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Stopping Seahawks and 49ers starts with stopping Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore

Posted Jan 17, 2014

When the two best teams in the NFC clash for the conference title on Sunday, two of the hardest-running backs in the NFL will be on display. And containing Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore is Priority One for the 49ers and Seahawks.


“I don’t run to get tackled.”

Leave it to Marshawn Lynch, a man of few words but so many actions, to strip his ram-and-bam, twist-and-torque, plow-and-push style to its simplest terms.

And Sunday, when the Seahawks host the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field, Lynch will be running into a defense that is all about tackling him.

“You have to take him away,” 49ers strong safety Donte Whitner told reporters in the Bay Area this week. “Like he said, he doesn’t run to get tackled. He’s one of the best backs in the National Football League. Very rough style. We have to take him away and make the quarterback beat us.

“It’s very difficult. Everybody’s been trying to do that all year, and they haven’t been able to do it. But if we want to go to where we want to go, we have to do it. So that’s the mindset.”

BACK-TO-BACK BACKS

A comparison of the Seahawks’ Marshawn Lynch and 49ers’ Frank Gore heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship at CenturyLink Field:

  Lynch Gore
Height 5-11 5-9
Weight 215 217
Seasons 7 9
Pro Bowls 5 4
Regular season
Rushing yards 1,257 1,128
Average 4.2 4.1
Rushing TDs 12 9
Postseason
Rushing yards 140 150
Average 5.0 4.1
Rushing TDs 2 1

Note: Lynch’s postseason stats are for one game; Gore’s are for two games.

Lynch being able to put what matters most over mindset will be pivotal in determining which team gets where it wants to get – Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2 against the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship matchup between the Broncos and New England Patriots in Denver, where the focus is on quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

And the flipside to the 49ers’ concerns about containing Lynch is how the Seahawks’ No. 1-ranked defense will be able to handle old nemesis Frank Gore.

“He’s really capable,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s a fantastic runner. He’s got great sense. He’s got as good a sense in the line of scrimmage as anybody that’s playing in the game. If you make a mistake, he takes advantage of it.”

The only team in the league that ran the ball more than the Seahawks (509) and 49ers (505) during the regular season was the Buffalo Bills (546). The only team in the postseason with a larger disparity between the run and the pass than the Seahawks (plus-17) is the Patriots (plus-21), and the 49ers are No. 5 (plus-4).

The 49ers have been one of the toughest teams to run against in recent seasons. In their past 101 games, they have allowed nine 100-yard rushers. But Lynch has four of them, including three since the Seahawks acquired him in a 2010 trade with the Bills – 107 in Week 16 of the 2011 season; and 103 and 111 last season.

This season, no back has hit 100 against the 49ers. But Lynch came the closest with 98 yards in the Week 2 matchup at CenturyLink Field, and he also had 72 in the Week 14 rematch at Candlestick Park. Lynch also has scored four touchdowns against the 49ers (three rushing, one receiving).

“He’s very strong, very relentless in his running style,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “And yet he’s got some elusiveness to him that he can jump-cut – makes really good cuts and can jump-cut laterally, gets you a little off balance. He’s got you a little off balance and now he turns his power on. He’s a powerful back, but yet he has the ability to get you off balance, which now makes his power even more effective.”

Then there’s Gore, who has had the two highest-yardage games of his career against the Seahawks – 212 yards in 2006 and 207 in 2009. That was before Pete Carroll was hired as the coach in 2010 and rebuilt the roster and the defense. But Gore also broke a 51-yard run in Week 14 that set up the 49ers’ game-winning field goal in their 19-17 victory.

“That’s where it starts most games. If you stop the run, that’s key,” defensive end Cliff Avril said. “But especially with these guys. Gore is a heckuva back. The biggest thing for us is just playing sound and playing disciplined. Not trying to do too much and getting out of your gaps and trying to make the extra play.

“Because he’ll definitely pick us apart if we do that. So I think that’s definitely the big key right there is stopping Frank Gore.”

As for not playing sound and not playing disciplined against the run, that’s a been-there, done-that situation for the Seahawks. But it’s also a fixed-that, moved-on situation.

In Weeks 8 and 9, against the St. Louis Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Seahawks yielded 200 and 205 rushing yards. Since then, it has been an average of 86 rushing yards in their past eight games, including last Saturday’s win over the New Orleans Saints in their divisional playoff game.

“When those games happened, we really tried to have a commitment to say, ‘Hey, let’s get back to playing a really physical brand and style that we want to play,’ ” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “And that includes out-hitting guys. It was really just in changing the attitude.

“We didn’t have a scheme change or a philosophy change in that way. It was more, ‘Hey, let’s get back to connected and to do the things that we do really well.’ And for us, that was in terms of hitting our fits and really playing aggressive at the line of scrimmage.”

The most noticeable – and costly – slip in this flip was that 51-yard run by Gore, his longest of the season. The second-longest run allowed by the Seahawks in the past eight games was a 32-yarder by the Vikings’ Toby Gerhart in the Seahawks’ Week 11 win over Minnesota.

“I think the hardest part is because he’s a smaller guy,” All-Pro strong safety Kam Chancellor said when asked what makes it difficult to tackle the 5-foot-9 Gore. “He gets real low, and he’s downhill. He runs downhill behind his big tackles and guards. He does a good job of that – finding the holes, picking and choosing which hole to go to; in and out of holes, and then he’s straight up field. I think he does a great job at finding holes.”

Lynch, on the other hand, finds a way to do damage with or without holes.

“He does a great job of fighting through it and breaking tackles,” 49ers All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “So, he’s a hard tackle, I will admit. But it can be done.”

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