Explosive Championship Preview: The San Francisco 49ers

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It truly is a Championship Opportunity on Sunday against the 49ers. Let's revisit our arch rivals from an explosive perspective.

Since May mini-camps, this Seahawks team has talked about things like a "championship mentality".

Russell Wilson dropped the phrase "Championship Offseason" at just about every press conference. Every preseason and regular season game was met with a desire to go 1-0 that week. There were no distractions, no sideshows, just focus and preparation. That "1-0 championship weekend" mentality vaulted the Seahawks to an 11-1 record and on the doorstep of an NFC West Division championship going into a Week 14 grudge-match against the hated San Francisco 49ers.

Unfortunately, the Seahawks squandered that first "Championship Opportunity" when they gave up the 51 yard explosive run to Frank Gore, a critical 3rd down run to Colin Kaepernick, then a short field goal to Phil Dawson.

Two weeks later, Seattle found themselves with a second Championship Opportunity at home against the Arizona Cardinals. Seattle only needed one win in two remaining home games to clinch the NFC West. However, Arizona would play fantastic defense and generate a critical late explosive touchdown pass to Michael Floyd and shut down the 2nd opportunity.

The third opportunity came the very next week against St. Louis. The Rams would struggle to be explosive at all, while Seattle was explosive enough to win comfortably. Of course, the Rams essentially self-destructed in the 3rd quarter when Seattle began to separate themselves.

Now, Seattle finds itself in its fourth Championship Opportunity, this time for a conference title. This just isn't any title game, however. We will witness the two best teams in the NFC square off, with the non-Seattle team being none other than our hated rivals, the San Francisco 49ers.

Let's take a look at how their explosive numbers have fared since Week 14.

The San Francisco Offense

Week

Opponent


Ex. Run

Ex. Pass

Total

1

vs. GB

2

10

12

2

at SEA

4

2

6

3

vs. IND

4

2

6

4

at STL

7

3

10

5

vs. HOU

6

1

7

6

vs. ARZ

3

4

7

7

at TEN

2

6

8

8

at JAX

5

5

10

9

BYE

10

vs. CAR

4

0

4

11

at NO

2

1

3

12

at WAS

0

6

6

13

vs. STL

0

8

8

14

vs. SEA

2

4

6

15

at TB

5

2

7

16

vs. ATL

3

5

8

17

at ARZ

2

8

10

Wildcard

at GB

3

5

8

Divisional

at CAR

2

5

7

Season Totals


56

77

133

Avg. per game

3.11

4.28

7.39

Since hitting their explosive-low against the Saints, the Niners have averaged 7.5 big plays per game on their unbeaten run. Only twice have they not won outright the explosive play battle: in Week 13 against the Rams and in Week 17 at Arizona.

The major tenet of the 49ers offense is running the football explosively. Only the Philadelphia Eagles had more big rushes this season and that explosiveness has carried over into the playoffs. Seattle fans are all too familiar with Frank Gore's explosiveness, not just in his entire career, but also from his back-breaking 51 yard run in Week 14. Gore also had a huge run late against Carolina to essentially book San Francisco's ticket to Seattle.

If there's one team that throws the football less than Seattle, it's San Francisco. That translates to their explosive passing game, or in this case, lack thereof. San Francisco was a horrid 29th this season in big pass plays and have had more than 5 big passes in a game only five times.

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Total Explosive Plays: Tied with Arizona for 12th

Explosive Passes: Ranked 29th

Explosive Runs: Ranked 2nd

Player

Passing




Rushing




Receiving



Plays

Yards

TDs

Y/PA

Plays

Yards

Y/C

TDs

Plays

Yards

Y/C

TDs

Colin Kaepernick

77

2009

10

26.1

20

366

18.3

2





Frank Gore





23

501

21.8

2

1

29

2

0

Kendall Hunter





10

241

24.1

2





LaMichael James





1

21

21

0





Kyle Williams





1

13

13

0

1

16

16

0

Quinton Patton





1

26

26

0

2

52

52

0

Anquan Boldin









31

761

24.5

2

Vernon Davis









22

645

29.3

8

Michael Crabtree









9

255

28.3

0

Brad Miller









4

98

24.5

0

Vance McDonald









4

87

21.8

0

Garrett Celek









1

30

30

0

Anthony Dixon









1

19

19

0

Kasim Osgood









1

17

17

0

In looking at the 49ers individual offensive players, there are only really five major players to look out for. While Kaepernick may have been slightly below-average in the number of explosive throws, his number of explosive rushes puts him slightly behind his running back Frank Gore, who himself was a top 10 explosive back in the regular season.

In the passing game, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis have been the two main threats this season. Michael Crabtree has been good for at least one big play each game since he's been back from his Achilles injury. Those three players are of primary concern for the Seahawks defense, who will need big plays from the Legion of Boom to neutralize Boldin, Davis and Crabtree.

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Explosive Passes: Colin Kaepernick ranked 18th

Explosive Rushes: Frank Gore ranked 8th

Explosive Receptions: Anquan Boldin tied with 3 other players for 11th

Result For

Number

Touchdown

38

Field Goal

24

Turnover

15

Punt

17

End of Half

1

Season Total

95

Score Rate

65%

The above chart looks at the results of each of San Francisco's explosive drives this season and in playoffs. The 49ers have 8 more explosive drives than Seattle having played one more game. Seattle boasts a slightly higher score rate (68%) than San Francisco. Seattle also enjoys a higher touchdown rate on explosives drives, 44% to the 49ers 40%.

In the end, San Francisco is just as explosive in the running game as Seattle on a per game basis, and less explosive in the passing game. Further, the 49ers are less efficient in scoring off big plays compared to Seattle.

The San Francisco Defense

Week

Opponent


Ex. Run Alwd

Ex. Pass Alwd

Total

1

vs. GB

0

7

7

2

at SEA

4

3

7

3

vs. IND

4

3

7

4

at STL

0

4

4

5

vs. HOU

2

3

5

6

vs. ARZ

2

4

6

7

at TEN

1

7

8

8

at JAX

1

1

2

9

BYE

10

vs. CAR

1

4

5

11

at NO

1

5

6

12

at WAS

2

2

4

13

vs. STL

2

6

8

14

vs. SEA

0

4

4

15

at TB

1

3

4

16

vs. ATL

0

5

5

17

at ARZ

1

9

10

Wildcard

at GB

0

3

3

Divisional

at CAR

0

5

5

Season Totals



22

78

100

Avg. per game

1.22

4.33

5.56

San Francisco has been lauded for their defense and for good reason. For the past three seasons, the 49er defense has consistently played at a high level, thanks to a fantastic front seven. Only Cincinnati was better at limiting big plays in the running game and their pass defense was a top 10 unit in limiting the big plays through the air.

The 49ers explosive run defense is nothing short of elite. In their past six games the Niners have only allowed a total of two big rushes. Just two. They have allowed zero big runs in six different games and have only allowed more than 2 big runs twice (to Seattle and Indianapolis). Their prowess in this area can be traced back to their two All-Pro middle linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.

While the San Francisco defense rarely allows their opponents to win the explosive play battle, it is equally rare that they shut their opponents down completely. Only twice, in London against Jacksonville and on the frozen tundra in the Wildcard round, has the vaunted Niner defense held their opponent to three or fewer explosive plays.

2013 Regular Season NFL Rankings

Total Explosive Plays Allowed: Ranked 3rd

Explosive Passes Allowed: Ranked 8th

Explosive Rushes Allowed: Ranked 2nd

Result Vs.

Number

Touchdown

27

Field Goal

15

Turnover

18

Punt

12

End of Half

2

Season Total

74

Score Rate

57%

The score rate for the 49er defense is quite impressive, as is their touchdown rate of 36%. However, when being compared to the 2013 Seattle defense, impressive just isn't good enough. Seattle's defense has a 5% better score rate with 10 fewer explosive drives allowed. The Seattle touchdown allowed rate is barely below 30%. You read that right. Thirty percent. While San Francisco is good at limiting scores off big plays, Seattle is better.

Last Week

Last week's Divisional round game was a tale of two halves from an explosive standpoint. New Orleans only racked up 3 big running plays during the game; all 3 big runs came in the first half. New Orleans was able to generate 7 explosive passes; all 7 big plays came in the second half. The Saints were able to establish the run early, especially out of 22 personnel. With the Saints lineman, especially Grubbs, reaching Bobby Wagner and Malcolm Smith and taking them out of the plays, the Saints were able to gash the Seahawks for solid gains.

That translated into the second half. The Saints were able to get Seattle's linebackers to bite for the briefest of seconds on play-action, giving Marques Colston the necessary space in the second level of Seattle's zone coverage. With an all-world quarterback of Drew Brees' caliber, the Saints were able to exploit those small windows for big gains in the 2nd half and keep the game somewhat close.

I was off on the Saints final totals by 2 big runs and 2 big passes. As for Seattle, I hit the nail on the head in terms of explosive runs and was off by only one big pass play; I guessed 4 big runs and 4 big passes (there were only 3 big passes).

The Verdict

On offense, I believe that San Francisco will attempt to take a page from Sean Payton's playbook last week. The Saints showed the Seahawks several balanced formations from 22 personnel, meaning a tight end was lined up on the left and right side, with the full back in a classic "I" formation. Much of the Seattle run defense (being a 4-3 Under) is predicated on lining up Red Bryant on the strong side and letting him 2 gap. With a balanced front, where does Red line up? The Saints did their best to run right at the LEO when lining up in a balanced 22 formation. San Francisco may attempt something similar, with their own twist.

The 49ers are fond of a pistol formation look with two fullbacks flanking Kaepernick on both sides and Frank Gore behind Kaepernick. Of course, going with that sort of backfield would essentially be a 32 formation (or more likely a 30 formation), but the balanced front is the main part. Kaepernick could have several hand-off options, as well as a read-option run with this set. Seattle could (and probably should) counter with a few Bear fronts to stifle the middle, but a balanced look leaves the defense guessing where the ball is going, allowing the Niners to run at Chris Clemons or Cliff Avril rather than Bryant. San Francisco could rack up a few big runs this way. I believe they'll get three, one of which will be Kaepernick breaking contain after his pocket breaks down.

In the passing game, Kaepernick has shown improvement last week against Carolina. He even climbed the pocket and went with a second read! Miracles do happen! However, Seattle's pass defense is not Carolina's. Seattle's pass defense is other-worldly in its talent, skill and efficiency. The Legion of Boom is a place where footballs go to die.

That being said, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond will be challenged by Kaepernick and Crabtree early and often. They must answer the bell as they have done this entire season. We know what Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman do; they quarantine entire swaths of real estate for sixty minute periods. While a healthy Vernon Davis is a significant weapon, this defense has athletes on par with the Pro Bowl tight end. Davis can't outright or outmuscle neither Kam Chancellor nor KJ Wright. I don't expect a huge game from Davis but he will be good for one big play. All told, Kaepernick will feel the 12th man, the pass rush and the Legion of Boom and only throw three big passes.

For Seattle's offense, this unit lives and dies by 3rd down. As has been expounded here, the play sheet of Darrell Bevell seems to work more like a process flow chart. The chart begins with the inside zone read runs and play action red-line throws and expands from there as the offense racks up plays and yards. When the offense gets behind schedule and third down execution is lacking, we see the offense go back to the beginning of the chart and 3-and-outs begin to rack up.

For the Seahawks to be effective on offense, 3rd down execution is critical. If the offense can convert about half of their third downs (say, between 5-12 and 7-12) that adds plays and diversity to the offense. That is where explosive plays will come from.

I believe Marshawn Lynch will single-handedly gain 3 big plays with his amazing feet and wicked cuts. Lynch will have to do much of the work himself as his offensive line will challenged by Aldon Smith, Willis, Bowman and Justin Smith. Russell Wilson will also have a big run escaping the pocket, much to Ahmad Brooks' chagrin.

In the passing game, I believe the better 3rd down execution will give Wilson more opportunities to get into a throwing rhythm. Since wind and rain will be a non-factor in this game, I think Wilson returns to his highly accurate form. I believe Golden Tate will be able to create plays for himself against this 49ers' secondary and Doug Baldwin will make another clutch catch. More importantly, both Zach Miller and Luke Willson will most reap the benefits of the offensive turnaround and take advantage of a few deep crosses and seam routes. In the end, Seattle will generate 5 big passing plays on Sunday.

Not only will Seattle win the explosive play advantage 9-6, they will win the turnover battle as well, 2-1.

The Seattle Seahawks take advantage of their biggest Championship Opportunity of the year and create for themselves one final Championship Opportunity in New York with the final score of 24-20.

Let the blue and green confetti fall.

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