|SEAHAWKS AT 49ERS |
When: Sunday, 1:15 p.m., Candlestick Park, San Francisco
Records: Each team was 2-2 in the preseason; Seahawks were 7-9 and won the NFC West last season, while the 49ers were 6-10
Rest of the West: The Arizona Cardinals host the Carolina Panthers, while the St. Louis Rams host the Philadelphia Eagles
TV: KCPQ/13 (Fox), with Dick Stockton, John Lynch and Jaime Maggio
Radio: 710 ESPN and 97.3 FM, with Steve Raible, Warren Moon and Jen Mueller
Seahawks LT Russell Okung vs. 49ers DE Justin Smith. Okung, last year’s first-round draft choice, has not played since spraining an ankle on the first series of the preseason opener in San Diego on Aug. 11. He steps back in against one of the best – and most active – pass-rushers in the league. Smith was voted to the Pro Bowl last season after producing 8½ sacks, to tie his career-high from 2001 when he was a rookie with the Bengals; and 107 tackles, three shy of his career-high from 2006. This isn’t just about Okung’s ability to prevent Smith from getting to QB Tarvaris Jackson; it’s also about neutralizing Smith on run downs to allow the running game to setup the play-action passing game. And Smith will slide inside on passing downs, so rookie left guard James Carpenter also will be matched up against him on occasion.
One to watch
Seahawks NT Brandon Mebane and MLB K.J. Wright vs. 49ers RB Frank Gore. In the two games in his career where Gore has rushed for more than 200 yards – both against the Seahawks – he has been able to get through the line and into the second level. Too often untouched. Part of the problem is that the 5-foot-9 Gore is difficult to find behind his blockers, especially on the left side with 6-5, 315-pound Joe Staley at tackle and 6-5, 331-pound Mike Iupati at guard. Part of the problem is that Gore cannot be stopped with arm tackles. So Mebane, in his first start at nose tackle, must be stout and disruptive; while Wright, who is likely to make his first NFL start – period – must fill gaps and hold his ground.
Fun the watch
Red Bryant. Remember when the Seahawks had the No. 2-ranked run defense in the league? It was going into the Week 8 game against the Raiders in Oakland last season. Bryant, a violent presence at the five-technique end spot, went down with a season-ending knee injury in that game – and the run defense followed, allowing 239 rushing yards to the Raiders and finishing the season ranked No. 21. Well, Bryant is back and looking better than ever. That’s a needed plus for the Seahawks’ defense, especially with Gore on tap this Sunday.
One tough task
Whoever is matched up against 49ers TE Vernon Davis. It could be SS Kam Chancellor. It would be one of the middle linebackers – Wright in the base defense or Matt McCoy in the nickel. It could be strong-side ‘backer Aaron Curry. It likely will be all of the above at some point. Davis is a physical freak, as no one that big (6-3, 250) should be able to run that fast (4.38 seconds for 40 yards). Then there’s the vertical leap (42 inches) and the strength (33 reps with 225 pounds). But the bottom line with Davis is the production: 56 catches for 914 yards and seven touchdowns last season; 78 for 965 and 13 in 2009. In the past two seasons, he has 21 catches for 286 yards against the Seahawks.
The Seahawks also opened the 2010 season against the 49ers, winning 31-6 in Seattle. … The Seahawks have won five of the past 10 meetings to lead the overall series 13-11, but the 49ers have won the past two games played in San Francisco. … QB Alex Smith passed for 255 yards and a career high-tying three TDs for a career-best 130.9 passer rating in the 49ers’ 40-21 victory at Candlestick Park last season, and also had a career-best 310-yard passing performance in the game in Seattle in 2009. … ILB Patrick Willis has led the 49ers in tackles in each of his four seasons, and also been voted to the Pro Bowl four consecutive times. … For the Seahawks, WR Mike Williams is the only offensive starter who will be at the same position from the lineup that faced the 49ers in last year’s opener. … Pete Carroll is 4-1 in season openers as a head coach in the NFL, including last year’s win over the 49ers. … Jim Harbaugh makes his regular-season debut as a NFL head coach for the 49ers.
Pete Carroll grew up in the Bay Area, and then began growing into the coach he has become as an assistant with the 49ers.
The team he’ll bring to Candlestick Park on Sunday for the Seahawks’ season opener against San Francisco is definitely his team.
With more than just a little help from his friends – general manager John Schneider, vice president of football operations Will Lewis and their staff; as well as his own coaching staff – Carroll has compiled a collection of players who are bigger, faster, stronger and younger than the Seahawks have had in years.
It didn’t just happen. Carroll and Schneider made 284 roster transactions during their first year together after being hired in January of 2010. In the past six weeks, after the end of the 136-day lockout, they’ve made another 146.
They’ve made trades to acquire kick returner/running back Leon Washington, defensive end Chris Clemons and running back Marshawn Lynch, among others. They’ve dipped into free agency to sign quarterback Tarvaris Jackson, wide receiver Sidney Rice, tight end Zach Miller, left guard Robert Gallery and defensive tackle Alan Branch – and re-signed defensive tackle Brandon Mebane, linebacker Leroy Hill and defensive end Raheem Brocks. In the past two drafts, they’ve added starters in offensive linemen Russell Okung, James Carpenter and John Moffitt and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, as well as depth at linebacker, wide receiver and in the secondary. They’ve hit on undrafted and street free agents like wide receivers Mike Williams and Doug Baldwin and oozing-with-potential QB Josh Portis. They even reached into the CFL and pulled out a starting cornerback in Brandon Browner.
They’ve also retained two members of the 2005 Super Bowl team – cornerback Marcus Trufant and Hill; and hit on two look-what-we-found position switches – moving little-used defensive tackle Red Bryant to end last season and rookie linebacker K.J. Wright from the strong side to the middle this year.
The question now: How long will it take this mix to mesh?
“We don’t know. Nobody knows right now,” a candid Carroll admitted after Friday’s final practice to prepare for Sunday’s opener. “You’ve got to find out what happens when you start playing the games.
“It’s going to be interesting to watch our team as we grow together. We’re going to have to learn. We don’t know everything about them yet, but we’ll learn as we go.”
To be players in the NFC West this season, the defending division champions will have to steal a couple of games on the road – with Sunday’s matchup against the 49ers, the Week 7 game at Cleveland and the Week 11 game at St. Louis looking the most promising; beat a good team, or two, at home – with the Falcons (Week 4), Ravens (Week 10) and Eagles (Week 13) falling into that category; and do their thing against the rest of the West.
It won’t be easy, despite the added size and speed that have accompanied the on-going youth movement. But the stage appears to be set for good things to come in the future; even if there will be some growing pains this season.
Just look at the added size with the additions of Branch (6-6, 325), Carpenter (6-5, 321), Gallery (6-7, 325) and the emergence of Chancellor (6-3, 232), Browner (6-4, 221) and Bryant (6-4, 323). And the infusion of speed goes beyond Thomas, Washington and practice-squad receiver Ricardo Lockette.
Watching Bryant drop into coverage or chase a ball carrier out of bounds shy of the line of scrimmage isn’t just impressive; it’s a little bit scary. Watching Browner and Chancellor muscle receivers while fighting for the ball prompts the thought, “What took so long?”
But when you think about it, it hasn’t taken Carroll that long at all to fashion this roster to match the way he wants to play – fast, aggressive, smart.
“I really like this team,” he said. “I like them because I like competing with them and because of the way they bring it every day. It’s the way that they like to go about the game – they like to play hard, they get excited for one another, they’re serious about their preparation.
“All those things give us a chance to find out how good we are.”
And it all starts Sunday, where it all started for Carroll in the first place.