If you're one of those people who love those Alabama-LSU games where the two teams playing combine for less than 10 points, Thursday night's game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks is right up your alley -- at least on paper.
Forty Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll have built their teams very similarly -- the common pillars are a physical, attacking run game and dominant defense. Both teams ostensibly prefer to have their quarterbacks play conservatively, but Alex Smith and Russell Wilson are each capable of the occasional shot play. In theory, this seems like a 10-7 slobberknocker, but don't be surprised if a few more points are scored.
When the 49ers have the ball
The 49ers are a run-heavy team to be sure, but few offenses are more formation-diverse from play to play. Harbaugh creates opportunities for his run game by throwing multiple tight ends into his base offense; sometimes as many as three on multiple consecutive plays. Vernon Davis is the wild card there because of his ability to clear safeties on deep seam routes. The 49ers can and will run the ball effectively out of every conceivable formation -- everything from two-back max protect to four- and five-wide. No matter how exotic things get before the snap, blocking is always a focus, and there's always an emphasis on fundamentals. Harbaugh does not allow or accept consistent mistakes in protection, which is one reason his offenses were always so strong at Stanford.
But that blocking could be a major concern if left tackle Joe Staley can't go just four days after suffering a concussion against the New York Giants. If Staley's out, that moves right guard Alex Boone to left tackle, and reserve Leonard Davis to right guard. Against Seattle's high-powered edge rush, led by ends Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin, that could be a big problem for Alex Smith. The 49ers' quarterback has severe limitations that keep him from being elite, but he is well-managed in Harbaugh's offense -- he throws few interceptions because he's generally directed to throw the ball away if he doesn't like what he sees. In last Sunday's loss the Giants, New York's defense threw some different coverage looks, and that's never been Smith's strong suit.
Seattle's defense is more multiple in its fronts than in its coverages -- it goes man-on-man with cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, and rotate safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor up and down. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane has played as well as any interior lineman over the last few weeks, and linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright have true sideline-to-sideline speed. Wright will also blitz from multiple angles.
San Francisco's run game, led by backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter, gains a new level of effectiveness when backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick comes in to run various option packages. Kaepernick ran the Pistol formation almost exclusively at Nevada, and the 49ers are using more and more of this concept, where the back is lined up a few yards behind the quarterback, who is in a short shotgun set. Defenses find it harder to key the back right off the snap from the Pistol, and Kaepernick has seen more playing time in the last few weeks. Think of Smith-Kaepernick as a version of Sanchez-Tebow that actually makes sense.
"They're more diverse on offense than they were," Carroll said of San Francisco's offense on Wednesday. "Colin Kaepernick has given them a different dimension, and they use him a lot for a backup quarterback. The early time last year they were just really conservative, and they're not like that anymore. They are like they were at the end of the season, very difficult to nail down. In a short week you can't nail down. We don't know what they're going to do and we just have to go out and play."
When the Seahawks have the ball
Seattle's offense is also predicated on the run game, but it's less formation-diverse and more effectively based on play action. Russell Wilson is especially good when he can run boot action away from playside, which he does by faking to running back Marshawn Lynch and rolling out to pass the other way.
At 5-foot-10 5/8, Wilson must use his feet to find openings for throwing lanes, but he's proven an ability to that more and more as his rookie season progresses. He had six pass plays of more than 20 yards last Sunday against the New England Patriots, and most of those plays came from "air yards" as opposed to yards after the catch. Lynch is a brutal, slashing runner who will often gain multiple yards after first contact. Backup Robert Turbin looks like another bruiser, but he has surprising second-level speed, and the Seahawks like to swap him in and either throw or approximate screens and swing passes to throw defenses off the trail.
The 49ers have a dynamic defense from back to front, but the action really starts with the two Smiths up front -- defensive tackle Justin and end Aldon. Justin Smith actually moves around the front, which is why he received Pro Bowl votes at tackle and end last year, but San Francisco's most effective pass-rush concept happens when Justin takes up to three blockers from the three-tech role, and Aldon shoots through an interior gap for a quarterback pressure or takedown. When the Seahawks opened up their offense last Sunday, Wilson manufactured space for downfield throws by moving around and outside the pocket. He can do so to the left or right side, but his ability to roll boot-action right will at least help him stay away from the 49ers' two primary purveyors of pass rush.
Of course, that does nothing to stop inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. I'm of the opinion that Dallas' Sean Lee is the most versatile ILB in the game today, but there's no linebacker duo like Willis and Bowman. Not only are they tremendous against the run as you would expect, but they're the only pair of inside linebackers who can stay on the field in obvious passing situations without a debit to the overall defense. When the 49ers go to their sub packages, you'll see Willis and Bowman flare out and try to take away Wilson's first and hot reads.
The matchup that could decide what should be a very close game is the one between San Francisco's defensive backs and Seattle's receivers. Both units are slightly inconsistent, but capable of big plays. If San Francisco can put a stop to the passing gains Seattle got against New England, they can bottle Wilson up, force Seattle to revert to its run game and short passing ideas, and take things over pretty effectively.
How it could go
This is for all the marbles in the NFC West, at least so far -- the winning team will walk away with a 5-2 record and first-place in an increasingly competitive division. Seattle has one advantage in Wilson's preternatural poise, but he's never faced a defense quite like this. If Wilson can make the plays he did last week, any remnant of a quarterback controversy in Seattle between Wilson and Matt Flynn is over for good. However, as much as I think Wilson could very well be Seattle's quarterback of the future, I think San Francisco's defense -- particularly its front seven -- provides just enough heat to make a very close-fought game.
Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 21, Seattle Seahawks 20