When two evenly matched teams square off, the team that makes more plays and fewer mistakes almost always wins. The NFC Championship between the Seahawks and 49ers proved to be no exception.
The 49ers didn’t make many mistakes on defense last Sunday. They kept Russell Wilson in check for the most part, and they kept Seattle from controlling the game with their rushing attack.
All day, the 49ers clogged running lanes, their front three getting off blocks and holding up offensive lineman. Inside linebackers NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis attacked the line of scrimmage at the sight of double-teams, which are indicators of run. Marshawn Lynch had very little room to maneuver, and was mostly unsuccessful trying to cutback or bounce it to the outside.
But one small mistake made all the difference in this game. On Lynch’s 40-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter, an inside zone run to the right, Patrick Willis recognized a double-team right in front of him and attacked the line of scrimmage, filling the open running lane.Lynch cut back to the left, away from Willis, where another running lane had been created. NaVorro Bowman, who has been brilliant all season against the run, had overrun his gap, and he lost sight of Lynch. The result was a big hole and plenty of running room. Lynch took care of the rest. It was a small and uncharacteristic mistake by San Francisco, but enough to allow Seattle back into the game.
Through the air, the Seahawks really had very little success. Russell Wilson made one phenomenal play where he scrambled around for what seemed like 10 minutes and fired downfield to an open Doug Baldwin. Wilson displayed all of his skills on this play – athleticism, elusiveness, savvy, accuracy, as well as a strong arm.
Yet aside from this one play, Seattle’s passing game was stymied. The Seahawks failed to move the ball consistently. Their route concepts didn’t challenge San Fran’s pass defense in any way. The 49ers seemed to have the Seahawks’ number, especially on 3rd-and-mediums and 3rd-and-longs where they dialed up blitzes. When Wilson wanted to get rid of the ball, his receivers had their backs turned. They didn’t break off their routes early and Wilson didn’t throw the ball to his hot reads. There were none. All routes in these situations were slow-developing and lacked intricacy. They were easily covered.
Additionally, as a young and mobile quarterback, Russell Wilson has a tendency to want to pull the ball down and scramble when he sees pressure. The 49ers pass rushed with discipline on these blitzes, staying in lane and not allowing Wilson any room to escape. The end results were sacks and incompletions.
However, Russell Wilson does deserve a lot of credit for what he did on 4th-and-7 from the 49ers 35-yard line in the 4th quarter. His hard count drew the Niners off sides, resulting in a free play. Pass rushers seemed to stop giving Wilson plenty of room as well as time to fire downfield accurately. He took a free shot at the end zone and delivered a perfect throw to Jermaine Kearse on what would end up being the game-winning touchdown.
Overall, the 49ers defense had to feel like the won the matchup vs Seattle’s offense. Unfortunately for them, a few small mistakes and a few big plays by Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch led to a Seahawks win.
On the other side of the ball, the Seahawks defense won the matchup vs the 49ers offense. Running back Frank Gore had nowhere to run all day as Seattle’s extremely fast and high-energy defense took away running lanes as quickly as they appeared.
Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor was all over the film. On one play he took on a bigger pulling guard, drove him back into the ball carrier and then made the tackle. On another play he leveled tight end Vernon Davis immediately after catching the ball, which jarred it loose and resulted in an incompletion. Chancellor is a big, fast, physical, and disruptive safety, and he had a big day for Seattle.
Colin Kaepernick’s legs generated the most consistent offense for the 49ers. This was especially impressive because the Seahawks do have such a fast defense, and because they predominantly played zone coverage. Unlike man coverage where defenders often turn their backs to the quarterback and don’t see him scramble until it’s too late, zone coverage means defenders generally have their eyes on their receivers through to the quarterback. So they saw Kaepernick as he scrambled early, had time to react, and still couldn’t stop him.
The passing game was another story altogether, though. The Seahawks don’t use a lot of tricks with their pass defense. They’re primarily a single-high-safety team, often playing cover-3 zone defense. They don’t always play press and jam receivers at the line. The defense is predicated on being a high-energy unit that reacts quickly to the ball in the air, limits yards after the catch and gets quick pressure on the quarterback.
The 49ers passing attack was outmatched all day. One large reason for this is that Kaepernick doesn’t specialize in moving defenders. He doesn’t look off safeties consistently. This means the Seahawks defense, already quick at reacting, gets an extra jump on Kaepernick’s receivers once they see where his eyes go.
Additionally, Kaepernick isn’t a progression reader. He doesn’t easily move from one receiver to the next. He stares down receivers and too often relies on his physical abilities as a thrower instead of deciphering the coverage and letting that dictate where the ball goes. Because he’s so gifted physically, Kaepernick has been able to get away with a lot of throws throughout his career that are the incorrect reads, but wind up being great passes. Ultimately, that’s what got him in trouble against Seattle.
Kaepernick had 3 turnovers in the 4th quarter. The first on a fumble when he was scrambling left and trying to make a play. They next came on an inexcusable throw. A throw where the receiver wasn’t open. A throw where the nearest defender was just a few feet in front of the receiver. There was very little margin for error on this pass. This wasn’t a disguised coverage that fooled Kaepernick. This was as basic of a coverage as you’ll see in the NFL. After the game, Kaepernick said that he saw the defender and thought he could still make the throw. But there was no need to force that pass at that juncture of the game. There are bad interceptions and there are terrible interceptions. That one was terrible.
Even still, the 49ers had an opportunity to win the game. On their final drive, trailing by 6, Kaepernick scrambled left, just like he did on the fumble earlier in the quarter, but this time he found his receiver with a great throw on 4th down to keep the Niners’ season alive. Later in the drive, Kaepernick attempted the exact same pass he threw the interception on earlier. This time, he completed it. The most frustrating aspect of watching a quarterback like Kaepernick is that he has the physical ability to make so many outstanding plays. Yet these are the same types of plays that also get him in trouble.
At the end of the drive, Kaepernick finally tried Richard Sherman, who he had stayed away from all game. Kaepernick saw one-on-one coverage between Sherman and Michael Crabtree and took a shot. He made the correct type of throw here, aiming for Crabtree’s back shoulder. However, a combination of the ball being just a few inches too far inside and Richard Sherman making a great play resulted in the now infamous interception that sealed the game for Seattle.
Ultimately, these were two physical and almost identical teams, where either one could have ended up escaping with the win. But the 49ers made a few too many mistakes, and the Seahawks made a few more plays.