Week 1 of the NFL season brought to us fans something we have been missing for far too long: football. Despite the large amount of action that took place in the NFL season debut matchups, the most anticipated game of the season has yet to come.
The showdown between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks will be the primetime matchup to watch in Week 2. It will give us a glimpse of who owns the NFC West until they meet again in December.
Both teams feature young, up-and-coming quarterbacks who took the NFL by storm last year. A little-known third-round pick, Russell Wilson, shocked the NFL world when he beat out presumed starter Matt Flynn for the Seahawks’ starting quarterback job in Week 1. He took his game to a different level in the second half, tossing a rookie record twenty-six touchdown passes on the season and leading the Seahawks to a postseason berth.
Colin Kaepernick, a second-year backup behind incumbent starter Alex Smith, took up the call when Smith went down with a concussion in Week 10 and never looked back. Kaepernick went on to record a passer rating of 98.3 with 1,814 passing yards, a 10:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio, 415 rushing yards, and 5 rushing touchdowns. Riding the momentum he built during the regular season, he would lead the Niners to within five yards of winning the Super Bowl.
This year the young studs return, backed up by the two most vaunted defenses in the National Football League. Who will come up on top in this matchup for the ages?
Let’s begin by examining the two games between the Niners and the Seahawks last season. The first game was won by San Francisco in Week 7 by a score of 13-6. This game was one of the most physical games played all year, as both teams made it a point to play smash-mouth football with each other in every aspect of the game.
San Francisco was able to edge Seattle thanks to Frank Gore, who led the team in rushing yards (131 yards on 16 carries) and receiving yards (51 yards on 5 receptions). The offensive line set the tone by aggressively playing through the whistle on every play in an effort to open up running lanes on a day where the passing game was inconsistent and ineffective. Alex Smith was decidedly average, only throwing for 140 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
The fact that Gore led the team in receiving yards with 51 yards shows how effective the receiving corps was in the game. San Francisco’s defense was critical in pulling out the win as well, as they didn’t allow a touchdown throughout the game. By limiting Marshawn Lynch on the ground and pressuring Wilson in the pocket, the 49ers were able to ride Frank Gore to a victory.
The second game proved to be very different from the first. The Seahawks handed the 49ers their worst loss in the Jim Harbaugh era with a 42-13 rout in Seattle in Week 15. From the get-go, Russell Wilson and the Seahawks were having little difficulty putting up points against the Niners.
Without Justin Smith for the first time all season, the 49er defense looked shockingly vulnerable. Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung was able to shut down Aldon Smith, allowing Russell Wilson plenty of time inside and outside the pocket to make his throws. Lynch was barreling through the 49er front seven in the first half, finishing with 111 yards on the ground to go with one touchdown.
After carving up the Seattle defense in the last matchup, Gore was limited to 28 yards on six carries. Colin Kaepernick was clearly flustered by the noise of the Seattle stadium, as he was struggling to make pre-snap calls at the line of scrimmage.
The 49er offense as a whole was unable to pick up the defense, converting a ghastly three of 11 third-down situations. After three straight defeats, Pete Carroll finally recorded an NFL victory against Harbaugh, and he did it in blowout fashion.
As we look towards this year’s game, here are the key matchups I believe will determine the outcome of the game:
1. Anquan Boldin vs. Richard Sherman
Richard Sherman made his case last year as the NFL’s best all-around corner; however, he has yet to match up with Anquan Boldin. This matchup should prove to be the game’s most intriguing, as Sherman usually matches up over the opposing No. 1 wide receiver. Sherman is best when he engages the receiver in press man coverage, something Boldin has proven he can beat.
Although Boldin’s strength at the line of scrimmage and quick hands should be able to neutralize Sherman’s press coverage, the Seahawks safeties will likely make it a point to implement double coverage on him after he torched the unsuspecting Packers defense with 208 yards through the air. Though Boldin is one of those receivers who will still make plays despite the double coverage, he will not put up 200 yards receiving again.
The threat he provides to the Seahawks defense on his side of the field will open up other receivers like Vernon Davis, Kyle Williams, and Quinton Patton. If Boldin is able to hold his own against Sherman, the 49ers will be able to pick apart the mighty Seahawks secondary.
2. Vernon Davis vs. Kam Chancellor
Last year, during the second matchup between the Niners and the Seahawks, Kam Chancellor delivered a vicious hit on Vernon Davis, eliciting a personal foul penalty. Aside from that one blemish on his record, Chancellor completely shut Vernon down in the two games last year, with Vernon catching one pass for 27 yards in both games combined.
However, that could have been a result of him being phased out of the San Francisco offense. Chancellor’s strength has never been in man-to-man coverage, especially against the much faster Vernon Davis. With Boldin commanding so much attention, Davis should be able to face several one-on-one matchups with the Seahawks strong safety, a matchup the 49ers likely would covet. Kaepernick throws a great deep ball, and if Vernon can get on top of Chancellor, watch out.
3. Aldon Smith vs. Russell Okung
Aldon Smith was good, but he wasn’t dominant in the first game against the Packers. With a rookie left tackle set to start, he was supposed to wreak havoc in the backfield with Justin Smith occupying Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton. Yet, he was only able to collect 1.5 sacks on the day.
As I expressed in a previous article, the pass rush provided by the Smith Bros. is what allows the 49er defense to run so smoothly. In the second game against Seattle last season, Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung was able to shut down Aldon, something that cannot happen this year. With Justin Smith back, he should have some help. But the 49ers need Aldon Smith to be the beast he was in the first half of last season to be able to combat Russell Wilson and his array of aerial weapons.
The Wild Card: Eric Reid
The one member of the San Francisco defense Russell Wilson is yet to face is rookie free safety Eric Reid. Despite going up against Aaron Rodgers and the high-powered Green Bay offense in his regular season debut, Reid impressed, recording seven solo tackles and an interception.
Reid impressed me with his instincts, particularly his ability to break up and out of his backpedal. He was excellent in coverage, not getting burned deep once, and showed great physicality with his tackling of ballcarriers in front of him.
Unlike Dashon Goldson, who would take a lot of risks, Reid is less flash and more substance, regularly making the correct football play. His well-roundedness in defending both the pass and the run will be crucial on Sunday, especially with Russell Wilson’s propensity to throw the deep ball.
I’ve been a fan of Eric Reid’s game for some time now, but on Sunday, he might be the sole deciding factor in the outcome of this game.