Sunday, December 12, 2010
Seahawks look to sweep 49ers
The Seahawks travel to a place very familiar to many within the organization for a week 14 matchup at the San Francisco 49ers. Coach Pete Carroll, Linebacker Coach Ken Norton Jr., Special Teams assistant Jeff Ulbrich, Fullback Michael Robinson and personnel executive Scot McCloughan all have strong ties to the 49ers organization; McCloughan was their General Manager only nine months ago. The Seahawks are in a unique position to capitalize on the abundance of knowledge their 2010 roster and staff has from their time in San Francisco; This is an opportunity the Seahawks cannot squander.
Four Wheel Drive: As noted earlier in the week, the Seahawks will start the same five offensive linemen in three consecutive games for the first time this season; they are coming off their most complete rushing performance under the new regime. Simply put, Sunday's game against the 49ers is the biggest gut-check the Seahawks running game will face all season. They took an enormous step forward last week, but based on the inconsistent trend of the season I imagine many feel a letdown coming.
All Pro Middle Linebacker Patrick Willis and the 49ers have not allowed a 100 yard rusher in 18 straight games; Franchise Tagged Nose Tackle Aubrayo Franklin is a large part of that success, but he is questionable for Sunday's game with a groin injury. While having a Seahawk run for 100 yards on Sunday would be impressive, I do not think that is a statistic the Seahawks should be focused on, even as Coordinator Jeremy Bates puts together a game plan that will be focused on maintaining the run. The 31 carries last week were split between four complementary players that each brings a unique element to this offense; Justin Forsett averaged 10 yards per carry on six carries and was, as Coach Carroll noted Monday, "On fire." He isn't flashy, but neither was former Falcons and Buccaneers Runningback Warrick Dunn. Forsett is one of the most underrated, well rounded running backs in the NFL; Marshawn Lynch runs in "Beastmode," showing balance, toughness and creativity; Leon Washington is an X factor, capable of breaking open a game at any time; Fullback Michael Robinson, a player whose all around skills and importance I have chronicled the past few weeks, completes the backfield as a undersized, tenacious blocker and a capable receiver. The Seahawks were finally able to mix their formations, keeping the defense off balance, and showed a glimmer of the versatile, power rushing attack Coach Carroll has been envisioning for this offense. Carroll on Wednesday; "The whole time were talking to those guys, encouraging them; keeping it going. They never griped. The fact that we now have it pointed in the same direction, we want to keep it going."
Who will catch the ball? Mike Williams and Ben Obomanu are likely out for Sunday's game, putting pressure on Coordinator Jeremy Bates to create a well rounded game plan without his top two playmaking receivers. Fortunately, last week's 28 point second half was played without them, giving Bates an idea of what can work with a limited receiving core. Veteran receiver Brandon Stokley, who Matt Hasselbeck coined the best slot receiver ever, has caught four or more balls in three straight games and that streak must continue Sunday; the more catches he has, the more first downs the Seahawks can get.
Rookie Golden Tate and receiver Ruvell Martin, a special teams contributor and career backup receiver, will compete to take the place of Williams; Hasselbeck has consistently targeted Tate, but the two are yet to develop a solid rapport; Martin is 6'4, 220 pounds and showed playmaking ability, especially over the middle and in the red zone, as a Green Bay Packer. Stokely must be the safety blanket, but Tate or Martin needs to be "the noticeable factor," as Cameron Morrah against the Panthers, this week.
Protect Hasselbeck and The ball: Matt Hasselbeck has five turnovers in four games since returning from injury; all five have been in the past two games. Coach Carroll noted earlier in the week, "Matt's been working real hard on keeping the football. It could lose us a game, it didn't Sunday. But he's been working. Somewhere they are going to get you and he he had that long streak without one. He needs to remember it's OK to take a sack." The 49ers have an aggressive defense that has 36 takeaways in their last 16 home games and sacked Packers Quarterback Aaron Rodgers four times last week; 49ers coach Mike Singletary noted this week, "we want to play our best game of the year." The 49ers rely on their defense, especially at home; The Seahawks need the reliable, veteran Matt Hasselbeck to show up Sunday, minimizing the 49ers opportunities to create turnovers.
Pointed downhill: The Seahawks pass rush reappeared last weekend after two straight sackless performances, both losses. The 49ers are without stud Left Tackle Joe Staley and start two rookies on the Offensive line, including rookie Right Tackle Anthony Davis. The Seahawks need to mix the pass rush by attacking Anthony Davis' side with overload blitzes, "stunts," and delayed pressure that blitzes after the offensive players have committed to their blocking assignments. As the 49ers will look to spread the field more with Alex Smith using three receivers on first and second down, there will be opportunity to attack; the Seahawks need to confuse Smith and not let a Quarterback who struggles to get rid of the football quickly beat them with quick throws.
Take away the middle of the field: Alex Smith can get very hot if he and Vernon Davis establish a rhythm; ESPN's Mike Sando noted this week that 18 of Smith's 46 career touchdown passes have gone to Davis. The majority have come on routes down the middle, especially on first and second downs. The Seahawks need to use bigger defenders on Davis, such as Aaron Curry and Jordan Babineaux, to stop Davis from getting a free release at the line of scrimmage. If the Seahawks can take away the middle, it will force Smith to throw to the sidelines, a weakness in his game; the Marcus Trufant pick six in week 1 was a result of a poor Alex Smith, sideline throw. If Vernon Davis is contained, Alex Smith tends to panic.
Force Smith to throw deep: Not surprisingly, Alex Smith is among the NFL's best in the red zone because he is a passer that thrives in the short and intermediate passing game, which covers less than 20 yards down field; receiver Michael Crabtree has matured in his second year, proving to be a reliable possession reciever. Receivers Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn are both capable of attacking down the field, but Smith is not a strong armed quarterback that throws a dangerous deep ball; he can only be successful when the short passing game is opening space to throw down field and often forces throws into double coverage when his short options are taken away. Lofa Tatupu needs to continue the stellar pass coverage he exemplified last week, containing Runningback Brian Westbrook who is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. If Tatupu is successful, look for Earl Thomas to play a role in contributing to forcing Smith into making mistakes, especially in intermediate and deep coverage.
The Seahawks needs to maintain their discipline and remain "inside the defense" this week, as the 49ers have not shown the consistency of a playmaking, dynamic offense; they thrive on a steady running game and smart play calling by Coordinator Mike Johnson to move the football. This game will be a true test for Pete Carroll's "formula," an opportunity to keep precious momentum going. In my article Squished, sideways and searching written after the Giants loss, I noted my concern that the NFL season, including the pre season, is about six games longer than the college season; Coach Carroll spent the month of December at USC recovering and preparing for a bowl game, not intensely battling to win the Pac 10 conference. I wondered if Carroll would be able to maintain his competitiveness and mentality for his first full NFL season in over a decade; Could he keep his players together, keep them believing in an untested program? I'm most likely in the minority, but I believe this team is just getting started; The Seahawks intend to gain more believers with a victory on Sunday.