COMMENTARY | For the first time this season, the San Francisco 49ers will take on a division rival on national television. For both San Francisco and the Seattle Seahawks, this Sunday Night Football Game can act as a barometer of where they stand among the best teams in the entire NFL. Here are five players to watch as the road-tripping 49ers travel up north to take on the Seahawks.
The last time Kaepernick and the 49ers traveled to the Pacific Northwest it was a bloodbath of futility for the team. San Francisco didn't score a touchdown until the young quarterback hit Delanie Walker late in the fourth quarter with a garbage-time touchdown to put the final points on the board in what would end up becoming a 42-13 whitewashing at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks.
A lot has changed since then. San Francisco ended up grabbing the conference championship a few weeks after that December matchup. Kaepernick proved skeptics wrong with a masterful postseason performance that landed San Francisco in the Super Bowl. He then led it to a big Week 1 victory against the Green Bay Packers last week.
For No. 7, this is the ultimate revenge game. He wants to go into Seattle and prove that he can defeat San Francisco's rival in one of the most intimidating environments in the professional sports world.
In order to do that, Kaepernick must reverse a trend that has been all too common for opposing quarterbacks when tasked with playing in Seattle over the past calendar year. Visiting signal callers threw just five touchdown passes compared to 11 interceptions in Seattle last season. Considering that the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Tony Romo and Kaepernick himself were among the victims; this doesn't necessarily bode well for the second-year starter.
Kaepernick will need to do a few different things in order to have success Sunday night. One of his major focal points needs to be getting the play called quicker than we saw last December. Some of this had to do with the coaching staff getting the call to him earlier, but Kaepernick struggled communicating with his team at the line prior to the snap. This caused false start penalties and breakdowns in blocking assignments. In order for San Francisco to be successful on offense, it needs to be more aware of what is going on prior to the ball being snapped.
Another thing to look at here is the necessity of avoiding turnovers. While this might go without saying, the 49ers simply cannot hand the ball over to Seattle. Including the postseason, Kaepernick has thrown only five interceptions in 342 career pass attempts, but four of those have come away from the friendly confines of Candlestick Park.
It's pretty simple here. If the young quarterback performs like he has since San Francisco's Week 16 loss to Seattle last season, it will likely come out on top. If not, Russell Wilson and Co. will make a huge statement on Sunday Night Football.
Including postseason play, San Francisco is a whopping 33-7-1 when Gore attempts a minimum of 20 rushes in his career. Just think about that for a second, people. That record includes some of the most dormant seasons for the franchise in recent history, including a four-year stretch of losing campaigns from 2005-2008.
We have to believe that Jim Harbaugh and Co. fully understand that Gore is instrumental to their success, even at his relatively advanced age for a running back. While the Pro Bowl running back only put up 44 yards against Green Bay last week, he did attempt 21 rushes. That's yet another example of advanced statistics working in San Francisco's favor. Needless to say, if Gore meets that 20-attempt plateau, San Francisco will be in a good position to come away with a win Sunday night.
Despite holding the Carolina Panthers to a single score last week, Seattle did allow DeAngelo Williams to gain 86 yards on 17 attempt for an average of 5.1 yards per rush. Gore doesn't need to have that level of success every time he touches the ball. He just needs to be fed the rock early and often in order for San Francisco to force the Seahawks defense up into the box and closer to the line. A four-yard per rush average with 25 attempts will do just fine. That's what Gore and the 49ers have to be banking on. It will enable more single coverage over the top and cause mismatches with tight end Vernon Davis against Seattle's linebackers and safeties.
Speaking of Davis, he needs to have a huge game if San Francisco is going to come away with a second consecutive impressive victory. In Kaepernick's first seven starts, Davis was targeted a total of 20 times. That takes into account eight targets in his initial start against the Chicago Bears. Over the course of the last four games, Davis has been targeted 28 times. He's averaging 88 yards and has scored three touchdowns during that span.
Needless to say, the Kaepernick-to-Davis connection is on full display. The good news for San Francisco is that Seattle isn't necessarily in a good position to stop Davis. Whether it's Bobby Wagner or K.J. Wright covering from underneath or Earl Thomas over the top, Davis has a clear advantage here. Opposing tight ends averaged 57 yards per game against Seattle last season, which ranked it in the middle of the pack in that category.
With Anquan Boldin likely to be shut down by Richard Sherman, San Francisco needs another player to step up in the passing game. Davis has to be that guy. Given the matchups and his success over the past four games, it's likely he will.
Ray McDonald and Ahmad Brooks
Everyone is talking about the Smith brothers going up against Russell Okung and the left side of Seattle's offensive line. While that is definitely a matchup to watch, we have to expect that those two will eat. According to Pro Football Focus, Okung ranked as the 48th-best pass protecting offensive tackle last week against the Carolina Panthers.
What we should keep an eye on is McDonald and Brooks against a vastly inferior right side of Seattle's line. Right tackle Breno Giacomini was among the worst pass protecting tackles in the NFL last season and is a weak link here. Again looking at Pro Football Focus, Giacomini yielded the 10th-most quarterback hurries last season.
If San Francisco can feed pressure from both sides of the line, Russell Wilson just won't be effective. He won't have the time to find receivers over the top, which will limit Seattle's ability to make plays in the passing game. He will also be flustered on a consistent basis, which sets into motion possible turnovers in the offensive backfield.
For their part, McDonald and Brooks are among the most underrated defensive players in the entire NFL. Above-average performances from them could lead to a dominating game from San Francisco's defense in this one.Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Niners Nation and was a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. His work has been published on CNN, Pro Football Focus and BR, among other sites.
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