Leonard Weaver versus Takeo Spikes
|Not pictured: Blocking.
On August 10th, days before the start of the preseason, the San Francisco 49ers signed Takeo Spikes out of semi-retirement to play their Ted linebacker. The Ted linebacker, plainly, is the inside linebacker within a two-gap 3-4 that attacks blockers and opens lanes for the playmaking Mike linebacker. The Mike linebacker is the other inside linebacker and not unlike a traditional 4-3 middle linebacker. Spikes makes for a curious signing at Ted. Spikes, nearing 32, is just 6'2", 240 and known, when he was known, as a playmaker. A Ted is anything but, playing a support role as grueling and unrewarding as its closest offensive equivalent: fullback.
Coincidentally, Leonard Weaver is also a playmaker less known for the actual priority of his position, blocking, and more for the ancillaries of his position, rushing and receiving. These two mismatched misfits square off in an important matchup neither surely has the advantage in.
As a run blocker, Weaver still shows little ability to deliver a block on the run. That's problematic facing a Ted linebacker as intent at making the tackle himself as neutralizing the lead blocker. One game caveats apply, but San Francisco's week one contest against the Cardinals involved the second lowest single game tackle total of Patrick Willis' career. Nearly matching his five, Spikes tackled four. Weaver's odd pick and push is sometimes effective at confusing would-be tacklers, giving a rusher time to evade a defender if never really effectively blowing open a hole. But as Ted linebackers go, Spikes is agile and a decent tackler. Spikes might simply avoid Weaver, undercut his block and attack the rusher himself. It's one of the more frustrating elements of a strict depth chart. Seattle would benefit from looks by Owen Schmitt, who would destroy Spikes and blot out the sun with the bodies of his defeated. Schmitt is versatile enough that he wouldn't sell the play call, and using Schmitt on the occasional series wouldn't cut greatly into Weaver's touches. Instead, this is a pick`em. Weaver could show and help power a much needed Seahawks rushing attack, or he could flounder, miss Spikes and allow easy tackles while Seattle's rushing attack founders.
The other half of this matchup is pass blocking. Weaver should have it all over Spikes as a pass blocker. That matchup, with Weaver knocking Spikes back and into the hole Spikes is meant to create, should help contain the Niners blitzing linebackers. It helps, greatly in fact, that Maurice Morris is out with injury. Julius Jones is a very good pass blocker and the two, Jones and Weaver, showed good chemistry picking up blitzes against the Bills. They'll need it, because after last week, every future opponent won't stop blitzing until Seattle forces them to.
Courtney Taylor versus Nate Clements
I hear you. "What matchup? Clements a rock star and Taylor dropped drawers." Well, this certainly won't be the matchup that revives fans trust in Taylor. Clements is faster than Taylor, more skilled than Taylor and likely even stronger than Taylor. This matchup isn't about winning, though, but challenging and staying viable. Even after dropping two early passes, Matt Hasselbeck clearly trusted Taylor, targeting him nine times total. That trust must carry over, because keeping Taylor involved forces San Francisco from blanketing Billy McMullen and Logan Payne. Neither receiver can survive such attention. It will also keep Clements from playing "off" Taylor. If Clements feels confident he can defend/contain Taylor while playing off coverage, he becomes a dangerous interception threat and a potential game altering force. Game planning matters, drawing Clements deep(er) with John Carlson and Sammie Parker will open space for Taylor to work underneath, but execution is decisive. Taylor cannot quit a single route. Taylor cannot drop easy passes or allow a charging Clement to knock nearly-caught passes out. Taylor must show his potential for run after the catch or risk becoming irrelevant. Essentially, Taylor must stay involved, stay active, be viable and be valuable. Do all that and it won't get the box score skimmers off your back, but it will do wonders for Seattle's passing offense.
Lofa Tatupu versus Frank Gore
Best of five? We're just getting started.
Frank Gore made his name against the Seahawks, but those were different times. Gore thrived behind Moran Norris in Norv Turner's power rushing attack and though Mike Martz shares Turner's Air Coryell roots, the two couldn't be more different calling the run. Norris didn't survive San Francisco' final wave of cuts, partly because he might be washed up and partly because Martz has little use for a back that blocks and little else. Enter Ivy Leaguer (a phrase coined specifically to insult a college's football program) Zak Keasey. As a blocker, the change from Norris to Keasy is a bit like going from prime rib to weird brother of prime rib, but it doesn't much matter. The Lions ran 64% of all plays from a single back set, and the 49ers will do likewise.
So ladies and germs, I'll let you figure this one out yourself. Seattle's fleet linebackers do almost everything well, but still sometimes struggle shedding blockers. Unlike former Gorings, Gore won't be entering the second level with a man-battering-ram at his hest. Instead, he'll survive on skills, surprise and favorable matchups. But one Hawk never leaves the field, Lofa Tatupu, and the two should square off in an entertaining, essential matchup that will impact field position, San Francisco's play calling, Seattle's formations and, should it stay close, very possibly the game. I couldn't place my confidence in better hands. 49ers fans feel exactly the same way.