With the looming monster of an NFC championship coming up on Sunday there are many story lines weaved into the early narrative. One of the main story lines, and the X factor for the 49ers, is the play of Colin Kaepernick in Seattle.
Century Link Field is the site of two of Kaepernick’s worst performances as a starter in his career thus far. His combined stat line is 32 of 64 pass attempts (50%), 371 yds (185.5/game), one TD against four INT’s, a total QBR of 20.8 (out of 100) and a total rating of 46.05 ( with 158.2 being the max possible). Those numbers are not even backup worthy when you look at them on paper. The combination of the Seahawks top flight defense and the deafening 12th man have been in Kaepernick’s head early and often in his 2 starts in the Emerald City. It is not only evident on the stat sheet it is evident when you watch the games in his overall demeanor. He is simply not the same person in that stadium, Beats by Dre or not. The brash confidence and playmaking is replaced by an unsure, nervous looking QB who becomes increasingly fidgety and inefficient as the game progresses.
Don’t get me wrong, the 9ers are a different offense than they were when they came north in week 2. They will also be playing a defense that is very different, especially the guys up front who’s jobs are to create a living hell for Kaepernick for 60 minutes. Bruce Irvin was out in the first game at CLink earlier this year and the D-Line have found their groove and chemistry playing a full season together after adding new pieces in the off-season. Byron Maxwell had yet to emerge as the heir apparent to Brandon Browner as well. The Seahawks pass rush was the most effective in football this season, per pro football focus, and two very potent pieces of the pass defense puzzle were not in place. They also have Walter Thurmond III back, who did not play in the last game in San Francisco. These are going to prove to be big factors on Sunday. With the noise presented by the 12th Man, the offense cannot play games with the snap count to try and draw the defense offsides. When that is the case, it becomes a matter of watching the ball and a track meet ensues up front. The 49ers are going to have to succeed running the ball and throwing short, timing based passes as well as keep the game close in order to keep the overwhelming pass rush from Michael Bennett and Co. from having a field day with the guy wearing number 7 in white.
Keeping the ferocious D-line at bay will be a tall task. The Seahawks have been stout against the run for most of the season (7th vs the run and 1st overall) and have been playing well as of late. There have been times when the Hawks have given up some big games to a handful of backs, but they have also been lights out more often than not. The 49ers did gain 100 yards rushing in the week 2 game, but Frank Gore only had 16 of those on 9 carries. Kaepernick had the other 87 yards on nine carries. Again, that was without Bruce Irvin. Those run lanes on pass plays are going to be more scarce and close a lot quicker than they did earlier in the year. By no means should the Seahawks or the 12th Man take Kaepernick and the 9ers offense lightly, as they have been balling lately, but there are several reasons for them to feel very confident.
Diagnosing the defense and reading all the way through his progressions are not the strongest parts of Colin Kaepernick’s game. He usually makes one or two reads before either throwing or running. If the Seahawks can force Kaepernick to routinely have to progress all the way to his third read or beyond, and effectively disguise blitzes and coverages, it is going to be a long day for him. With the DB’s to match up to the 9er passing threats, even the third read will most likely be well covered more often than not. That is where the X factor for the Seahawks comes into play: Limiting what Kaepernick gets with his legs.
Colin Kaepernick may be the most explosive running QB in the game right now and could stay that way for a long time. That fact has to be respected. This is an area where the Seahawks corps of fast linebackers will come into play. The Seahawks definitely have the speed to contain Kaepernick on the ground, especially with Bruce Irvin back, but the main factor to their success in that regard is mental discipline. The Seahawks simply cannot lose contain or leave windows open for Kaepernick to run through by losing gap control and rush lanes on the defensive line. Every player in the front seven for the Sehawks needs to get to and fill their proper ‘fit’ once the play begins to develop. Film study and mental wherewithal during the game will be paramount in executing the proper plan to containing Kaep’s legs.
Everything considered, for the defense to win the day the order is simple: Take out the head of the beast and it won’t be able to guide the body. If the Seahawks and the 12th Man can infiltrate the mind of Colin Kaepernick early, this game is going to get ugly and the Seattle Seahawks will be moving on to the Super Bowl. If Kaep can keep it rolling like he has away from Clink, this will be another close game like their week 16 matchup which the 9ers won 19-17 at Candlestick. Century Link field has proven to be a house of horrors for the 49ers offensive leader and I don’t foresee that changing in a game where the pressure will be 10 fold and the pass rush more vicious than what it has been at any point for him so far in that building. Sunday is set to be one of the most epic Championship Sunday’s in recent memory, we will see what the upcoming matchup for the Lombardi will prove to be. I know what I’ll be paying attention to the most on Sunday, the demeanor of Colin Kaepernick.