It must suck to be a Niners fan. I've rooted for some bad teams, in 20 years of Seattle sports fandom, I've rooted for some really bad teams. And yet, I never felt compelled to call someone a "bitch" for asking me why those teams sucked. I guess a post form makes everyone a badass. Nevertheless, the Niners do suck. They're -50.4% DVOA indicates that they are as bad as the Colts are good, 53.9 DVOA. Even the 2-14 Niners of 2004 only managed a -46.1% DVOA. Therefore, Seattle's road to victory may take a lot of different paths. Here are some top exploitable mismatches for the Hawks.
Rob Sims and Chris Spencer: The Niners are ranked 29th against all runs up the middle. On all other runs they rank as above average or better. Unfortunately for them, teams tend to run up the middle at a far greater clip than any other direction. The Niners, specifically, have 48% of all runs run up the gut against them. It's about what you'd expect from a team with talented linebackers and hard-hitting DBs, but a poor defensive line. That the Niners line has been so bad is somewhat surprising. Much of the blame must be attributed to Aubrayo Franklin. Franklin was brought in to hold down the Niners nose tackle, but despite his size, has not been the kind of force a successful 3-4 needs in the middle.
At first glance, Seattle would not seem particularly well equipped to exploit this mismatch. The Hawks run game has been bad all year and worst running up the middle. Some of this is Spencer's fault. Rarely have I seen a center with such power and athleticism struggle so mightily off the line. Some is also one Shaun Alexander. Runs up the gut, beyond all other runs, require a back that hits the hole quickly and can break arm tackles. Maurice Morris is not a bruiser. His game is not specifically suited to churning hard yards up the gut. He does hit the whole very quickly though. The Hawks must hope that Franklin's slowness will allow Spencer to get better push off the line. If he can, Sims should be able to work well enough in the second level, and Morris hit the hole quick enough, that the Hawks will feature their first consistent rushing attack of the season. That would do wonders for the overall offense.
D.J. Hackett and Nate Burleson: Nate Clements is doing his job, too bad the rest of the secondary isn't. Against #1 wide receivers the Niners are ranked 7th. Against all other wide receivers, the Niners are ranked 31st (#2) and 23rd (Other). Hacks looked healthy last week, and as he's further reincorporated into the game plan, his production should take off. Meanwhile, Burleson has had a tough season - which is to say he's sucked as a receiver. Last week was the first contest I've watched him in which he has looked consistently good. With Engram facing a very unfavorable matchup against Clements, Hacks and Burly must be able to do the heavy lifting. I don't think either is primed to metamorphose into a consistent possession receiver. That means they must make hay of the Niners secondary with the receptions they get. Both have the capability.
Marcus Pollard: I don't know at what level Pollard can contribute, nor do I know exactly why the Niners have been so bad at covering the tight end, but I do know that for the Hawks to pick up consistent first downs through the passing attack, the tight end must be involved. The Niners have the 30th ranking against tight ends, Pollard has the 6th best DVOA of all tight ends. Pollard isn't a world beater; his game is high catch percentage and first downs. Still, should Engram be shutdown, it would be a near necessity that Pollard is able to make some short receptions and convert some long third downs. If not Pollard, then Will Heller - may God have mercy on us all.
Sacks and Stuffs: Do I need to explain this? The Hawks routed the Niners last contest almost entirely built upon a steady and unrelenting pass rush. The Niners have since lost linemen. Anything less than three sacks would be a failure.
Against the rush Seattle has been very adept at tackling rushers for short yardage or a loss. The Niners have, conveniently enough, been bad at preventing defenses from doing just that. The Hawks have the 6th ranked stuff percentage for a defensive front seven, the Niners the 26th ranked offensive ability to prevent stuffs. Fooch said himself that Smith cannot throw anything over 15 yards accurately, that means if Seattle can knock Gore back, stop him shallow or behind the line of scrimmage, the gun may finally be in the other hand for the Hawks beloved third down Russian Roulette.
Tru Against D-Jack: Marcus Trufant has quietly become one of the best corners in all of football. Not cover corner, corner. This season he has added some big play potential to his Gorilla Glue hip-lock in coverage. Darrell Jackson has quickly become a post prime bust, not too surprising given his mounting injuries and the poor talent around him. The Hawks should be able to assign Tru to D-Jack and essentially forget about both.
Everything Except Punting: The Niners have been the best team in football at punting, Seattle, one of the worst. In every other category the Hawks have been significantly better at special teams than the Niners.