The 49ers entered the 2010 season with high expectations, dreams that were quickly derailed starting with a blowout loss in Seattle in Week 1.
Now it is the Seattle Seahawks who are thinking division title, and the Niners get a chance this Sunday at Candlestick Park to do a little dream-altering of their own when the two NFC West rivals meet.
A strong finish to the 2009 season and some offseason upgrades had the 49ers as a popular pick to finish first in a wide-open NFC West. However, an 0-5 start quickly had San Francisco playing catch-up, though at 4-8 the club is still within reach of the division’s co-leaders, 6-6 Seattle and St. Louis.
The Niners’ began their season with a 31-6 loss in Seattle, a contest in which they scored the first six points before eventually being routed.
Looking to shake things up yet again, San Francisco head coach Mike Singletary will go back with Alex Smith under center for this game. Smith hasn’t played since suffering an injury to his left non-throwing shoulder versus Carolina on Oct. 24.
A pending free agent, Smith is either playing for his future in San Francisco or auditioning for a fresh start somewhere else next year.
“I’m not thinking about that honestly, I’m thinking about beating Seattle,” said Smith. “We’re in a playoff mentality, this is a must-win game, you know, and I’m getting the call, and that’s all I’m thinking about.”
Troy Smith replaced Alex Smith following the injury and had started the Niners’ last five games, including each of the last three with Alex Smith healthy and serving as the backup. However, Troy Smith completed just 10-of-25 pass attempts for 194 yards in a 34-16 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
The setback was the 49ers’ second in three games following back-to-back victories and came in the club’s first outing since losing running back Frank Gore for the season with a hip injury the previous Monday night.
“It is very disappointing. Our guys knew what we came here to do. Obviously, we didn’t finish it,” Singletary said after the Green Bay game. “I can’t say that we accomplished much in this game. Overall, it is just disappointing that we couldn’t come out and do a better job in this game.”
San Francisco will now look to play spoiler against Seattle, which had lost four of five prior to this past weekend’s 31-14 home victory over Carolina. Like their previous game with the Niners, the Seahawks fell behind early — with the Panthers taking a quick 14-0 lead — but ripped off 31 unanswered points against a Carolina team that came into the game just 1-10 on the season.
Down by 11 at the half, the Seahawks put up 21 points in the third quarter on a pair of one-yard touchdown runs by Marshawn Lynch around a 26-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker Lofa Tatupu. The explosion surprised even head coach Pete Carroll.
“We just needed to step back,” Carroll said. “For some reason it just got away from us somewhere in the last month or so and just didn’t feel right. We haven’t been feeling right about what we’re capable of doing. All week, [Saturday] night, pregame and then halftime it finally just jumped. I don’t know. It’s a little bit mystical there. I don’t know what it was. It just happened.”
The victory was quarterback Matt Hasselbeck’s 69th with the Seahawks, one shy of matching Dave Krieg’s club record for a signal-caller set during his time with Seattle from 1981-90.
The Seahawks took a 13-10 lead in their all-time series with the 49ers following the above-mentioned Week 1 and will be shooting for their first season sweep of San Francisco since 2007. Seattle emerged victorious in visits to Candlestick Park in both 2007 and 2008, but dropped a 23-10 decision to the Niners there last season. The Seahawks have prevailed in 11 of the past 15 overall matchups between the teams.
Singletary is 1-3 against the Seahawks as a head coach. Carroll, who served as defensive coordinator with the 49ers from 1995-96, is 2-0 versus his one-time employer as a head man, with the first win coming for his 1998 New England Patriots team. Seattle’s season-opening triumph over the Niners marked the first-ever head-to-head meeting between Singletary and Carroll as head coaches.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Seattle lost its top two wide receivers early versus Carolina, but Lynch (356 rushing yards, 5 TD) and Justin Forsett were able to pick up the slack. Lynch scored a career-high three touchdowns and accumulated 83 yards on 21 carries, his highest single-game total since a 2010-best 89 yards in Week 7. Forsett (469 rushing yards, 2 TD) added 60 yards on six carries, including a 31-yard burst, as Seattle rushed for a season-high 161 yards in all. Hasselbeck (2621 passing yards, 10 TD, 11 INT) threw for 229 yards and was picked off twice as wideouts Mike Williams (52 receptions, 1 TD) and Ben Obomanu (22 receptions, 4 TD) left in the first half. Williams suffered an ankle injury and Obomanu a severe cut to his right hand, and both players are questionable for this weekend. However, tight end John Carlson (26 receptions, 1 TD) is expected to return after missing the Panthers game with a hip injury. Despite last week’s efforts, Seattle still ranks 30th in rushing (84.8 ypg) and is 17th in passing yards (220.4 ypg). Wide receivers Brandon Stokley (26 receptions) and Deon Butler (31 receptions, 3 TD) both stepped up with four catches last week, while tight end Cameron Morrah added three.
Hasselbeck and his offense will likely watch some film of Green Bay’s Donald Driver, who torched the 49ers’ secondary for a 61-yard catch-and-run last weekend. Driver broke and shook off numerous tackle attempts on the play. San Francisco gave up 410 yards of offense versus the Packers, its highest total since yielding 457 back in Week 3 versus Kansas City. San Francisco still ranks 11th in total defense (324.6 ypg) and is tied for 10th against the run (101.4 ypg). Though the Packers logged 136 total yards on the ground last weekend, San Francisco did extend its streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher to 18 straight games. Linebacker Takeo Spikes (82 tackles, 2 INT) played a big part of that after logging an incredible 17 tackles versus Green Bay. Safety Dashon Goldson (61 tackles) was second with seven stops, while the Seahawks will have to avoid linebacker and tackle machine Patrick Willis (101 tackles, 5 sacks) as well. He has 26 tackles in his last two games versus Seattle. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks (22 tackles, 4 sacks) had two of the Niners’ four sacks last weekend, while counterpart Travis LaBoy (22 tackles, 4 sacks) also logged a sack. Defensive lineman Justin Smith (51 tackles, 5.5 sacks) was credited with a half-sack, giving him 3 1/2 in his last five games. San Francisco failed to force a turnover and has a minus-6 takeaway/giveaway differential.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Things got harder for the Smith quarterbacks when Gore (853 rushing yards, team-high 46 receptions, 5 total TD) went down for the season. San Francisco, which ranks 15th in rushing (109.7 ypg), went with a split-back situation versus Green Bay, giving nine carries each to both Brian Westbrook (176 rushing yards, 1 TD) and rookie Anthony Dixon (105 rushing yards, 2 TD). Westbrook ended with 31 yards and Dixon had 33. The Niners will lose Troy Smith’s ability to run the ball by going back to Alex Smith (1554 passing yards, 9 TD, 9 INT), but the former struggled completing passes last weekend and was sacked four times. Troy Smith (1023 passing yards, 4 TD, 3 INT) did complete a 66-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis (44 receptions, 5 TD), who ended with four catches for a career-high 126 yards. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree (41 receptions, 5 TD) added three catches for 45 yards for a 49ers pass attack that ranks just 22nd overall (206.3 ypg). The club’s 16.9 points per game is also at the bottom tier, coming in at 30th in the league. If Alex Smith is to have a successful return under center, getting wideout Josh Morgan (29 receptions, 1 TD) and Westbrook move involved in the passing game may help matter. However, given Westbrook’s concussion history, expect Dixon to get the goal-line calls.
It is a shame Gore will miss this game, because he probably would have given Seattle’s 30th-ranked defense (389.3 ypg) a headache. The Seahawks yielded 131 yards to Carolina last weekend, but did limit Panthers rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen to just 169 passing yards and Tatupu’s aforementioned pick-six while also posting three sacks. Seattle should get a boost this week if defensive tackle Colin Cole (29 tackles, 1 sack) can play for the first time since suffering an ankle injury in Week 8. End Raheem Brock (21 tackles, 5 sacks) matched a career high with two sacks versus Carolina, while fellow end Chris Clemons (39 tackles) notched his eighth-and-a-half sack in his past 10 games in the win. Linebacker David Hawthorne (79 tackles, 1 INT) led the club with 14 tackles against the Panthers, while cornerback Kelly Jennings (34 tackles, 1 INT) had seven. Safety Earl Thomas (64 tackles) continues to lead all NFC rookies with five interceptions, also tied with Michael Boulware for the most by a rookie in team history. Cornerback Marcus Trufant (60 tackles, 1 INT), who had five tackles versus Carolina, had a 32-yard interception return for touchdown in the Week 1 meeting versus the Niners.
Owners who stuck with Lynch were rewarded a week ago, but he remains a gamble and faces a tough matchup in the 49ers this weekend. With fantasy playoffs beginning in most leagues, one may find it tough to roll with Lynch or Forsett on Sunday. In fact, there isn’t really one must-start player on Seattle’s offense, as Hasselbeck has struggled at time and both Williams and Obomanu are hurt. If both players miss this game, Butler is probably the best play at wide receiver. Avoid Seattle’s defense, but don’t shy away from kicker Olindo Mare, who has made 21 field goals this year, including six from 40 yards or longer.
The loss of Gore right before playoffs likely left many owners scrambling, and it doesn’t look like either Westbrook or Dixon will be the answer. The two are likely to split carries and Dixon may be the better play, given he is likely to get goal-line work. Avoid Alex Smith despite the matchup, but Davis is probably a safe play at the tight end spot. Crabtree is a gamble. San Francisco’s defense is a middle-of-the road option. Kicker Jeff Reed made his Niners debut last weekend and hit all three field goal attempts. He could have a big game given the 49ers’ red zone struggles.
With four games left to play, the 49ers are running out in their quest for their first division title and playoff appearance since 2002. With games left versus the Seahawks and Rams, San Francisco can still do some damage, but must win this weekend. Same for Seattle, which hosts St. Louis in its regular- season finale and doesn’t want to be playing catch-up given that it has already lost once to the Rams. The Seahawks played inspired football for two quarters last weekend, but it did come against the worst team in football. Alex Smith is playing for a job and he makes a good first impression this weekend.