The Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers played a physical football game Sunday in San Francisco, with 49ers prevailing 19-17. It was a heavyweight battle between two of the league's best teams in what I believe to be the best rivalry in the NFL right now. The win keeps San Francisco in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth in the NFC, even with the Cardinals handling the St. Louis Rams with ease in Arizona on Sunday.
But despite the victory, the 49ers shouldn't celebrate too much. They still have a long way to go to catch the Seahawks, who remain the best team in the NFC in my eyes.
As I took notes on this game (and then later studied the box score), I saw this as an extremely equal contest. The 49ers not only won the hidden yardage aspect of this game, although not by a huge margin, they also won at the line of scrimmage in the run game and showed a dedication to that phase of their offense, which ultimately paid off with Frank Gore's 51-yard run to set up the winning field goal. On defense, they harassed Russell Wilson just enough, were strong at the point of attack and had few breakdowns in the secondary that resulted in big plays. I would say San Francisco was slightly more physical Sunday than the Seahawks as well -- which is no small feat. The 49ers also won the hidden yardage aspect of this game with penalties and special teams play.
While Gore's big run can't be ignored, the 49ers' edge in the running game (163 yards to 86) is a bit misleading. Without that run they averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. The Seahawks have had some poor games with their run defense this season, and there was a stretch of the season in which Seattle's run defense looked a little tired (before their late Week 12 bye). But I attribute that more to the fact that running the ball is really the only way to effectively challenge this great defense.
Seattle has the best secondary in football and not only are they stingy with short and intermediate throws, the Seahawks excel at eliminating big plays. Seattle isn't overly complex on the defensive side of the ball. In reality, they play what is more or less a "6-2" defense with Earl Thomas manning the deep middle of the field, their cornerbacks on the perimeter and Richard Sherman on the defense's left side, using a lot of Cover 3 principles and alignments. A base 4-3 team on paper, Seattle will often put six defenders on the line of scrimmage with Bobby Wagnerand Kam Chancellor as the second-level defenders.
But what makes Seattle's defense really special is its versatility. The Seahawks can utilize any type of defensive prototype. They use nose tackle types, 3-technique type defensive tackles, 3-4 defensive end types, 4-3 defensive end types, 3-4 outside linebacker types, 4-3 Sam and Will linebacker types, as well as 3-4 inside linebacker and 4-3 middle linebacker types. More so than any other defense, the Seahawks don't have to turn their back on a type of defender. Instead, they have a spot for every shape and size, as long as he is a quality player/prospect.
That scheme and player versatility allows them to play both man and zone principles and recover from injuries, like the one suffered by K.J. Wright, who broke a bone in his foot and will miss at least six weeks. A linebacker with great size, Wright (as he showed last week against Jimmy Graham) also is a superb coverage player.
On offense, Percy Harvin is assuredly going to return to add another big-play element to Seattle's offense and special teams as well as a unique element for Wilson to utilize from a versatility standpoint. Max Unger left this game with a chest injury, which is something to monitor if it ends up being a serious injury, but Wilson has proven that he can still keep this offense moving when dealing with far more offensive line injuries. And while Marshawn Lynch ran for only 72 yards and averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt on Sunday, I really have no concerns whatsoever about the Hawks' ground game.
In other words, San Francisco deserves all the credit in the world for a great win Sunday, but on the road in Seattle, do we really think this game takes a similar script?
Seattle's coaching, depth and star power can rival any team in the league and of course, the Seahawks have the strongest home-field advantage in the NFL. Seattle's crowd noise is a huge problem for opposing offenses and gives a big advantage to Seattle's pass-rushers. There is nothing I saw Sunday that suggests that the Seahawks shouldn't be a substantial favorite in any postseason game they host. Seattle is still the best team in the league, even after Sunday's loss.