Part of being a consistent contender is team health. Abstractly we can understand that for most teams, the starters will play better than their backups. When a team loses starters to injury it is less likely to win. What is much less understood is how game-to-game, even snap-to-snap health impacts players that are starting or contributing.
Ray McDonald was fully healthy in week two. He walked over Max Unger. McDonald was "probable" last week. He was listed with a "shoulder". Could that shoulder have sapped enough power to level the competition? Unger, much to his credit, has not appeared once on the NFL injury report.
Maybe Unger improved, maybe McDonald regressed, maybe McDonald was injured, maybe home field factored and Unger was faster off the snap or more willing to stretch the rules. It's impossible to know. We can be sure that Unger played better and his improved play was vital to Seattle winning.
In the first drive of the fourth quarter, Unger pulled twice and factored once. On his second pull attempt, Unger missed his assignment and that assignment, linebacker Takeo Spikes, tackled Julius Jones after six. Matt Hasselbeck ended the drive by attempting to pull out from the pile again and doing so again sacked himself by running into a defender.
Unger was the best man on the line at holding ground and protecting the pocket on Seattle's first play of its second drive. He then turned his man on a rush play and contained his man on the following pass play. That turned out to be pretty damn important in the interconnected world of Football.
For most of the season, Chris Spencer protected Unger. If a man was aligned over Unger, Spencer would typically turn right and double the defender. Rob Sims was the reliable guard. He was left to fend for himself. Unger proved capable of controlling his man and that allowed Spencer to read and react. It proved critical.
Lock was badly beat around the end by Manny Lawson. Sims controlled his man and Spencer stood free in his center zone. Spencer turned that freedom into a crucial freeing block. He doubled Sims man and the two dominated him so completely that Sims was able to pull free and pick up Locklear's blown assignment. What looked like a sack turned into a fifteen yard completion.
Unger was satisfactory on his final two plays of the drive. The play that preceded those was a heartening sign. Seattle, for the nth time all game, hit the 49ers nose tackle and short-spaced down linemen and moved out the middle in impressive fashion. Moving out the middle linemen, be it nose, defensive tackles or 3-4 ends, is a harbinger of a building run game. Justin Forsett missed the hole, but it was a beauty. Behind Seattle's center three a crease ripped open that would have harbored the rusher deep into the 49ers second level. Forsett cut left and into Manny Lawson for a loss of three. John Carlson was discarded in routine fashion.
Unger was steady, steady throughout the game, steady in crunch time, and reliable enough to make those around him look better. A steady Unger makes the entire offensive line better. He started the season weak at the point and unreliable snap to snap and is ending stout at the point and forgettable on most downs. That's good progression and return on a second round guard prospect. It's also a boring end to a series.
On the first play of Seattle's second to last drive, Unger put it all together. He helped force back the 49ers left defensive line and then shot into the second level. There, just as Jones approached the right edge, Unger inflicted a punishing cut block on Patrick Willis. Jones turned and sprinted up field into the 49ers open right side. Willis wasn't there to hit him. He wasn't there to stop the play short. Willis was just another spectator, watching Jones turn the corner and run for 11.