Sunday, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers will meet for the third time this season — and this one for a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII.
In the first battle, the Seahawks dominated in a 29-3 rout in Week 2 in Seattle. In the rematch in Week 14, the 49ers clipped them, 19-17, in San Francisco. The rematch, of course, is back in Seattle.
Here, we'll look at some of the defining plays for the Seahawks in that first victory. (And we'll do the same with the loss in San Fran in a separate post.)
1. Goal-line INT — The game had been an early stalemate. The 49ers actually made the game's first big play with a blocked punt of Seattle's Jon Ryan, and seized the early momentum with an eight-play drive down to the Seattle 5-yard line. On 3rd-and-goal, the 49ers send four receivers out and quarterback Colin Kaepernick looks a little happy-footed as the Seahawks' four-man rush converges on him. His first read, Anquan Boldin, is smothered, but Kaepernick wheels to his left and throws into traffic. His off-target pass (intended for Vernon Davis) is tipped by Walter Thurmond and intercepted by Earl Thomas. This was the 49ers' one big chance to score early.
2. Second quarter safety — The game was still scoreless more than 20 minutes into the game when the 49ers were backed up close to their end zone following a nice Ryan punt. A tackle for loss against Frank Gore made it 2nd and 12 on the San Fran 4, and Kaepernick was called on to throw. The 49ers had a six-man protection against five Seahawks rushers, but the pocket collapsed quickly. As Bruce Irvin crashed Kaepernick's backside and linebacker K.J. Wright came up to stymie the scramble possibility, Kaepernick hurried and missed on a throw to Gore in the flat. But the big action was happening behind the play. Irvin was tackled in the end zone by fullback Bruce Miller for a safety, which helped set the tone for the Seahawks' defensive dominance.
3. Beast Mode gets fed — It was a 5-0 Seahawks lead when they got the ball to start the second half, and they slowly started to inflict their will on the 49ers' defense. The Seahawks embarked on what would be a 10-play, 80-yard drive that was fueled by two big plays: a 51-yard catch by Doug Baldwin and an Ahmad Brooks sack that was wiped out because of a facemask that would have forced a 3rd-and-goal from the 19. Instead, on 2nd and goal from the 14, Marshawn Lynch helped break the game open. Seahawks center Max Unger gets to the second level and locks up 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, creating a great inside seal. Baldwin also makes a fine block on 49ers rookie safety Eric Reid, and Lynch does the rest, sidewinding his way into the end zone.
4. Pack mentality — Interesting play here. If you want to see on a full-scale level how this Seahawks defense operates at its highest level, here it is. It was still a two-score game as the 49ers drove down to the Seattle 3-yard line and faced a goal-to-go situation on third down. They went shotgun empty backfield, spreading the field out, and even NBC's Cris Collinsworth seems to nail what everyone is thinking at the snap: "It's a quarterback draw here." Certainly looks like it, and you can see Kaepernick consider the option once a small lane opens up inside. But the Seahawks are in zone, not man, and so their eyes are glued to the agile QB. Had he tried to run inside, Kaepernick would have been swallowed up by any one of three Seahawks defenders. Instead, he flows to his left, and he might have had an open option had Gore not slipped. So Kaepernick tries to tuck and run to the corner, but he's escorted out of bounds by a welcoming committee of four agile defenders. That's as close to perfect defense as you can get. Bet you Jim Harbaugh wishes in retrospect he went for the touchdown instead of kicking the field goal on the next play to make it a 12-3 Seahawks lead.
5. Beast Mode, Part II — This is where the game really started slipping away. The Seahawks got the ball back after the 49ers field goal and executed another grinding drive — 10 plays, 80 yards once more — that wore down the 49ers' defense. On 3rd and 4 from the San Francisco 7, the 49ers decided to blitz. They sent the house: a seven-man, cover-zero pressure with two linebackers and a safety coming. The Seahawks appeared to sniff it out, and with the "scat" protection they had on, Russell Wilson identified the two free rushers, the offensive line held up long enough and instead of staying home to block, Lynch released into the flat, where he was wide open for the easy blitz-beating touchdown.
6. Sherman's march — Even with the Lynch score, it remained a two-score game (barely), but the 49ers were getting desperate early in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick went into hurry-up mode, and he had Davis singled up against a cornerback wide to the offense's right side. The problem? The corner matched up with him was none other than Richard Sherman. Bad decision. Kaepernick underthrew the ball, and Sherman picked it off and ran it back 28 yards for the back-breaking play in the game.
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