Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch Duke It Out For Title Of Best Running Back In The NFC West, Russ’s Rookie Year

Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch Duke It Out For Title Of Best Running Back In The NFC West, Russ’s Rookie Year

The Seattle Seahawks had little time to enjoy an electric last-second victory over the New England Patriots at Centurylink Field, as the next contest put them on the road, against divisional rival the San Francisco 49ers for Thursday Night Football. Thursday night games were somewhat infamous in the NFL. Many players and fans pointed out, as brutal a sport as football was, an athlete having only four days of rest often led to a subpar product. Regardless, the team had to prepare, and they needed every second they could squeeze in. While the Seahawks had enjoyed a strong start to the season, the 49ers had been equally as successful, if in a less dramatic fashion. Led by their second-year head coach, Jim Harbaugh had brought grit, discipline and football IQ to his squad. The top of his achievements being a salvage project on embattled quarterback Alex Smith. Prior to working with Smith, the former #1 overall pick had spent his career on-and-off the bench, accumulating a 19-35 record. In the Harbaugh-era, he had gone 18-6. Smith’s story was one of many 49ers players who had found new purpose and resolve.

Only two seasons ago, the Seahawks had won the NFC West with a record of 7-9, and now the Seahawks, 49ers and the Cardinals had a record of 4-2. No one knew who was top dog in this division of winners, but these divisional battles were set to separate the men from the boys.

Is Russell Wilson The Man?

Against the Patriots, rookie Russell Wilson silenced most of his critics, many of whom had thought the quarterback was underperforming and wanted to see what value Matt Flynn, the high-priced free-agency signing, could accomplish. Part of the critique against Wilson was one of comparison. The 2012 draft class of quarterbacks—including Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Ryan Tannehill—had been a hot story and ranking them was common, as it appeared one of the four would win Rookie of the Year honors. Thus far, Russell Wilson had 1,108 yards, a 63% completion rating, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Out of the four quarterbacks, his yards were lowest, with Griffin being third at 1,343 yards. However, Wilson’s completion percentage was second overall. He had the most touchdowns and was tied second for fewest interceptions. Also, Wilson’s unique attributes, like an ability to escape the pocket and extend plays, were vital to many Seahawks victories, and may have signaled why the less mobile Flynn was never given the nod as a starter. Nonetheless, the curiosity about Flynn as an unknown quantity still lingered, and Wilson did little against the 49ers to permanently squash the sentiment.

Going 9/23 for 122 yards and an interception, Wilson was victim to both his own inaccuracy and to some horrendous drops, included one that hit Golden Tate on the numbers and ended a potential game-winning drive.

While Wilson struggled, Marshawn Lynch dominated. As the sole engine for the Hawks offense, he willed the team down the field by dishing out punishment and breaking tackles.

Pre-snap, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis (52) smelled a run and approached the defensive line in an attempt to either gap stuff, if Lynch was running at him, or, if Lynch was running away from him, try to split the lineman and trip Lynch from behind. Despite the head start, offensive lineman Paul McQuistan (67) removed Willis from the play. McQuistan went low on Willis’s hips, and then crawled along the field, serving as a one-man barrier. He forced Willis six yards off the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Lynch, who was moving laterally away from Willis, needed to beat linebacker Aldon Smith (99), as Smith had overwhelmed tight end Zach Miller (86). At this point, most of the 49ers defense had overpursued Lynch to the sideline, and paired with Willis being missing, Lynch had not been contained, so he crossed over. When Max Unger (60) saw Lynch still alive, he dove to prevent Isaac Sopoaga (90) from tackling Lynch. Lynch located a crease and he worked up it. Eventually, Willis did participate, part of a five-man tackle to take Lynch down.

While the Seahawks struggled, one play provided reason to believe in the offense’s potential. The Hawks were running their play-action game, about the only area where the passing game was seeing sustained success, but the 49ers had prepared for it and had game-planned having downfield coverage. On this play, Wilson escaped a collapsing pocket for a 9 yard gain, a consolation prize that was becoming more and more the norm. Week by week, Wilson was displaying greater confidence in his wheels, and in a one-dimensional play-action offense, it was the foil the unit needed to keep defenses honest. Many had wondered if, with Wilson and Lynch together, the Seahawks had possibly the most dynamic backfield in football, but how could that advantage be used when Wilson was spending so much time under center? A few times during the season, the offense had tried draw plays and other little wrinkles—in this game, a shotgun handoff to Leon Washington—but it wasn’t coming together. Thus far, any attempt to create a fusion of confusion in the backfield, a combo package where Wilson could be a passing threat and both Lynch and Wilson could be running threats in the same pre-snap look, had failed.

What could offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell try to change the tide? How could the Seahawks fully utilize Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch?

Good Work

KJ Wright (50) used his speed to get underneath offensive tackle Joe Staley (74) and made a diving reach for the tailback’s ankles, a spectacular play in an otherwise disappointing game.

Frank Gore Eats Up The Seahawks D

Midway through the third quarter, the 49ers were making a strong case that they were the bigger bullies out of the two squads. One did not want to put too much weight on one game, but the 49ers style of play—a merciless defense, a ground and pound offense—was doing to the Seahawks what the Seahawks usually did to their opponents. On offense, the 49ers’ lineman were gigantic and so well coached that Seattle’s defenders struggled to establish leverage. The defensive guys weren’t closing fast enough, or being forcibly moved, opening cutback lanes for tailback Frank Gore as he plowed through the line of scrimmage with little obstruction. Though, the Seahawks defense certainly had the individual talent to stay in any game, especially with their pair of top safeties.

Defensive tackle Alan Branch (99) launched with fury and was plenty in the backfield, but Gore was too fast for it to make a difference. Tight end Vernon Davis (85) initially looked like he might cave to Chris Clemons (91), but his lower body strength supported his lopsided top. Linebacker Leroy Hill (56) had ventured outside to contain. He did a great job of it. Not only did he protect the sideline, he avoided offensive lineman Alex Boone (75) and got a diving hand on Gore’s foot. Unbalanced yet not down, Gore stuttered on his hand and feet, getting away from Bobby Wagner (54). Who he could not escape was Kam Chancellor (31) who had stood up tight end Delanie Walker (46), pushing Walker backward and closing the door on Gore.

This play was a demonstration not only of the Seahawks’ strength at linebacker, but also in the versatility of their strong safety. At 6’3″, 225lbs, Chancellor was enormous for his position. If an opposing offense was in a run formation, he could sneak down to the same level as the linebackers without being compromised.

On this play, the 49ers took advantage of the Seahawks’ aggressiveness. At the snap, defensive lineman Jason Jones (90) and Chris Clemons (91) both jumped into the backfield but found no obstruction to quarterback Alex Smith. 49ers offensive lineman Staley and Mike Iupati (77) burst forward with Staley taking out Wright and Iupati taking out Wagner. Gore threaded the needle and was into the second level with no one at his rear and only Earl Thomas as his front. Gore did a commendable job on the direction change to fake out Thomas, but Thomas was just better. He kept his balance, got his feet set and got his hands on Gore’s foot to trip him up.

Kam’s and Earl’s efforts were rewarded. A few plays later, Alex Smith threw into traffic. The pass was picked off by Brandon Browner in the end zone.

A Stinker

The finals score was 13-6, a Seahawks loss. While the defense did hold the 49ers to only 13 points, it was hard to see much of an upside to the accomplishment. Frank Gore had a career evening, with 16 carries for 131 yards and 5 receptions for 51 yards. His success was partially fueled by the 49ers using dump off passes that victimized the Seahawks occasional tendency to leave the middle of the field open. On the opposite side of the ball, the 49ers were prepared for the Seahawks play-action game and shut it down. When Wilson eventually chucked one down the field, receiver Braylon Edwards was triple covered. The result was an interception. The lesson was that the Hawks could not rest on their laurels or their talent alone. Even after beating the Cowboys, the Packers and the Patriots, the team still needed greater dimension and versatility to address the weaknesses the 49ers had exploited.

As the 2012 season approached its midway point, the 49ers established themselves as the more polished and championship ready squad. Only time would tell if the Hawks had it in them to evolve.

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