SEATTLE, Wash. - NaVorro Bowman had this game on his mind ever since he sustained his gruesome knee injury 671 days ago in the NFC Championship Game.
The injury, of course, came on a goal line run, when his left knee bent inward on a scrum to stop running back Marshawn Lynch from scoring a touchdown. Bowman's injury was one of the few excruciating aspects of that game for 49ers fans.
After playing so well for most of the game, things unraveled for San Francisco in the second half. Colin Kaepernick turned the ball four times after playing arguably the best two and a half quarters of his life. And despite the wheels falling off, Kaepernick was a play away from winning the game at end, before Richard Sherman's immaculate deflection in the end zone on a pass intended for Michael Crabtree.
Bowman told reporters in the locker room Friday that he hasn't forgotten getting carted off the field after tearing his ACL and MCL, and getting pelted with popcorn coming from the stands.
“I remember it, and that’s been with me for a while,” Bowman said, per the San Francisco Chronicle. “No matter who gets hurt, you want to make sure they get up on their feet and show some sign of respect. And I don’t think the Seahawks’ fans did that at all. You can’t keep a good man down. That’s basically my message to them.”
Bowman, the NFL's third leading tackler, is coming off arguably his best performance of the season before last week's bye. Bowman tied Marcus Cromartie for the team lead with seven tackles. It was the best he's looked since the injury. And with last week off, Bowman should be plenty energized for Sunday's return to CenturyLink Field in front of the 12th Man.
Can't run and Hyde
Hyde was ruled out of Sunday's game on Friday, and won't make the trip with the team so he can continue his rehab of the stress fracture in his left foot. That means Shaun Draughn will likely get the bulk of the carries, with Kendall Gaskins and Travaris Cadet serving as compliments.
Draughn impressed in his debut, putting together a 96 all-purpose yard performance against the Falcons. He led the team with four receptions, as new starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert (more on him later) did well in utilizing his check down options.
To be sure, the Seahawks defense is drastically more talented than the Falcons, and probably pretty angry after the Cardinals scored 39 points on their home field last week, netting 451 yards thanks to Carson Palmer orchestrating one of the best quarterback performances of the season.
The 49ers would like to fancy themselves as a ball control team that can run the ball and play good defense. That makes Draughn one of the most important figures in Sunday's game. Will he be able to replicate his success against Atlanta behind the 49ers' rotating offensive line?
What happens with the quarterback spot?
Blaine Gabbert is playing with house money. If he doesn't play well, the overall opinion of him doesn't change. And in comparison to Kaepernick, who struggles in Seattle more than anywhere else, he's not up against much in the battle of perception. This 49ers season is lost anyway, so Gabbert has the luxury of playing free and easy, knowing he has far more to gain than to lose.
Jim Tomsula this week would not commit to a starting quarterback beyond Sunday. So if Gabbert is feeling pressure, that's the source. He'd like to rebuild his confidence, which he did some against the Falcons, and spring board himself into a real-life reclamation story, much like another former 49ers quarterback, Alex Smith.
But say Gabbert plays bad, like Kaepernick in Arizona bad, by throwing interceptions leading to easy touchdowns early, things become very, very interesting. And complicated.
Just about all the tea leaves say Kaepernick's time in Santa Clara will come to an end in the spring. That becomes even more likely if Gabbert maintains the starting job over the final seven regular season games.
But if Gabbert doesn't play well, and a reinvigorated Kaepernick plays more like the 2012-2013 version of himself late in the year, the 49ers will have another complicated variable to deal with heading into a decision-filled offseason.
Will the team view his struggles in the first half of 2015 as a blip on the radar? Do they feel comfortable enough with him to avoid taking a quarterback with one of their early picks in the spring's draft? Does he even want to come back given the way the organization has struggled to put the necessary pieces around him?
Or, does the team cut ties with Kaepernick, draft a 'franchise quarterback' early, and let that rookie compete with Gabbert for the starting job? Gabbert is signed through next season with a $2.25 million cap hit. Kaepernick's is $16.765 million - but that could change with a restructure.
Yes, the 49ers 2016 quarterback question is complicated. And it gets even more complicated with the potential uncertainty surrounding the head coach, offensive coordinator, and perhaps the general manager.
The defense hitting its stride
After the season opener, the 49ers defense struggled in a big way. They were torched week after week by former Super Bowl winning quarterbacks as they tried to get acclimated to Eric Mangini's scheme that changes by the game.
But the tide might turning and the defense might be finding itself. Holding the league's former leading rusher, Devonta Freeman, to 12 yards on 12 carries was perhaps the key to beating the Falcons. Instead of trying to score a go-ahead touchdown from the 1-yard line on fourth down with three minutes left, the Falcons went instead with a field goal.
San Francisco's defense throughout was likely the reason why Atlanta head coach Dan Quinn made that (regrettable) decision.
In that game, the 49ers allowed 302 total yards, the second-lowest total of the year, with their best game coming in the season opener. The previous week against the Rams, they allowed 388, with 186 coming on three big plays. The defense appeared the make the necessary corrections on those big plays for the Falcons game.
Take away Todd Gurley's 71-yard run, Tavon Austin's 66-yard bubble screen and Jared Cook's 49-yard reception, the Rams averaged 3.06 yards per play in that game, which is more than serviceable if you're the 49ers.
Coming off the bye week, Bowman should be energized, the starting cornerbacks will be healthier, Jaquiski Tartt is more accustomed to the starting job, and Tank Carradine will be playing less on the inside - where he was pancaked on Gurley's long run - and more in his natural position rushing the edge.
If the offense can stay on the field and put together long drives, the defense should be in position to keep Sunday's game competitive as the it rides its upward trajectory.
Receiving corps intact
If Anquan Boldin plays, Sunday's game will be the first time this year the 49ers will have their entire group of receivers available. Boldin missed the last two games with his hamstring injury, including the Rams game, when Jerome Simpson made his debut following his six-game suspension to start the season.
Boldin clearly wasn't himself in his last outing, the loss Oct. 22 to Seattle, and expects to be healthier for Sunday's rematch. If Boldin can return to form, he will provide a compliment to Torrey Smith the offense has lacked in his absence.
After allowing the most yards in more than two years last week, this might be the most vulnerable Seahawks defense the 49ers have faced in a long, long time. If Gabbert plays well, the 49ers receivers should have a lot to do with it.
Chris Biderman is the Editor-in-Chief of Niners Digest and covers the 49ers from their headquarters in Santa Clara. Chris has been writing about the team since the spring of 2013. The Ohio State alum received his Journalism degree in 2011 and has been working in sports media since 2008. Chris, a Santa Rosa, Calif. native, is also a contributor to the Associated Press covering sports throughout the Bay Area. You can follow Chris on Twitter here.
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