Thursday night’s nationally televised matchup between the NFC West co-leading Seahawks and 49ers at Candlestick Park is many things to many people. But mostly it’s an opportunity for one team to make a statement.
For starters, it’s a nationally televised game between two of the co-leaders in the NFC West. It’s also the Seahawks looking for a little revenge after being swept last season by the San Francisco 49ers, who are looking to continue their dominance of division rivals.
It’s also the Seahawks coming off an emotional closing-seconds upset of the New England Patriots on Sunday, and the 49ers anxious to erase the memories of their 26-3 loss to the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants on their home field. And both teams have had a short week to prepare for their Thursday night showdown at Candlestick Park.
It’s the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked rushing offense against the Seahawks’ No. 2-ranked run defense. And the 49ers’ No. 1-ranked defense against a Seahawks offense that ranks 29th in the league.
Put all this pomp and attached circumstances, not to mention production and ability to limit production, into a need-to-win blender, push frappe and what concoction are you left with?
“It’s going to be a dogfight brawl,” veteran linebacker Leroy Hill said. “And we know that.”
Hill and his defensive mates also know that everything the 49ers’ offense does – which is a lot – starts with a running game that features Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. Gore is no stranger to the Seahawks after putting up 212- and 207-yard rushing performances against them in the past. This season, he is averaging 5.4 yards while rushing for 470 yards. Hunter is averaging 5.5 yards.
“They’re a run-first offense,” Hill said. “And you have to know that.”
But even when it appears the 49ers are looking to run, that look can be deceiving.
“Normally teams when they get three tight ends in the game with one back, they’re usually loading up to try to run the ball. They get big to run the ball,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “So this team will get big to throw the ball because they have two really, really good tight ends; really athletic tight ends. So they get you into that run mindset and that’s when they try to get some explosive plays.”
Or as Hill put it, “It’s crazy football that they’re playing.”
And the Seahawks’ defense has had all of two days to prepare for everything the 49ers can throw – and run – at them. Gore. Usually efficient QB Alex Smith. Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis. The revamped wide receiver trio of Michael Crabtree, Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, who have combined for 66 receptions.
“It’s tough,” Hill said. “You have to go basically on ‘rules ball.’ They call the defense and we know the rules of the defense. So with only two days to prepare, you have to count on the rules of your defense and be accountable at your position that you know what’s going on.”
What’s going on with the 49ers’ defense is the tackling-machine duo of inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman; and do-it-all lineman Justin Smith; and rush-linebacker Aldon Smith; and the Pro Bowl tandem of cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson.
“I think they’re going to be motivated to really try to stick it to us, so we’ve got to match their intensity,” said Pro Bowl fullback Michael Robinson, who played his first four seasons with the 49ers before coming to the Seahawks in 2010.
“Their scheme is a little different, so it requires a little bit of extra studying and a little bit of extra film work.”
It’s different fronts. And different spacing. And different timing with some of their blitzes. And, of course, the players who are doing it.
“You’ve got to have certain keys that you look for to make sure that you’re seeing the right stuff,” Robinson said. “And they do a great job of disguising it. They’re definitely one of the best in the league.