There’s no questioning the most important part of Sunday’s game for the defense of the Seattle Seahawks. Slowing the running game of the San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore is an absolute must. If Gore runs effectively, the defending NFC Champions are awfully difficult to beat. In Seattle at CenturyLink Field, however, another significant task is minimizing the impact of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, both in terms of his ability to scramble as well as using his arm to get the ball to his receivers.
The Seahawks have a scheme for Kaepernick, and it’s quite simple: force him to be someone he’s not. Meaning, make Kaepernick make plays with his arm against a full slate of defenders, which puts his accuracy and decision-making to the test, and avoid situations where the edges are free for him to roam. Let me explain.
The Seattle Seahawks are not a defense that blitzes a lot. They average about 8 1/2 blitzes per game — which is about middle of the pack in the NFL — with a season high of 13, which took place Week 1 at Carolina. They have, however, blitzed fairly consistently somewhere in the range of seven to 11 times per week. It’s easy to see why defensive coordinator Dan Quinn would want to take such a risk. He has the best secondary in the game locking down receivers, and one of the best cover linebackers in football in K.J. Wright. Quinn and the Seahawks, however, have not blitzed Kaepernick much at all.
They did last December when they came at him 14 times in a 42-13 win, but have sent extra pass rushers his way just 10 times total in two games this season. While both approaches worked — Kaepernick has not been good in three games versus Seattle, including the win at San Francisco Week 14. The scheme to avoid blitzing Kaepernick allows the Seahawks to spy the fleet-of-foot QB, who may be the best running quarterback in football, and is certainly the fastest of the 32 starting signal callers.
Kapernick has handled the blitz fairly well this season, too, another reason not to take too many such risks. He’s been blitzed 180 times in 18 games and completed 55 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns. He’s thrown just one interception on those 180 blitzes and has been sacked 13 times, a rate of only seven percent.
When Kaepernick is not blitzed (324 dropbacks) — which is to say there are four or fewer pass rusher in pursuit — the third-year quarterback completes 60.3 percent of his passes, but his TD-INT rate sinks to 10-7 and he’s been sacked 26 times, a slight uptick to eight percent.
This plays into what the Seahawks do best, which is cover, and allow their front four to get to Kaepernick, or at least hit or hurry him into getting rid of the ball before he’d like to do so. In the two games played versus Seattle this season, Kaepernick is 28-for-57 (49.1 percent) for 302 yards (5.3 yards per attempt), with one touchdown and four picks.
Against the Seahawks’ 10 blitzes (five in each game), Kaepernick is 6-for-8 for 77 yards, no scores, no interceptions and no sacks — an efficient performance, good enough to win games if given more chances. When he’s not blitzed, the Seahawks have held him to 22-for-49 (44.8 percent), 225 yards (4.59 yards per attempt), one touchdown and four interceptions. He’s also been sacked four times by Seattle’s 4-man rush, and once by a 3-man rush. Those five sacks came on 62 dropbacks.
When Kaepernick is blitzed, over the course of the season, he’s more likely to leak out and use his feet, too, particularly on third down. On plays when the defense has blitzed, there’s typically no spy on the quarterback, leaving the edges to be covered by defensive ends who are engaged with an offensive lineman, or late-arriving defensive backs who began the play covering wide receivers and tight ends down the field.
During the Week 14 matchup at Candlestick Park, the Seahawks used Bruce Irvin as the primary spy, and it worked well. Kaepernick was credited with just 31 yards on nine carries, and his longest run was nine yards. It was clear to see that Irvin’s sole responsibility at times was to make sure Kaepernick did not beat them running the ball.
We all have seen how poorly Kapernick has played at CenturyLink in his two games there, and the noise is a problem for every team and quarterback that comes in to play the Seahawks and their No. 1 ranked defense. On the surface it seems as if it would make a lot of sense to pick a key third-and-long early in the game and blitz Kaepernick. There could be some truth to that, but judging by the facts at hand, Quinn may become even more choosy on when and how often he wants to blitz Sunday.
Spying Kaepernick some is a must. Blitzing him more than a few times is not, if it’s necessary to blitz him at all. The Seahawks get more of a pass rush when they allow their linebackers to help in coverage, forcing the QB to hold onto the ball too long, or force an ill-advised pass into said coverage.
It’s worked, very well, versus Kaepernick, and that’s likely to continue to be the plan in the NFC Championship Game Sunday afternoon.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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