The 49ers are Seattle’s Biggest Challenge in the NFC

Don’t go to sleep on the 49ers. Since their 1-2 start, San Fran has gone 9-2. The offense has steadily gotten better over the last 4 games, no doubt aided by the return of Michael Crabtree. The 49ers even beat the Seahawks in Week 14. But why is this current #6 seed in the NFC the team with the best chance to win in Seattle come playoff time? The answer is their defense.

There was some doubt in the beginning of the season, but the 49ers still have one of the best defenses in the NFL. They’re 3rd in points and total yards allowed. They’ve allowed 13 points per game during their last 11 games. If any team can go into Seattle and win, it’s a team that can shut down an opposing offense.

The front-7 is what makes this defense go. San Fran’s linebackers are one of the best units in the league. They maintain gap integrity against the run, eliminating cutback lanes and big plays. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman recognize and react to run plays quickly, attacking the line of scrimmage to plug open running lanes. With these two patrolling the middle of the field, running backs have found very little room to maneuver all season.

Glenn Dorsey, Ray McDonald and Justin Smith have anchored the defensive line, holding up O-linemen to prevent them from getting to the second level. But these three don’t just hold up blockers so their linebackers can make tackles. They’ve also been very disruptive, shedding blockers when a ball carrier is in their area and making tackles themselves.

Why is the 49ers’ ability to stop the run so important? Because that’s the best formula for beating the Seahawks. Not to knock Russell Wilson, but to stop the Seahawks offense, you have to force the passing game to beat you.

Wilson is a great young quarterback, but his receivers are the biggest weak spot on this team. When the Seahawks offense has found the most trouble is when their receivers haven’t been able to create any separation. While Seattle has had a lot of success in the passing game this season, most of that is due to Russell Wilson’s accuracy. A large part of it is also due to his ability to make plays when scrambling.

Wilson is arguably the best scrambling quarterback in the game. He’s dangerous with his legs and deadly accurate throwing on the run. What makes him so good is that he almost always maintains a downfield focus. He’ll scramble to buy time and give his receivers the ability to find open voids in the defense. If they’re not there, he’s capable of gaining big chunks of yards with his legs.

The one problem with scrambling is that an offensive coordinator can’t call a scrambling play. Darrell Bevell can’t tell Wilson to just go out there and run around until he finds an open receiver. Every single offense in the NFL needs rhythm. Offenses in this league work best when the design of the play is adhered to. They’re most consistent when the team executes the play as it’s called on an every-down basis. Consistency leads to success. Scrambles, on the other hand, are random plays. They’re definitely great contingency plans, an important aspect of any offense, but they are not the foundation.

Defenses really don’t shut offenses down in the NFL anymore. In 2013, it’s all about forcing the lesser evil on offense to beat you. The odds for winning are higher that way. If Russell Wilson scrambles 15 times and throws for 200 yards with 3 touchdowns on those plays, all you can do is tip your cap as a defense. But the odds of that happening are not likely.

Just look at what Bill Belichick has done with Patriots over the last 14 years. His philosophy has always been to take away what a team does best on offense. If a team is going to beat the Patriots, the line of thinking is to either make their B-game win, or to make their A-game make great play after great play to win. The chances of that happening regularly are not great. We’ve all seen the results since 2000.

The Seahawks’ A-game on offense is their rushing attack. They control the clock, score touchdowns instead of field goals, and set up the rest of their offense with Marshawn Lynch. The 49ers are best equipped to stop Seattle’s A-game, though, which means they are the team best equipped to win a low-scoring affair Seattle.