I was in the stands at The CLink on December 24th, 2011, to watch a classic game of smash-mouth football between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. Naturally, I was bummed when the Niners escaped with a 19-17 victory over our Seahawks.
I hate everything about the 49ers. I can't stand them and I never want them to win. I especially do not like their Head Coach, Jim Harbaugh.
After watching the 49ers through the season and into the playoffs, I have unwillingly and begrudgingly fallen in love with the way they play football. They play the game precisely the way I want my Seahawks to play. The Hawks are currently configured as a near carbon-copy of the NFC Championship Game hosting 49ers, and this 49er team looks to advance to the Super Bowl this Sunday against the New York Giants.
When I see the 49ers hosting the NFC title game, I think, "Why couldn't it be the Seahawks? Why not?"
My answer is that, in the near future, I think it will be.
Look at the San Francisco 49ers and look at the Seattle Seahawks. The similarities between these two teams are astonishing. Both teams have upper tier defenses. Both teams have optimum power running backs in Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch. Both teams have limitations at the quarterback position in Tarvaris Jackson and Alex Smith (although after this weekend it seems easy to point out the improvement of Alex Smith). Both teams have head coaches with college coaching experience. At the risk of pointing out the extremely obvious, both teams are in the NFC West.
When it comes to defense, the statistics between the two teams are similar.
Defense Yards Per Game:
Seahawks: 9th in the NFL (332.2 YPG)
49ers: 4th in the NFL (308.2 YPG)
Total Rushing Yards Allowed:
Seahawks: 15th in the NFL (1797 yards on 473 attempts, 3.79 YPC)
49ers: 1st in the NFL (1,236 on 353 attempts, 3.50 YPC)
Pass Defense Yards Per Game:
Seahawks: 11th in the NFL (219.9 YPG)
49ers: 16th in the NFL (230.9 YPG)
Scoring Defense (Points Per Game):
Seahawks: 7th in NFL (19.7 PPG)
49ers: 2nd in NFL (14.3 PPG)
If you just look at the numbers, both defenses seem to be right on par with each other, with San Francisco getting the overall nod in my book because of the scoring defense. And, quite frankly - and this will probably generate some heated discussion, I would trade the Seahawks defense for the 49ers defense if I could.
Here are the two players that separate the 49ers defense from the Seahawks defense in my opinion:
1. Patrick Willis. Patrick Willis is the total package at linebacker. He is the type of linebacker that can change the entire complexion of a defense. The Seahawks lack that kind of presence at the LB position. Seattle does have some solid, instinctive linebackers in Leroy Hill, David Hawthorne and K.J. Wright (who had an impressive rookie season), that are a serviceable linebacking core.
But neither Hill, Hawthorne, or Wright are on the same level as Patrick Willis. First off, Willis is in an elite class athletically. At his combine in 2007, he clocked a 4.51 second 40-yard dash. To put that time into perspective, the Seahawks LB's ran 4.65 (Leroy Hill), 4.69 (David Hawthorne), and 4.75 (K.J. Wright). Elite speed at the LB position makes Willis a superior pass defender. In Vic Fangio's defense, Willis has taken on more responsibility in man coverage. Most of the time, Willis played one-on-one with the opposing teams tight ends. At 240 pounds, and with elite 4.51 speed, Willis is able to handle TE's by himself.
The 49ers only gave up 3 touchdowns all season to an opposing TE. The Seahawks conceded 7 TD's to opposing TE's. If you watched the NFL playoffs this weekend you saw some serious playmaking among the TE's: Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Vernon Davis, and Jimmy Graham. More speed at the linebacker position for the Seahawks is a must. Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne are both unrestricted free agents so they might have played their last game in a Seahawks jersey. I wouldn't be surprised if the Seahawks selected a stud LB in the first round.
2. Aldon Smith. The 49ers had the 7th most sacks this year with 42 and the Seahawks were 19th in the league with 33 sacks. The 49ers' Aldon Smith led the 49ers in sacks with 14 of them and he is just a rookie (which does not bode well for Seahawks fans). Chris Clemons has led the Seahawks in sacks for each of the past 2 seasons with 11 sacks each year. Clemons is a more than serviceable defensive end, and he has made some timely plays this season.
But to be truly elite defense (which is where I want to see the Seahawks in the future), they must have an explosive fear-inducing rush end that needs to be accounted for by the offense on every play. Aldon Smith is technically listed as an OLB but really is more of a DE because he plays at the LOS, usually with his hand in the dirt. Many draft experts project the Seahawks to take a DE in Round 1 and I'd be perfectly happy with that because generally elite defenses have a game-changer that rushes from the outside.
The 49ers run a 3-4 defense and the Seahawks run a 4-3 defense so their personnel varies slightly, but if you look at the individual players, a lot of them are comparable to each other.
The Hawks have three 300-pounders on the defensive line. The only Seahawks defensive line starter that is under 300 pounds is Chris Clemons, who comes in at 254 pounds. Hopefully, the Seahawks will resign Red Bryant. General consensus is that Bryant had a Pro Bowl caliber season. Alan Branch also made an impact in the middle, and is one of the reasons the Seahawks had one of the better rushing defenses in the league. Clemons brought to the table 11 sacks but is still not the elite playmaking pass-rusher that the Seahawks need.
Justin Smith was elected to the Pro Bowl this season and had 7.5 sacks this season and forced 3 fumbles. Ray McDonald was selected as an alternate. Bottom line: the Niners are set at DL for the foreseeable future.
The Seahawks rid themselves of the muscular robot named Aaron Curry and replaced him with someone who actually has a nose for the football (and does not commit bonehead mistakes) in K.J. Wright. The Seahawks still lack playmaking at the LB position. Last years' trio of LB's played the run well, but you have to wonder if that was because of the solid DL play the Seahawks received. It's also reasonable to believe that the talented Seattle secondary helped hide the LB's in coverage skills. Bottom line: LBs need an infusion of speed and have to improve in pass coverage before the Seahawks can become an upper-tier defense like the 49ers.
The 49ers' Carlos Rogers was elected to the Pro Bowl. Rogers is regarded as one of the best cover guys in the NFC. The general consensus on Tarell Brown is that he had a solid season by improving to earn the starting spot and delivering with 4 interceptions.
Aside from the penalties, the Seahawks cornerback play was much better than I expected it would be. Despite the lack of first-class speed (which is probably why the two drew so many penalties), Browner and Sherman showed ball skills and instincts by totaling 10 interception (Browner with 6, Sherman with 4). Browner is an alternate for the Pro Bowl. A blessing in disguise this season might have been the injuries at CB because it allowed the Seahawks to see the depth that they had at the CB position. Bottom line: the Seahawks are seemingly set at CB, and the sky is the limit for Browner and Sherman.
The Seahawks have arguably one of the best safety tandems in the NFL in ball-hawking Pro Bowler Earl Thomas and heavy-hitting enforcer Kam Chancellor (Pro Bowl alternate). The 49ers are also right there in the conversation for best NFL safety tandems with Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson and alternate Pro Bowler Donte Whitner. The Seahawks are definitely set at the safety position for the foreseeable future. The 49ers are set with Whitner, but Rogers will be a free agent this offseason. Elite safeties are worth a hefty price tag on the free agent market so it will be interesting to see if the 49ers let Rogers walk.
Seahawks: Tarvaris Jackson
49ers: Alex Smith
Do the Seahawks stick with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm? Do they sign a hot commodity free agent such as Matt Flynn? Or do they wait until April to solve the quarterback questions with a high first round QB? Or do they try to find a QB in the middle to late rounds that might become a diamond in the rough? Let's assume they stick with T-Jack for next season.
In my opinion, I think T-Jack had a mediocre season. Jackson certainly did not win any games for Seahawks, but he didn't necessarily lose any games for them either. I'm willing to give Tarvaris at least one more year to see if he can click with this offense. He didn't have a full off-season to gain rapport with his receivers and he did not have his best weapon in Sidney Rice for much of the season. I am optimistically hoping that Zach Miller can return to his former Pro Bowl form and earn his paycheck in terms of receptions.
Much has been made of Tarvaris Jackson's lack of clutch production. In the 49ers game, his lack of ability to lead the offense to scores when the game is on the line could not have been more evident. Two times Tarvaris Jackson was behind the center with a chance to lead the Seahawks to victory and twice he utterly failed. First, TJ scrambled and fumbled, and then on the last ditch effort TJ didn't even throw the ball in bounds on 4th down.
Alex Smith's clutch gene apparently came to life versus the Saints by constructing two consecutive clutch touchdown drives. The first touchdown was the 3rd and 7 QB sweep that might have been the best play call all year by any head coach and then by hitting Vernon Davis to get into FG range and then hitting again Davis with 9 seconds left in the game for the winning TD.
I've never seen Tarvaris Jackson carry the Seahawks offense the way that Alex Smith carried his 49ers offense against the Saints. So for the moment, I'm giving the 49ers an edge at the QB position.
The continuity and growth of the offensive line, despite serious injuries to three of the five starters, certainly gives reason to think that the Seahawks should have an offensive line loaded with depth and talent for the next few seasons. Breno Giacomini, Lemuel Jeanpierre, and Paul McQuistan filled in admirably and well beyond expectations for James Carpenter, John Moffitt, and Russell Okung. The useful benefit of having a full offseason to work together should also help the OL unit become a key strength for the Seahawks.
The running back position is a place of question marks for the Seahawks. Will they re-sign or franchise tag Marshawn Lynch? How about fullback Michael Robinson? Assuming both Lynch and Robinson are back, the Seahawks are pretty much set in the backfield, as are the 49ers. Frank Gore (Pro Bowl) and Marshawn Lynch (Pro Bowl alternate) are both physical runners and Robinson and Miller are both Pro Bowl alternate fullbacks.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
Seahawks: Sidney Rice, Mike Williams, Doug Baldwin, Zach Miller
49ers: Ted Ginn Jr., Michael Crabtree, Vernon Davis
Neither team has seen excellent wide receiver play, with injuries and inconsistency taking a toll on both WR corps. The Seahawks should have better WR's on paper because of the Sidney Rice is a guy who has performed at a high level in the past, but struggled to stay on the field this year. The real difference in receiver between these two teams is at the tight end position. Vernon Davis virtually put the 49ers offense on his back to defeat the Saints.
In the New Orleans game alone, Davis practically outperformed Zach Miller's entire season. Zach Miller had 25 catches for 233 and 0 touchdowns for the season. Vernon Davis on the other hand, had 7 catches for 180 yards and 2 TD's in just one playoff game. As a former TE myself, I'd be thrilled if the Hawks selected a game-changing TE in the draft. The best part about drafting a TE, is that top-notch talent can be found in the middle rounds: Jimmy Graham: Round 3, Jason Witten: Round 3, Aaron Hernandez: Round 4, Antionio Gates: undrafted.
There are only four teams still alive in the NFL postseason: the San Francisco 49ers, the New York Giants, the Baltimore Ravens, and the New England Patriots. The bright side is that the Seahawks defeated two of those teams (Baltimore at home, and New York on the road), and took the 49ers to the wire both times they squared off.
Like I said earlier, I was at the San Francisco game in late December, and I really thought that it was a statement game for the Seahawks. Going into the game, the Seahawks still had a chance at snagging the last playoff spot and I thought it was a game that could really send a message to San Francisco about the future of the NFC West. The 49ers had a breakout season this year going 13-3 thanks to a punishing, opportunistic defense, aggressive running game, and timely production from the quarterback position.
San Francisco led the league in takeaways per game with 2.5, and Seattle finished 6th with 1.9 takeaways per game. The 4 teams between San Francisco and Seattle in takeaways per game are the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, and New York Giants (in that order).
Note that all five teams ahead of the Seahawks in takeaways per game all made the playoffs. Three of those teams are still alive in the playoffs and playing in the two conference championship games this upcoming weekend: New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, and New England Patriots (the Baltimore Ravens finished 10th in takeaways with 1.8 per game).
The Seahawks are at a point in the Pete Carroll era where I firmly believe that they can compete with anybody. No longer do I look at the schedule and see a 10 a.m. East Coast game and say "That's an automatic loss", nor do I see perennial playoff teams and think "We simply are not on their level".
The Seahawks have laid the foundation to success: an opportunistic defense that forces turnovers, and a dominating running game. With a quarterback that can lead them to victory late in the game (maybe TJ can become that guy) could we, next year, be watching the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game?
What do you think?