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Since December of last year it almost seemed as if the Seattle Seahawks had put some sort of hex on the San Francisco 49ers. No matter what happened, no matter what they tried, no matter how hard they played things just seems to break badly for the 49ers when these two teams would square off. It was ugly. It was disheartening. Worst of all...it was fuel for a war of words (to be fair, "war" might be an overstatement, considering that it was Richard Sherman who did most of the talking) that seemed to escalate week over week since the 49ers lost at Seattle in Week 2.
To match the barbs that were flying between players, fans pitched in, too. A group of Seattle fans purchased a "12th Man" banner, which was pulled by a plane over Candlestick Park before Sunday's kickoff. A Seahawks fan club staged a rally at Pier 39 on Saturday. It's even rumored that a group of Seahawks fans purchased a brick along the 49ers "fan walk" at the new stadium in Santa Clara. To say that this rivalry has heated up over the past year is a mild understatement.
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But today all is quiet on the Northwestern Front. Why? Because the 49ers won a game that Richard Sherman had the audacity to call a "glorified practice" in his pre-game speech, that's why. What follows is our take on the how behind the why...and what both mean for the 49ers over their next three games.
The Inconvenient Truth
Will the real Frank Gore please stand up? Gore is on pace for 1,146 yards rushing and 10 TDs...but his last few games prior to Sunday's showdown with the Seahawks were less than inspiring. These events beg the question: is Frank the Tank running out of gas?
AJ: Frank Gore's last three games (prior to Sunday's contest against the Seahawks) were anything but prolific. Truth be told, they were painful to watch. Over those three games, Gore carried the ball 41 times for 121 yards (a 2.95 ypc average). The voices that had whispered "maybe Frank has lost it" weren't whispering anymore. Then, Sunday happened. On 1st and 10 with 4:22 left in the 4th quarter, the tank went off against a truly first rate defense...and killed any doubt (in my mind at least).
Gore started left.The Seahawks had their corners in man press, and brought Cam Chancellor down into the box. Bruce Irvin came straight upfield on a run blitz. Adam Snyder pulled and picked up Irvin. Jonathan Goodwin sealed Brandon Mebane inside, and Joe Staley executed a perfect trap block on Red Bryant. Anthony Davis picked up Tony McDaniel on the backside. Alex Boone got to the second level and picked up Malcolm Smith. Vance McDonald sealed the over pursuing Cam Chancellor and Bruce Miller picked up Bobby Wagner...which left Frank the Tank one on one with Earl Thomas.
Thomas came hard upfield to stop the run, Gore cut inside of his pursuit and bolted for 51 yards, his longest run since 2011. It was amazing. It was perfect. It was a career highlight reel moment. A game clinching moment.
So...is Frank out of gas? No. He's lost what long speed he had when he was younger...but his vision, explosiveness and agility are still there...and for now he's still the man.
Diego: I said it last week and I'll say it again, when the 49ers offensive line is able to hold up their end of the deal, Frank Gore takes care of the rest. Last week I discussed how San Francisco's struggles in run blocking contributed to Gore's poor performance against the St. Louis Rams. Against the Seahawks this past Sunday ... well, Gore's stat line tells the story. Seven of his 17 carries gained four yards or more. Gore was able to display his vision and awareness as well as his ability to get skinny on the field.
In his 7-yard gain in the middle of the first quarter, the 49ers ran a power running play (with Vance McDonald acting as a FB/HB) creating an alley on the right side of the line that Gore was able to hit quickly, pushing Bobby Wagner forward with him for about five yards. Towards the end of the first quarter, he recognized Wagner waiting for him in the lane he wanted to hit and cut back to his right where he was able to gain four yards. In his first carry of the second quarter, he recognized that McDonald's assignment (DT) had beaten him on the inside - Gore was looking for a seam down the middle that was closed quickly by the DT - and cut back quickly to his right where there was a big lane that allowed him to gain eight yards. In his first carry of the third quarter, his patience and vision helped turn a play that the Seahawks had defended well into a positive play. We see this from Gore time and time again, he lets his blocks develop and set up patiently before attacking a lane, and in this case that helped him realize that over pursuit by the Seahawks on a run to the right had left plenty of space on the left, which is exactly where he went to gain eight yards. His second-to-last run of the third quarter was another thing or beauty, as again the 49ers ran a power play with "12" personnel and McDonald acting as the FB/HB (Snyder was excellent pulling to the right both times), and although Anthony Davis wasn't quite able to take care of his assignment, he was able to block just enough so that Gore could get skinny between him and McDonald, getting to the second level (where he juked Earl Thomas - a sign for things to come) for a 15 yard gain. His 51-yard run has already been beautifully described by AJ.
Just because Gore isn't the kind of running back that has the speed to turn that 51-yard run into a touchdown doesn't meant that he is close to being done as a football player. Frank has a lot left in the tank (pun intended).
Getting Defensive: Can the 49er Defense Carry Them to a Championship?
Diego: Talent, depth, and health. Vic Fangio's unit has it all right now. Glenn Dorsey has stepped up tremendously, especially in light of the team losing Ian Williams early in the season, who was doing an excellent job at nose tackle. Dorsey's performance coupled with the consistent disruptive efforts by Ray McDonald and Justin Smith make the three-man front of San Francisco's defense an unit that sets the tone from the get-go. Tony Jerod-Eddie, Demarcus Dobbs, and Quinton Dial have been performing better than expected, allowing Dorsey, McDonald, and Smith to take a breather here and there throughout games. There is no better four-men linebacker group than what the 49ers present in Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis NaVorro Bowman, and Ahmad Brooks. Towards the end of the postseason these four will be in Hawaii for the Pro-Bowl if they're not in New York for other commitments. Additionally, Dan Skuta, Corey Lemonier, and Michael Wilhoite have filled in nicely when called upon this season. Finally, the 49ers secondary has stepped up tremendously so far this season, whether it has been the emergence of Tramaine Brock at cornerback, the improvement of the leader - Donte Whitner, or Eric Reid's ability to play well beyond his years. Eric Wright is starting to make his presence felt in this group as well.
Other than losing losing Williams to a broken left ankle and losing Chris Culliver to a torn ACL, San Francisco's defense has managed to stay relatively healthy. This has allowed them to play up to their potential, which has made them one of the most feared defenses in the NFL, and a group that - honestly - has already carried this team to its fair share of wins this season. On one hand, if they remain healthy there is no reason to believe that this unit can't carry the team to a championship. However, the offense needs to meet them halfway, because excessive taxing on the defense will ultimately lead to injuries, which will consequentially affect their depth, and there is no reason for this when the 49ers now have all their talent at their disposal on offense. One thing that's sure is that so long as they remain healthy, this defense will most likely never be the reason why the 49ers lose a game this season/postseason.
AJ: After Sunday's victory, the 49ers have the third ranked scoring defense, and the fourth ranked defense overall...but that is only part of the story. As the season has progressed, this unit has improved. That improvement is what makes this a championship caliber defense. Last Sunday's game is a classic example of this very fact.
Over their past two meetings with the Seahawks, Marshawn Lynch has been a thorn in the side of the 49ers...and it looked like that trend might continue in the first half of last week's game. But in the second half, Lynch only gained 22 yards. It's the why behind that second half shut down that I want to focus on...because it is at the heart of what makes the 49er defense so special. Prior to this season, the 49ers would shift into a dime coverage (6 DBs, 1 LB, and 4 DL) when they faced pass happy offenses...and that led to some painful performances against the run...especially against the Seahawks. That isn't what happened last week. Last week, the 49ers primarily played nickel coverage when Seattle went 3 wide...and the results were telling.
Why? It starts with the play of rookie Safety Eric Reid. His range on the back end of the defense was impressive when he started playing...but it has only gotten better as his grasp of the game at the NFL level has increased. His ability over the top has allowed Carlos Rogers and Tremaine Brock to play aggressively...and that has made all the difference for the 49er defense through the air this season.
Next, it comes to Navorro Bowman. Two seasons ago, I thought he might be as good as Patrick Willis, given time. Now, I think he's better. Bowman's speed is considerable...but his ability to get to the ball, whether in coverage or against the run, is second to none in the NFL right now. His improvement over the course of this season (because I think last week's game might be the best he's ever played) has been remarkable, and is one if the reasons why the 49ers can confidently leave him on the field in passing situations.
Finally it falls to this season's real X factor on defense: any defensive lineman not named Justin Smith or Ray McDonald. The play of Glenn Dorsey and Tony Jerrod Eddie has been stellar thus far. Dorsey is a vast improvement over Isaac Sopoaga, and Jerrod Eddie has become so proficient in the 49ers system that there is almost no fall off when he's relied upon to spell McDonald or Smith.
So...can this defense carry the 49ers to a championship? Absolutely.
After Last Week's Victory, Is Kap Back?
AJ: This one is tough for me...because I don't think Kap ever went anywhere. I know that there are some who will disagree (some vehemently), but facts are facts. Last season, Colin Kaepernick was able to get by on ability. The 49ers were smart about tailoring their offense to his natural ability...and it took them to the Super Bowl. This season, the rest of the league has caught on to what Kap can do naturally...and it has forced him to grow as a player.
This season, he's been asked to spend more time playing from under center, less time running and more time reading opposing defenses. The net result has been a decrease in his completion percentage and yards per game. But he's grown as a player...and one play in last week's game showed that growth.
Toward the end of the 2nd Quarter, the 49ers were trailing. Kap had managed to drive them down the field, and get them in position to take the lead going into halftime. He managed to get them the lead on a great TD throw to Vernon Davis. It was only an 8 yard pass...but it was great, all the same. Why? Because Kap put the ball where only Davis could get it...and he did it in the clutch after reading the defense and selecting the right receiver.
It doesn't mean he's the second coming of Joe Montana...but it does mean that he's on his way to being a better QB.
Diego: It is a bit of a trick question, because Kaepernick may never go "back" to the player that he was last season. He's either going to get worse or he's going to get better. There are a lot of factors that play into his performance - no different than the "Alexcuses" that surrounded Alex Smith during a lot of his time in San Francisco. His offensive line struggles to protect him from time to time, he has had underwhelming production at the WR position. I'm sure there is at least one more reason fans can think of as to why Kap struggles which our colleague Jack Hammer may have touched on in this piece.
However, the 49ers signal caller definitely has an arrow pointing up, and having a full group of receivers that he trusts surely is a reason for that. Last season Kap had outstanding chemistry with just one of his receivers (Michael Crabtree). This season he has developed an amazing rapport with Anquan Boldin, he has connected with Vernon Davis in ways that exceed the production of the "11-to-85" days, and is now getting Crabtree back while also gaining more trust in Bruce Miller (who is an underrated part of this offense) and rookie Vance McDonald.
Just having receivers he trusts doesn't just make him more comfortable throwing the ball, it also makes defenses respect the passing game more, which opens up the running game, the success of which helps the passing game. Now is it a concern that he seemingly couldn't adapt to wide receivers not named Boldin/Crabtree who from time to time did get open? Yes? Does he still need to improve in his progressions? Absolutely. Does he need to get better at managing a complex offense to decrease the number of timeouts wasted in games? Yes. That should come with time. Let's not forger he's only in his first full season as a starter in the NFL, adapting to how defenses have adapted to him.
So while he may never be "back" to who he was last season, he is progressing into a better player than that, and winning games while doing so, which is the point of it all, right?
- Much ado has been made about the Dr. Dre Beats commercial featuring Colin Kaepernick and what appears to be a bunch of rowdy Seahawk fans. If you are one of those offended by an "uncharacteristic" representation of the Seattle fan base, get over it.
- Dashon Goldson stopped by the 49er training facility recently. Hindsight is 20/20...but I'm happy that the 49ers were wise enough to let him go. Especially after seeing how quickly Eric Reid has come along.
- Frank Gore Watch: he is 69 yards away from his third straight 1,000-yard rushing season, and 230 yards away from 10,000 career rushing yards. I think he accomplishes the first feat in this week's game vs Tampa Bay, and the second feat by the end of the season.
- Boldin/Davis Watch: While Anquan is all but assured a 1,000-yard receiving season (85 yards shy), Vernon will have to put in some work to accomplish the feat. The 49ers tight end currently has 726 receiving yards. Can he get 274 over the next three games (about 91 per game)? Well, he has only had over 90 receiving yards twice this season: week 1 vs the Packers and week 5 vs the Cardinals - so I'll predict: NO.
- Oh, while we look at stats: Alex Smith is having a career year in Kansas City. He already has more completions and attempts than he had in any season in San Francisco, is on pace for a career best 3,536 passing yards (while already more than doubling his season high in rushing yards), and has already tied his career best in passing touchdowns with 18 while only having thrown six interceptions. Non-49ers news, I know, but consider me someone who is happy to see him succeeding with his new team.
Week 15 Picks:
9-7 for Diego last week. Can either knucklehead do better this week?
Chargers at Broncos (-10.5):
AJ: Phillip Rivers has been playing lights out football these days, and Keenan Allen is on fire. The Broncos are good. Great, even. But not 10.5 points better than Bolts. Even at home in December. CHARGERS.
Diego: Denver beat San Diego by eight points last month on the road, so why not by 11 at home? Sure. BRONCOS.
Bears at Browns (-1.5):
AJ: The Bear defense is suspect...but their offense isn't. I get the distinct impression that the Browns will find that out this weekend. BEARS.
Diego: This is your weekly reminder that Josh Gordon keeps doing ridiculous things with Brandon Weeded and Jason Campbell throwing him the ball ... AJ you still don't think he was worth trading for? Oh, but even with that ... BEARS.
Bills (-2) at Jaguars:
AJ: Do you have any idea how difficult it is to throw 4 interceptions in a game? It takes a concerted effort to play that badly. EJ Manuel's eruption of awful last week was so bad that when I tried to watch the highlights (okay, lowlights), my TV flipped me off, made some untoward comments about my mom and left the room. JAGUARS.
Diego: Yes, there are now insults being thrown by AJ to the teams FACING the Jaguars. Man how things change. Anyways, Buffalo is 1-5 on the road this season? Jag me up. JAGUARS.
Cardinals (-2.5) at Titans:
AJ: I am picking the Cardinals to win a road game. Is it because they're a surprisingly talented group that has played great football down the stretch, effectively shocking the football watching world? Nah. It's because Titan QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is to victory what a polyester, butterfly collared shirt is to scoring hot girls. CARDINALS.
Diego: I now know what I'm buying you for Christmas. I'm also taking the home team here, because they know how to take away the football and Carlson Palmer knows how to give it away. TITANS.
Eagles (-4.5) at Vikings:
AJ: My darling sweetheart is a native Minnesotan, and as such, I will occasionally watch them play...not because I like them...but rather because this team makes failure an art form. Expect another masterpiece this weekend. EAGLES.
Diego: It's very doubtful that Adrian Peterson will play this week. Not that it would have mattered as far as making this pick. EAGLES.
Patriots (-2.5) at Dolphins:
AJ: Tommy Terrific and friends will be without the Gronk for the foreseeable future...that probably won't derail them against a genuinely mediocre Dolphins team...even on the road. PATRIOTS.
Diego: Smells like an upset, but I think Brady has a better feel for his new weapons at this point even if Gronk is no longer available. PATRIOTS.
Redskins at Falcons (-7):
AJ: In a game that should be dubbed the "Toilet Bowl", there is but one certainty...it will be painful to watch. I expect both defenses to surrender more yardage than France did in the first 6 weeks of WWII. No matter who comes out on top, I doubt it will be by a TD. REDSKINS.
Diego: You just know Kirk Cousins is going to come in and ball like a champion because that is just the kind of season they're having over in the nation's capital ... and in Atlanta. REDSKINS.
Saints (-5.5) at Rams:
AJ: They won't be in the Superdome (where the Saints are almost unstoppable)...but that probably won't matter with Kellen Clemons under center for the Rams. It doesn't matter how good your defense is if you can't cross the 50 yard line. SAINTS.
Diego: Gut feeling says upset. Big day for Zac Stacy. Call me crazy, it would be a compliment. RAMS.
Seahawks (-7) at Giants:
AJ: In an early start against a talented but seriously underperforming opponent, I expect the Seahawks to struggle a bit. Eli will likely hand out turnovers like he's running a bakery, Richard Sherman talk more trash than Triumph the Insult Dog, and the visitors will probably win...but not by a TD. GIANTS.
Diego: In my weekly respect-pick-to-Vegas. SEAHAWKS.
Texans at Colts (-6):
AJ: I don't know what's more pathetic...watching Andrew Luck crash back to earth without Reggie Wayne, or pretty much everything about the Texans. COLTS.
Diego: JJ Watt alone makes the Texans worth watching, though I'm more interested in seeing whether Da'Rick Rogers can build on last week's breakout game (6 REC, 107 YDS, 2 TD). Similar story to Josh Gordon's. COLTS.
Chiefs (-4) at Raiders:
AJ: The Raiders are a veritable cornucopia of awful...and I find it highly unlikely that they'll right their ship against what might be the most opportunistic defense in the NFL. KC could start Alessandra Ambrosio at QB and they'd probably still come away with a win. CHIEFS.
Diego: Alex Smith is 3-0 as a starter vs. Oakland with five TDs, one INT and an 86.9 rating. He'll also throw his 100th career TD pass in Oakland this weekend. CHIEFS.
Jets at Panthers (-11):
AJ: The NFL should have a mercy rule. Not for the Jets...but for the poor saps that are forced to watch them. PANTHERS.
Diego: If I'm Rex Ryan I'm benching Geno this week so he can retain whatever self-esteem he has left for at least another week. PANTHERS.
Packers at Cowboys (pick 'em)
AJ: Do I have to pick one? This game is a perfect example of why it should be possible for BOTH teams to lose. Since the real world doesn't work that way, I'll consult the magic 8-ball. Survey says: COWBOYS.
Diego: With or without Aaron Rodgers. PACKERS.
Bengals (-3) at Steelers:
AJ: I've used this line in reference to the Steelers...but it still holds true. The Steelers remind me of a stripper that's been at it for about a year too long...the effort is there, and you can tell that they're really into it...but they just aren't that fun to watch. BENGALS.
Diego: Cincinnati is riding a three-game winning streak including wins at San Diego and versus a good offensive effort from Indianapolis, which means they'll disappoint on this one, because that is what they do. STEELERS.
Ravens at Lions (-6):
AJ: The Lions secondary is bad. Epically, catastrophically, titanically bad. Bad enough that he of the worst contract in the history of forever will probably skewer them. The Lions may win this game...but they won't win by 6. RAVENS.
Diego: Flacco had a similar matchup last week at home - he threw three interceptions and needed a last minute throw to pull off the win. I don't disagree with your take on the Detroit, but I do think they cover this one. LIONS
49ers (-5.5) at Buccaneers:
AJ: The 49ers are coming off of a very emotional win, and will be facing a suddenly surging opponent on the road. The key to the Bucs' recent success has been the play of standout RB Bobby Rainey and perpetual playmaker Vincent Jackson. For the 49ers to win this game, they'll need to contain them both...and they have the defense to do exactly that. 49ERS.
Diego: I'm not concerned about the 49ers overlooking their opponent, as they haven't done so all year, and very few times in the Harbaugh era. The last time Tampa Bay faced a defense as good as San Francisco's, two weeks ago in Carolina, they weren't even able to score a touchdown. 49ERS.
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