For a closer look at some under the radar players that may impact the NFC Championship Game this Sunday, I teamed up with David Fucillo of NinersNation to break down one player on offense and defense from each team.
The Seahawks have had a weird year along the offensive line, so Michael Bowie is going to be my under the radar offensive player of the game this week. First though, some background.
Seattle lost LT Russell Okung for eight games with a torn ligament in his foot. They lost RT Breno Giacomini for a long stretch with a knee injury. All Pro center Max Unger has missed time. They've used a platoon system at left guard, which has seen former first round pick James Carpenter and journeyman vet Paul McQuistan trade series and combine for mostly mediocre play. There's been way too much shuffling and not near enough stability along the line and it's shown up on the field. Protection has been marginally better over the past few weeks - Okung, Unger, and Breno are back and relatively healthy - and the run game is seemingly gaining some traction. Still, it's an ongoing battle for consistency.
Further shaking things up on the offensive line though, Michael Bowie was named starter at left guard during the bye week following the end of the season, thus replacing the platoon system there. Bowie previously saw action at right tackle in Giacomini's place at the beginning of the year, but is obviously pretty green at the position.
And now he gets to face off against Justin Smith in the NFC Championship Game. No big deal.
Bowie played well at that spot against New Orleans, I thought, and minus a few miscues, looks the part. Obviously, Justin Smith presents a whole new set of problems to prepare for, so that's going to be one marquee matchup to watch for.
-- As a caveat, there's always the chance that the platoon system at LG continues because generally speaking, James Carpenter has had some of his better games against the Niners and specifically, against Justin Smith. This is a power-factor - Carpenter is by far the strongest lineman on the team and while he gives up a lot in speed and awareness in space (which is why he was a healthy scratch last week), he's hard to move if he can get his hands on you. He's also pretty strong in the run game for this same reason.From TNT's Todd Dybas:
James Carpenter said he expects to be active this week. We'll see how if that means Carpenter is going to be active in order to assure offensive line depth in what is expected to be a rock fight Sunday or if he is back in the mix at left guard. "It was very difficult, any player doesn't want to be inactive," Carpenter said. "I just came to work and all week just tried to help the team."
So, there's a chance they'll see Carpenter as a better matchup against the always troublesome Smith, who is one of the most disruptive and powerful defensive linemen in the NFL. How the Seahawks handle this matchup is one of the most interesting storylines for the early part of the game, in my mind.
Everybody will talk about Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, but the passing game will potentially need another receiving option to step up. Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell could spend all day covering Boldin and Crabtree, but if a third receiver can step into the mix, the 49ers could find some holes in this elite Seahawks secondary. If they're going to do that, rookie wide receiver Quinton Patton would be that guy.
Patton has dealt with injuries, including a finger injury in training camp, and a foot injury through the middle of the season. He does not have big numbers by any calculation, but when he has gotten touches, he has made an impact. Colin Kaepernick has faith in certain players, with Crabtree and Boldin obviously leading the way. However, he and Patton connected in training camp, and after a big preseason game, Kap expressed how much faith he had in him as a receiver. This is key for the young quarterback. Whether the Seahawks bottle up Crabtree and/or Boldin, I think we see Kap look Patton's way a few times on Sunday.
On defense, my under the radar player to watch is cornerback Jeremy Lane. Lane has quietly played very well in nickel and dime looks, and provides a speed and physicality in the slot. Going along with David's under the radar offensive player, it's possible we see Seattle match Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell up with Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree, meaning Jeremy Lane (and possibly Walter Thurmond) could get some opportunities to match up with Quinton Patton. Regardless of whether the Hawks man up or play their standard LCB/RCB scheme, Lane could be a player the Niners target as they work the ball over the middle.
Lane is also a very strong contributor on special teams. He's one of the fastest players on the team and this year has been integral in Seattle's punt game as a gunner. You'll often see Lane get himself downfield so quickly that he's able to field the punt deep in enemy territory. Because I believe that field position is going to be a pretty big deal in this one, Lane is a player to keep an eye out for. He's #20.
The under the radar guy has to be defensive tackle Tony Jerod-Eddie. The 49ers defense is playing strong football right now, and a reason for that is the ability to get rest throughout the season for defensive tackles Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. The plan at the start of the year was for Ian Williams to handle nose tackle duties, and Glenn Dorsey to operate as the primary utility guy. In Week 2 against the Seahawks, Williams suffered a broken ankle, pushing Dorsey into the starting nose tackle role. The 49ers gave Tony Jerod-Eddie a chance as the primary backup on the line, and he has run with the role. Demarcus Dobbs does solid work as well, but TJE has emerged as the team's primary backup.
On Sunday, look for more of the same in terms of rotations. The 49ers look to keep Smith and McDonald fresh, which means Jerod-Eddie will get his share of snaps. Depending on how many defensive snaps the 49ers play, look for him to play somewhere between 19 and 24 snaps, give or take. Given how physical these 49ers-Seahawks games can be, maybe he ends up with more. He is not a guy who will overwhelm in the pass rush, or make flashy plays. However, he can consistently handle both the traditional 3-4 DE role, and occasionally move inside at DT in the nickel when needed. He's not a "play-maker" per se, but he is a solid backup option.
Make sure you check out a few previous collaborative posts from this week:
- Twelve's Company: NFC Championship edition
- Percy Harvin Injury: Pete Carroll says no word yet Friday on Harvin's status
- NFC Championship 2014: 49ers vs. Seahawks game time, TV schedule, online streaming, odds and more
- This Week In Defense: Saints at Seahawks
- 12th Man podcast for the NFC Championship Game, with Scott Enyeart & Jason Puckett, via Sports Radio KJR