NFL Preview - San Francisco (5-6) at Seattle (4-7)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Seattle Seahawks unleashed a resurgent running game in their most recent outing, while the San Francisco 49ers have suddenly discovered the ability to attack opponents through the air.
The two NFC West inhabitants will be attempting to build off encouraging offensive displays in this Sunday's battle at Qwest Field, where the visiting 49ers put an undefeated record in divisional play on the line.
San Francisco heads to the Pacific Northwest with a surge of momentum provided by one of the team's most complete performances of the season, a 20-3 drubbing of Jacksonville last Sunday that featured notable achievements on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Alex Smith continued his career resurrection by throwing for 232 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and a stingy defense delivered six sacks and two forced fumbles while keeping the Jaguars from reaching the end zone.
The 49ers abandoned their traditional ball-control approach and repeatedly assaulted a vulnerable Jacksonville pass defense with a spread look that catered to the talents of Smith, the former No. 1 overall choice who's finally showing signs of living up to his lofty draft status after four injury-plagued and disappointing seasons. San Francisco threw the ball on 41 of its 61 offensive plays for the game, with most of Smith's attempts coming out of a shotgun formation similar to the one he used while starring for the University of Utah.
That pass-happy philosophy was in stark contrast to when these teams squared off in San Francisco back in this season's second week. The Niners gashed Seattle for 256 rushing yards en route to a 23-10 victory, with workhorse running back Frank Gore amassing 207 yards on a mere 16 carries and ripping off a pair of long touchdown bursts.
Smith, incidentally, did not play in that game while still serving as the backup to since-displaced starter Shaun Hill.
The Seahawks had a pair of key members on offense held to limited roles in that contest. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck sat out the entire second half after cracking a rib when taking a hard shot from Niners linebacker Patrick Willis, while running back Justin Forsett had just five rushing attempts over the entire afternoon.
Forsett has been far more of a factor lately while filling in for injured regular Julius Jones. The second-year pro came out of nowhere to rack up 123 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries in a Week 10 loss at Arizona, then topped that effort with a career-best 130 yards and two scores to lead the Seahawks to a 27-17 triumph at lowly St. Louis last Sunday.
The 24-year-old seems to have injected some needed life into a Seattle offense that entered last week's tilt ranked dead last in the league in rushing yards, but he may be going back to being a complementary contributor on Sunday. Jones appears to be on track to return from a bruised lung and ribs that caused him to miss the Seahawks' last two games, and head coach Jim Mora has acknowledged that the veteran back will remain the team's starter when healthy.
Last week's win moved the 49ers within two games of first-place Arizona in the NFC West standings, with Seattle a game behind their upcoming opponent in third place. San Francisco, which is seeking its first postseason appearance since 2002, also currently stands two games back of Green Bay and Philadelphia, the co-leaders in the conference Wild Card race.
The 49ers have gone 3-0 against their NFC West brethren thus far in 2009, but have lost four in a row on the road since a season-opening victory against the division-leading Cardinals.
Seattle has posted a 3-2 mark at Qwest Field this season, with two of those wins coming by shutout.
The Seahawks lead the all-time series with the 49ers, 11-10, but as mentioned, were 23-10 losers when they visited San Francisco in Week 2. The clubs embarked on an unconventional split of last year's home-and-home, with Seattle coming up a 33-30 overtime loser when the teams met at Qwest Field in Week 2, and exacting its revenge with a 34-13 win at Candlestick Park in Week 8, Mike Singletary's first game as the Niners' interim head coach. The Seahawks' most recent win home win over the 49ers occurred in 2007.
Mora is 1-1 as a head coach against the 49ers, for whom he served as an assistant coach from 1997 through 2003. Mora's first win as a head coach was against San Francisco, a 21-19 road win for his Falcons team in Week 1 of the 2004 campaign. The 49ers' Singletary is 1-1 as a head coach against the Seahawks, and 1-0 against Mora head-to-head.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
Although Smith's (1267 passing yards, 11 TD, 7 INT) insertion under center has given San Francisco more of a vertical threat, this is still a run-first team built around Gore (643 rushing yards, 36 receptions, 9 total TD), who's averaged an impressive 160 yards from scrimmage over his past seven encounters with Seattle. The Seahawks won't be able to focus solely on stopping the hard- nosed back this weekend, however, due to the long-awaited emergence of tight end Vernon Davis (57 receptions, 9 TD) as a field-stretching weapon and the midseason addition of rookie receiver Michael Crabtree (26 receptions, 1 TD). Davis' production has sky-rocketed since Smith took over for Hill in a Week 7 loss at Houston, with six of the former first-round pick's nine receiving touchdowns having come following the switch. That game was also Crabtree's first after a prolonged contract dispute, and the talented youngster has given an otherwise pedestrian pass-catching corps an outside option to account for. Smith has completed a solid 62.2 percent of his passes on the year and has thrown for at least two touchdowns in three of San Francisco's last four games.
The Seahawks allowed Gore to run wild in the earlier meeting between these teams, but feel they're better prepared for preventing a repeat scenario. Seattle played that contest without weakside linebacker Leroy Hill (27 tackles, 1 sack) and steady defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (30 tackles, 1 sack), while middle linebacker David Hawthorne (78 tackles, 4 sacks, 2 INT) has turned into a difference maker since replacing injured three-time Pro Bowler Lofa Tatupu at the all-important position in early November. The team also didn't have top cover man Marcus Trufant (22 tackles, 1 INT) available for that game due to a back injury, and the accomplished corner's return has had a positive effect on third-year man Josh Wilson (31 tackles, 2 INT, 12 PD) on the opposite side. Wilson had a key 65-yard interception return for a touchdown in last Sunday's win over the Rams, his second score in the past four games. Ends Patrick Kerney (23 tackles, 5 sacks) and Lawrence Jackson (21 tackles, 4 sacks) have been able to generate a consistent outside rush, with the latter coming up with two of Seattle's four sacks of Hill in the Week 2 clash. The Seahawks rank just 25th overall versus the pass (238.1 ypg), however, and have given up 20 touchdowns through the air this season.
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Having a healthy Hasselbeck (1955 passing yards, 11 TD, 7 INT) figures to boost the Seahawks' chances of avenging their previous loss to the Niners, and the ground game's ability to duplicate its recent outputs certainly would help out as well. Seattle mustered a meager 66 rushing yards on 23 attempts against San Francisco in September, with Jones (392 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 4 total TD) held to a mere 11 yards on eight touches. It looks like he'll get a chance for redemption on Sunday, however, which would push the improving Forsett (385 rushing yards, 4 TD, 29 receptions) into secondary and third-down duties despite a healthy 5.8 yards per carry average for the year. The Seahawks were down only 13-10 at halftime in their early-year bout with San Francisco, but didn't put up a point afterward with Hasselbeck forced to the bench. The 11th-year veteran will be coming into Sunday's game at close to full strength and ready to lead an offense that contains two capable receivers in Nate Burleson (55 receptions, 708 yards, 3 TD) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (56 receptions, 3 TD). Forsett, who put up 80 receiving yards on eight grabs in Seattle's loss at Minnesota two weeks ago, needs to be accounted for at the backfield as well.
Hasselbeck could be airing it out often this weekend, considering the 49ers have been quite stout against the run throughout most of the 2009 season. The outstanding Willis (107 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT), an All-Pro selection in each of his first two seasons, headlines a defense that is yielding an average of 94.8 rushing yards per game (5th overall) and 3.6 yards per attempt, while nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (28 tackles, 2 sacks) could join his teammate at the Pro Bowl this year after developing into one of the league's best at his position. Strong safety Michael Lewis (57 tackles, 1 INT) is a noted run- stopper as well who compiled a team-best nine tackles in San Francisco's earlier victory over the Seahawks. The Niners have been vulnerable to the pass, having let an opposing quarterback throw for over 300 yards in each of the last three games, but compensated with a persistent pass rush that knocked Jacksonville's David Garrard to the turf six times last week. End Justin Smith (40 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and outside linebacker Parys Haralson (27 tackles, 3.5 sacks) each had 1 1/2 sacks in the win and will be called upon to help protect a backfield that's been shuffling cornerbacks lately in hopes of finding the right combination. The team's most proven cover man, Nate Clements (35 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD), has been out since early November with a fractured shoulder blade and may not return to action this season.
Forsett has turned out to be a late-season gem for those astute enough to grab the previously-unknown back off the waiver wire, but his value takes a noticeable hit with Jones' anticipated return this week. All is not completely lost, however, as Jones will almost certainly be eased back into the fold and Forsett's skills as a receiver make him still useful. Hasselbeck has been pretty productive at home this year and faces a San Francisco secondary that's hardly frightening, so he wouldn't be a bad choice this week. Same goes for Burleson and Houshmandzadeh, the Seahawks' two most reliable pass-catching options. Gore owners shouldn't fret over the 49ers' heavy reliance on the pass last week, and the standout back's history against Seattle puts him in the must-start category along with Davis, who's currently tied for the league lead in touchdown catches. Crabtree has shown himself worthy of starting consideration as a second wide receiver or flex, but the inconsistent Smith still isn't a recommended play at quarterback if there are better alternatives. Neither defense makes enough plays to merit inclusion in weekly lineups, but Seahawks kicker Olindo Mare would be a pretty solid pick.
While San Francisco's 1-4 season road record doesn't inspire a wealth of confidence, Singletary's troops have been able to hang in against teams with better credentials than the Seahawks, who have only one win over an opponent that doesn't reside in St. Louis or Detroit. Seattle's been at its toughest in games when it can achieve good balance on offense, but may find it hard to run the ball effectively on a San Francisco defense that's proven in that area. On the other hand, the Niners had little trouble piling up yards on the ground in their previous matchup with the Seahawks and have become a tougher team to defend with the additions of Smith and Crabtree. San Francisco looks to have fewer holes among these two divisional members and should have plenty of incentive in a game that will go a long way in determining its playoff hopes.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: 49ers 20, Seahawks 16
12/03 16:43:08 ET