The San Francisco 49ers will have their work cut out for them Sunday when they return to their house of horrors to play the Seattle Seahawks for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
While finding ways to grind out yards on offense is key, the team's defense must continue to play at its current level or better to get another "chance at the ultimate chance." Nothing riles up the famed "12th Man" more than points for the home team. Therefore taking the air out of the fans' lungs starts with stopping Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and the rest of the Seahawks' offense.
San Francisco knows as well as any team how dynamic Wilson can be.
"Whether they’re blitzing or not blitzing, he’s a dynamic player that can throw from the pocket very effectively with timing," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Dec. 6, days before Week 14's 19-17 win over Seattle. "He can beat blitzes. He can also evade and escape and extend plays as good as anyone has ever played."
But they are also equipped to stop him perhaps better than anyone else given the basic nature of their defensive scheme. Wilson's rare ability to break the pocket and make plays when the play breaks down is what separates him from the pack of young quarterbacks. But in an odd way, keeping the play from breaking down will lead to success for the 49ers on Sunday.
Defensively, when a play breaks down it means a player loses his gap integrity creating open space on the field for quarterbacks to exploit. Some teams try to blitz Wilson from numerous angles, playing into his strength of finding the open target or running lane.
WIlson has a 95.7 quarterback rating when blitzed, according to Pro Football Focus.
If what San Francisco did against Cam Newton Sunday in Carolina is an indicator, the pass rushing front four will focus on staying in their lanes and not collapsing on the quarterback unless they are certain they can make the tackle. On a number of plays, both Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks refrained from getting after Newton immediately and instead held the edge to protect from Newton escaping the pocket and making plays downfield with his arm or his legs. Even so, they finished the day with five sacks.
Utilizing just four pass rushers allows San Francisco to use the maximum of seven players in coverage, which makes open receivers that much more difficult to find. Newton's two interceptions came from inside the pocket when he was feeling pressure from Aldon Smith and Justin Smith, respectively, and didn't step into those throws causing his inaccuracy (although his final pick to Donte Whitner was a bad decision all around).
Of course, the way to combat that type of defensive strategy is with a running game. And with Lynch, Seattle is certainly equipped to make the 49ers pay for playing straight up and not stacking the box. Despite having two of the best run-stopping middle linebackers in football, Lynch has averaged 4.9 yards per carry against San Francisco in his career. And he's coming off a 28-carry, 140-yard performance against the Saints.
Limiting Lynch and forcing Wilson to beat them from inside the pocket is the best way to slow down the offense.
Ask the Arizona Cardinals, who limited Wilson to 11 of 27 passing for just 108 yards. Saturday, the Saints held Wilson to 9 of 18 for 103 yards. The Cardinals, owners of the best run defense in football, allowed just 71 yards on 18 carries to Lynch. The 49ers will have to do something similar Sunday to come out with a win. In his four starts against San Francisco, Wilson has completed 47 of 88 (53 percent) with six touchdowns, four interceptions and and a passer rating of 80.4.
Wilson's 63.9 passer rating from Week 2's win over the 49ers was his second-lowest at CenturyLink Field this season. His worst came at the hands of the Cardinals (49.6) when he took his first ever loss at home Dec. 22.
When the 49ers sacked Newton on consecutive plays in the third quarter Sunday, they did so with a well-timed blitz from NaVorro Bowman and a strong push from Ray McDonald up the middle that allowed Brooks to clean up the sack. Credit defensive coordinator Vic Fangio for using his blitzes sparingly, allowing their effectiveness at the game's most opportune moments.
"When you have four guys out there and their rushing like there's six or seven guys, there's no reason to bring other guys," safety Donte Whitner said back in December prior to the Week 14 match up at Candlestick. "You can leave them in coverage, you can do other things. You can double guys, you can triple guys. You can roll coverages certain ways when you can get pressure with four. And that's every defensive coaches dream is to get pressure with three or four. If you can do that you can win a lot of football games."
Slowing down the defense might include adding some new wrinkles, much like they did Sunday in Carolina. At the goal line, Fangio moved Brooks to a standing inside linebacker position in a 5-3 front, instead of the standard 6-2 the 49ers have run exclusively at the goal line over the last three seasons. Brooks stopped Newton on his 4th-down sneak by sitting in the A-gap to Newton's right, where he tried to break the plane of the goal line. Brooks' positioning gave him leverage and he stopped Newton making one of the most important plays of the game.
I asked Harbaugh about the new formation Monday and he was far more candid talking about scheme than usual.
“The un-scouted part of the whole situation was the defense itself. We went from a 6-2 defense on the goal line, everybody watched that movie All the Right Moves, 6-2 stankmonster, get a feeling. That’s been our defense on the goal line. For the years we’ve been here we’ve never shown a 5-3 look.
"By taking Ahmad and moving him into the center to create the 5-3 was what was un-scouted. We had not shown that and I thought it was a great move by [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio. We talked about it during the week. This is something that would be very difficult for the opposition if we get in that position and Vic said, ‘well I hope we’re not in that position.’ Sure enough we were in that position two times, and that planning, that preparation by our players, especially by Vic Fangio and the defensive coaches was profound.”
Did Brooks' previous experience at inside linebacker at Cincinnati and collegiately at Virginia play into that decision?
"Yeah some, the experience he’s had there. But, he was very excited about it and so was [LB] NaVorro [Bowman], so was [LB] Patrick [Willis] and the rest of the fellas were really excited. We watched it all week in practice and everybody grew very confident, very excited in the plan.”
Had the Panthers scored there in their first of two goal line situations in the second quarter, they likely would have gone for it again on fourth down on their second try. But instead of coming away with 14 points and a commanding first-half lead, they scored just a field goal after two trips to the 1-yard line.
The reliance on the running game has led to Wilson using play action at a high rate than any quarterback in the league at 34.1 percent. He's the fifth-rated quarterback using play action with a 112.3 passer rating. Slowing Lynch down won't mitigate the use of run fakes, but it would limit the passing game even further. Wilson gets 7.5 yards per attempt on straight drop backs compared to 9.5 using play action.
*Statistics from Pro Football Focus were used in this report*
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