The San Francisco 49ers are coming off of a third straight heartbreaking loss in the playoffs. They fell at the hands their division rival the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship, 23-17. While most people want to talk about Colin Kaepernick or the Michael Crabtree versus Richard Sherman debacle, the true story of this game was the two best defenses in the NFL competing with each other. The Niners ultimately lost the game, but did the defense perform during their loss on Sunday?
The Niners game plan coming into the game was to shut down Marshawn Lynch and keep Russell Wilson from getting outside of the pocket to make a big play. The Seahawks’ offense is similar to the Niners, as they lean on their running game and then use the play action pass to take shots down the field. Both quarterbacks have the ability to buy time for their receivers by moving around behind the line of scrimmage and that is where they pick big chunk plays in the passing game. Wilson is especially adept at creating something out of nothing by moving around in the pocket. So, shutting down Lynch and keep Wilson hemmed in the pocket is the key to shutting down the Seattle.
The first half was a perfect execution of their game plan. They saw immediate results as Aldon Smith make an amazing play to break his coverage of the flat to close on a scrambling Wilson and forced and recovered a fumble to set the Niners up in Seattle territory. They would miss a gift on Seattle’s third drive, as Eric Reid would let a potential interception slip through his hands right into the Doug Baldwin. The Niners would recover and get a key sack to force a punt and keep Seattle scoreless in the first quarter.
The second quarter was looking like much of the same with the Niners getting good penetration in the run game and a good pass rush to harass Wilson in the pocket. There would be one break down, as the Niners would let Wilson scramble around in the pocket and heave a deep throw to Baldwin behind the safeties down to the Niners 11-yard line. The defense would stiffen and force Seattle to settle for a field goal. The defense would bend a little on the next drive, but again pressure would force the Seahawks out of field goal range and a turnover on downs the next play. The first half was seen as a win for the defense, as they held the Seahawks to just three points and 131 yards of total offense.
The second half was a different story for the defense, as Seattle started to find some holes in the defense. Set up with a short field following a three and out by the offense, the defense needed a stop to maintain momentum. Lynch would gain 16 yards on two run, as they found some holes in the defensive front to exploit. Two plays later, Lynch would find a hole in the center of the defense and would cut it outside with the safety Eric Reid over running the play and take 40 yards for the touchdown. It was the first big play to hurt the Niners’ defense in the game and gave the Seahawks offense new life.
The defense would again face a short field following a kick off return down to their own 33 yard line. The Seahawks would 13 yards on their first play, but the Niners defense would force a couple of negative plays on second and third down. The Seahawks again would be forced to settle for a field goal.
On the next drive, the Seahawks again would be driving down the field. The Niners would get a key 16 yard intentional grounding penalty to set up third and 22, but they would play off coverage to allow Seattle to pick up 15 to get down to the Niners’ 35-yard line. Seattle ultimately would decide to go for it and a Smith offside would give Seattle a free play. Wilson would take a shot at the endzone and make a perfect throw to Jermaine Kearse just past the outstretched arm of Carlos Rogers to give Seattle their first lead of the game.
The key drive would come next, as the Seahawks were set up inside the Niners’ 10-yard line following a fumble by Kaepernick. On third down, Wilson would throw to Kearse just in front of the goal line, but Navarro Bowman would rip the ball free. Following the scrum, the refs awarded the ball to the Seahwaks, despite Bowman being down by contact with complete control of the football and the play being unchallengeable. The Niners would get instant karma on fourth down, as the Seahawks would go for the put away touchdown. Lynch would fumble the hand off and the Niners would get the ball at their own 15-yard line.
The defense would be called on for one last stop following a Kaepernick interception in Niners’ territory. The Niners defense would again hold tough and hold the Seahawks to a field goal, despite the short field. It would set the Niners up with one last chance for the offense to attempt to win the game, but they would come up short.
The Niners’ defense was the reason they were in the game at all. They set up the Niners’ first score with a quick turnover and then they would limit the damage when the offense and special teams would set them up with a short field to defend. Seattle could have easy had two or three more touchdown, if not for the performance of the defense. Putting it simply, the offense wasted a solid performance by the defense.
The defense is not blameless. They allowed several big plays that sparked the Seahawks. Particularly, the safeties had a rough game. Eric Reid had a rough night with the dropped interception, allowing Baldwin to get behind him to set up the first field goal and overrunning Lynch on his 40-yard touchdown run.
Overall, the Niners’ defense had a great day statistically. They held the Seahawks to just 308 yards and 0-for-3 in the red zone. They stuck to their game plan for the majority of the night, but all it took was three broken plays to be the difference in the game. Those three plays led to 17 points for the Seattle and kept the Seahawks and their crowd in the game. Those three plays and the inability to create multiple turnovers turned out to be the difference.
The defense should not hang their heads, as they proved they deserved to be mentioned among the elite. This performance on this big stage, should give them confidence going forward. Depending on the recovery of Navarro Bowman, this defense should be even better as the younger players should take a step forward and give this team so more depth. They should also get a boost at corner from the return of Chris Culliver, as well. This defense is elite and will continue to be elite moving forward.