The NFC Championship Game Sunday is a matchup of two of the league’s top five defenses, two of the top five rushing offenses and two of the league’s most creative and dangerous quarterbacks who each possess strong arms and extraordinarily quick feet. Yes, the two teams are similar. No, they aren’t exactly the same, and neither is the checklist of what each team needs to do to come out the victor and book their trip to East Rutherford for the Super Bowl.
San Francisco 49ers
It’s not rocket science, but it’s imperative that the 49ers create enough situations where their pass rush can pin its ears back and chase Russell Wilson. If Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin — and Wilson to a lesser extent — find a way to run the ball effectively for four quarters, the strength of the 49ers’ best defensive players — Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, for example — are limited.
With short-yardage situations on second and third down, Wilson can employ play-action, use the read option or simply feed Lynch on a regular basis. That’s advantage Seahawks. Third-and-long is a rather large advantage to the 49ers.
Colin Kaepernick has a big arm, but isn’t always accurate and has been known to force some throws. It’s critical for the 49ers to get something, rather than risking a turnover. Plays that end in positive yardage rather than a loss or a potential turnover, and often that means a short outlet pass to the running back, full back or even a tight end.
Settling for the checkdown can also assist Kaepernick in avoiding sacks that put the 49ers in disadvantageous down-and-distances, and also keeps the ball from the Seahawks’ ballhawking secondary.
Getting to Wilson some is important, but not at the expense of over-pursuing and possibly opening up big-play chances for the Seahawks offense, particularly to tight ends over the middle of the field. The Seahawks took advantage of an over-aggressive defense Week 2 when Wilson rolled right and swung a pass to other side of the field to Lynch for a big gain.
Lesson learned? We’ll see.
Not that trick plays need to be a part of any good game plan, but creativity sometimes does. It won’t take much for Darrell Bevell to appear creative and unpredictable Sunday, at least in comparison to what we’ve witnessed over the past month or so from a struggling Seahawks offensive unit.
Vanilla, vanilla, vanilla will get the Seahawks nowhere, particularly early in the game. Mixing in some short throws on first down, taking a shot or two down field on second and short or medium and forcing the 49ers defense to honor multiple angles and possibilities on every play is essential.
The Seahawks led the league turnover margin and at times can be seen going for the strip or the interception. Against playmakers such as Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, missing tackles can be a killer.
The Seahawks need to tackle first and foremost and just make the play at hand, rather than risking a missed tackle and allowing additional yardage. The turnovers will come because the front four will get pressure on Kaepernick, as I discussed right here.
The difference can be a third-down conversion or getting off the field and giving the offense more chances.
From kicking off deep and getting hang time on punts to avoid giving the opposition a chance for returns down to the coverage and getting something out of the return game from Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, the Seahawks need to win the special teams race.
This could be avoiding mistakes, too, including field goals and extra points.
Every play counts and there are generally 15-20 special teams opportunities, about 15 percent of all plays in a football contest, and coming away with better field position and making it more difficult for the opponent can be the difference in the game.
Punter Jon Ryan is among the best in the league — as is 49ers punter Andy Lee — but the ‘Hawks coverage team was the best in the NFL and Tate was among the best punt returners. A stalemate here is a win for the 49ers.
– Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
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