across the formation. The motion combined with the reduced split from Boldin forces Maxwell to play in off coverage with outside leverage. With Maxwell looking to stay over the top in his deep third responsibility, Boldin is able to get space on the out route and Kaepernick hits him for a nine-yard gain. Boldin would get free on the exact same route from a different look a bit later in the game, this time motioning into a stacked alignment with Vernon Davis.
In Seattle's modified Cover-3 coverage, expertly broken down by Grantland's Chris Brown this week, they like for their corners to be physical at the line of scrimmage and essentially play with press man technique. But through the use of motion, stacked alignments, and bunch formations, the 49ers can dictate that Seattle's corners back up and play in off coverage. Once they're able to do that, the types of throws that you see in the two plays above will be there all day long.
To be fair, Maxwell isn't exactly DeAngelo Hall out there. He's a very good player in his own right and considering that he was Seattle's fourth corner going into the season, he's performed much better than I'm sure most expected him to once he took over as the other starter. But, considering the alternative, it's a much better option going after Maxwell than it is testing the waters on the other side.
What you talkin' about Wilson?
The popular narrative surrounding Seattle's offense is that Russell Wilson and the passing game is struggling at the worst possible time. Over the past five weeks, Wilson is completing just 56.6 percent of his passes while averaging 157.6 yards per game. His 6.56 yards per attempt figure over that span is nearly two full yards below his seasonal average. If momentum is your thing, it seems easy to conclude that Wilson will continue his poor stretch against a San Francisco defense that's playing pretty well recently. Sounds great, right?
The problem is I'm not so sure any of that means a whole lot when trying to figure out how the Seahawks will play on Sunday. It's easy to arbitrarily pick out a rough stretch for just about any player over the course of a season. Deconstruct that five-game stretch a bit further and it doesn't even seem all that terrible. In three of those games, Seattle was in control from the beginning and were in a position where they didn't need to rely on their passing game, instead looking to grind out the clock with the running game. The Arizona game was legitimately terrible, but not necessarily unexpected considering the Cardinals boasted the league's second best defense this season. The game against the 49ers that started this stretch probably falls somewhere in the "meh" category, mixing some big plays with just as many poor ones.
Also, if you're going to point out the five-game stretch in which Wilson's numbers were deflated, you can't ignore the four-game stretch that he had leading up to that. During that four-game period Wilson completed 73 percent of his passes while averaging 10.44 yards per attempt and 261 yards per game. Going into that Week 14 game against the 49ers, you could've applied the "Seattle is getting hot at the right time" narrative just as easily as you can slap on the "Seattle is struggling at the wrong time" narrative now. In fact, in previewing that game I wrote about how Seattle's passing game appeared as if it was returning to the level that it was at during their torrid run over the second half of last season.
Production in the NFL can be a volatile thing. Especially for a young quarterback on a ball control team. If anyone should be aware of that, it's 49ers' fans. Stretches that are significantly better or worse than the norm for that particular team or player aren't always predictive of what's to come. All it takes is one game to flip the script.
With that said, it doesn't mean we throw all of those games out the window either. I do think there are some tangible things that we can pull from Seattle's most recent performances that may be areas the 49ers can exploit. The worst games for the Seahawks' passing offense came against the Cardinals and in the playoff game against the Saints. The two common themes in those games were: 1) a lot of pressure on Wilson and 2) a heavy dose of man coverage.
Pressuring Wilson hasn't been difficult for opposing defenses as the Seahawks' offensive line has really struggled in pass protection this season. Seattle finished dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate and according to PFF, no quarterback was pressured on a higher percentage of his dropbacks than Wilson. Against Arizona, Wilson faced pressure 42.4 percent of the time he dropped back to throw; last week against New Orleans that number climbed to 58.3 percent.
The Cardinals and Saints went about creating that pressure in different ways – Arizona blitzed about twice as often – but they each played a lot of man coverage on the back end. Seattle's receivers had difficulty getting separation and a fair amount of the plays the Seahawks were able to make through the air in those games came once the play broke down and Wilson began scrambling around. Not many plays were made within the natural flow of the offense. The 49ers use a variety of different coverages, but it may be beneficial for them to spend more time in man coverage than they typically would, especially considering Percy Harvin will not be available on Sunday.
Turning Off Beast Mode
The one thing that differed drastically in the two games mentioned above was the ability of the defense to slow down Marshawn Lynch and the Seattle running game. Outside of a couple runs, Lynch found running room to be limited against the Cardinals. By comparison, Lynch accounted for just over half of Seattle's offensive output last week against the Saints.
For a San Francisco defense that has consistently fielded one of the best run defenses in the league over the past several seasons, Lynch has found uncommon success against the 49ers' vaunted front. His 524 rushing yards against the 49ers over the past three seasons are 227 more yards than any other back. In those six games, Lynch has three 100-yard games and fell just two yards shy of a fourth in the first game this season.
The 49ers did a much better job limiting Lynch's impact the second time they faced off this season. His 11-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter was his only run of the day that reach double digit yardage. Beyond that, San Francisco was mostly able to keep Lynch bottled up as he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on the day.
One thing that San Francisco did frequently in that game was keep their base 3-4 defense on the field against Seattle's 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) whenever it wasn't an obvious passing situation. This is a strategy that the 49ers have used often this season when not facing top tier passing attacks and it's been effective.
With seven defenders in the box to take on six blockers, the 49ers have an extra player that the Seahawks cannot account for. That player still needs to make the tackle, of course, and against Lynch that's much easier said than done. But Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman are as sure of tacklers as there are in football and when you don't force them to even take on a blocker, that's a play they're going to make more often than not.
On this particular play, Seattle is running a zone slice play with tight end Zach Miller coming across the formation to kick out Aldon Smith on the backside to open up the designed cutback lane for Lynch. As soon as Bowman recognizes the slice block from Miller, he stops dead in his tracks and waits for Lynch to make his cut. He doesn't go for the big hit, which can get you in trouble against a violent runner like Lynch. Instead, he breaks down and makes the solid, fundamental tackle and the result is just a short gain.
These are the types of plays you have to make as a defense to slow Seattle's running game. It doesn't have to be flashy and you don't necessarily need to create negative plays – which is something that San Francisco's run defense doesn't do much of anyway. But you do need to make tackles when given the opportunity and you have to prevent Lynch from breaking through the second level.
Phew, we're almost there! Ultimately, I can't help but feel that the outcome of this game is going to come down to who is able to throw the ball more effectively. Yes, these are two run-oriented teams and there's no question that we'll see plenty of both Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch on Sunday. However, I have a difficult time picturing either of those backs having the type of game-breaking performance that decides the game. Roughly 70-80 yards at just under a four-yard per carry clip seems about right for both players.
Instead, it's going to be about which young quarterback can make plays in the passing game. Which of them can handle the pressure that is sure to come from the other team's talented pass rush. Which of them can avoid turnovers. Which of them can take advantage of the opportunities given to them by their stout defenses. Against a Seattle pass defense that has been historically good by some measures, that would seem to tilt the game in their favor. However, the Harbaugh-era 49ers have never been better equipped to succeed when traveling up north. The receiving trio of Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis is the best set of receiving targets to don red and gold since the days of Rice, Owens and Stokes. If there is a team built to beat the Seahawks in Century Link, these 49ers are that team.