Thanksgiving is finally upon us. The NFL released its schedule way back in April and even before the official release there were whispers and rumors of a rematch of the NFC championship game on Thanksgiving. This is currently the NFL’s best rivalry and it’s taking place in prime time on Thanksgiving night. Seven long months after the schedule officially dropped we have arrived at what surely is the most anticipated regular season game of 2014 by the entire San Francisco 49ers organization. The two teams just so happen to come into Thursday night’s game with identical records. The importance of this contest extends beyond the mutual hatred these two teams feel for each other, it is a vital match up in a very crowded NFC playoff picture.
The 49ers offense has downright struggled the majority of the 2014 campaign. In week 12 it won’t get any easier as Seattle packs the NFL’s top ranked defense for its trip to the Bay Area. Last week, the 49ers only managed 17 points against a Washington team that was allowing 25.6 points a game and gave up 27 to Tampa Bay (26th in total offense) and 29 to Minnesota (30th in total offense) in the previous two weeks. This does not inspire confidence when facing Seattle’s defense. To be fair, Washington does boast a top 10 run defense and was very effective in shutting down the 49ers ground attack. Colin Kaepernick was impressive through the air, completing almost 70% of his passes and throwing for 256 yards. If not for a pair of big drops by Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree (stop if you’ve read this before) Kap would have competed well over 70% of his passes for roughly 300 yards. A pair of fumbles by Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde derailed drives and allowed Washington to almost steal a win at Levi’s Stadium. With the league’s top two defenses squaring off on Thursday, the 49ers absolutely cannot do their opponents any favors by turning the ball over.
One area of major concern for the 49ers offense is at Right Tackle where starter Anthony Davis will miss his seventh game of the year. Backup Jonathan Martin has been ineffective filling in for Davis and will have to matchup with Cliff Avril, who ranks fourth in the league in QB hurries. A heavy dose of double teams will most surely be in order to help the potentially overmatched Martin. On the other side of the D-Line Michael Bennett leads the NFL in hurries. The 49ers offensive line, which has been uncharacteristically bad in pass protection for large portions of the season, will have to do whatever it can to give Kaepernick time to throw.
On the other side of the ball the 49ers defense is coming off of another stellar performance. The pass defense in particular had an outstanding day vs Washington, allowing only 106 passing yards and sacking Robert Griffin five times. The one Washington WR that can hurt an opponent is DeSean Jackson and the 49ers did a fantastic job on him all afternoon, giving up only 2 catches for 39 yards. RGIII looked uncomfortable and skittish all day. Washington had two chances in the games final minutes to drive the length of the field and win the game and on six plays they actually lost four yards. You had the feeling that as bad as Washington’s passing game had been all afternoon, they had absolutely no chance of driving the length of the field and scoring on the formidable 49ers D to win the game.
The man under center for Seattle on Thursday night will present a much bigger challenge to the San Francisco defense than the disgraced RGIII. While Russell Wilson’s athleticism is a difficult match up for any defense, the real threat to San Francisco comes in the form of Marshawn Lynch. Last week the only success that Washington had on offense was on the ground behind Alfred Morris. Morris piled up 125 yards on 21 carries, including runs of 30, 22, 16 and 22 yards. The 49ers missed eight tackles, their second most of the season. Three games ago the Saints had success running on the Niners as well, with Mark Ingram banging out 120 yards. Both Ingram and Morris are big bruising backs and Lynch represents perhaps the hardest running back to bring down in the game. The defense is going to have to tackle at a much better clip this week. Chris Borland and Michael Wilhoite will have their biggest test of the season in trying to stop Lynch running downhill and contain Wilson in the open field.
The glaring weakness in Seattle’s offense is in pass protection. If the 49ers can force Seattle into obvious passing situations, the suddenly formidable pass rush can tee off on one of the league’s shakiest offensive lines. Wilson has been pressured on a league high 44% of his drop backs and was sacked five times in the first half (!) last week vs Arizona. This coincides with the sudden emergence of the 49ers pass rush, with the return of Aldon Smith leading a group that hounded RGIII for 60 minutes last week while blitzing only a handful of times. Griffin passed his way to just four first downs while being sacked five times. Forcing 3rd down passing situations is absolutely vital for the 49ers defense.
Thanksgiving night’s face off with Seattle constitutes the first must win of the season. Not only becuase these teams and fan bases cannot stand each other, but beyond that they are each other’s main competition to get into the playoffs. Having identical 7-4 records and playing each other twice in three weeks will go a long way in deciding the wild card and maybe the NFC West. Holding serve on your home field is vital in this rivalry as San Francisco has struggled on its recent trips up north while Seattle hasn’t won on 49ers turf in six years, long before these two teams even remotely cared about each other. Despite the mutual hatred for each other, these two teams couldn’t be any more similar. Both feature elite defenses and middling offenses. The 49ers have thus far limped their way to a 7-4 record. Their defense has been for the most part outstanding and their offense for the most part underwhelming. All that really matters is that they are 7-4 the week of Thanksgiving. They have yet to put together a complete, statement game. The offense has yet to play a full 60 minutes of smart, threatening football. Yet here they stand, toe to toe with their biggest rival. Thursday night should go a long way in showing us what the 2014 San Francisco 49ers are really made of.