Five to watch: 49ers vs. Seahawks

If the 49ers are going anywhere this season, it's imperative they get on the winning track Sunday in the unfriendly confines of Seattle against a Seahawks team reeling from injuries to key offensive personnel. San Francisco will need several key individuals to come up big, and here are five players to watch who could make it or break it for the Niners in this key NFC West matchup.

1. WR ISAAC BRUCE
Several of the offensive weapons in San Francisco's revamped attack had promising starts in last week's season opener against Arizona, but Bruce was not one of them. For just the seventh time in his distinguished 15-year career, Bruce – who has more career receptions than any other receiver currently in the Hall of Fame – was shut out in the reception column. Bruce was blanked even though he was on the field for more plays than any other San Francisco skill-position player other than quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan. The 49ers need Bruce to get involved to get their offense shooting on all cylinders. Arizona worked its coverage to take Bruce out of the game and force O'Sullivan to look to other areas. Seattle figures to come after O'Sullivan relentlessly with its fine front seven, so Bruce will find himself matched up in man coverage with cornerbacks Kelly Jennings and Marcus Trufant, who will be playing with a broken bone in his hand. The Niners could use a breakout from Bruce here to push them over the top in a crucial early road game.

2. RB FRANK GORE
Gore always seems to come out with his A game against the Seahawks. The 49ers will need that from their main man in one of the toughest places to play in the NFL. Gore rushed for 356 yards and had 416 total yards from scrimmage in two games to lead San Francisco's sweep of the Seahawks in 2006, and the 49ers need to get him going in that fashion to get on top of the Seahawks and stay there this time. Gore was in top form in the season opener against Arizona, rushing for 96 yards on 14 carries and adding another 55 yards through the air on four receptions to account for 52 percent of San Francisco's 291 offensive yards. He had 18 touches among San Francisco's 44 total offensive plays, and the 49ers want to put the ball in his hands more than that as they work for a "Frank Ratio" that will see him get the ball a proportionate amount according to how many plays the offense runs. "Frank has to touch the ball," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz said earlier this week. "He's got to be one of the very, very elite in this league. We know we have to feature him and find ways of getting him the ball." That will never be more true than this week, when "Give it to Gore" could become the 49ers' mantra, particularly if they can get an early lead.

3. LB PATRICK WILLIS
Willis learned quickly last week what life is going to be like after his spectacular rookie season that earned him first-team All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. Opposing offenses are now scheming to stop him, and he experienced some problems getting off blocks in the opener against Arizona, when he recorded a career-low five tackles, according to statistics recorded by the NFL (the 49ers credited Willis with nine tackles in a later review of game films by team coaches). The Seahawks will be without starting running back Maurice Morris, which means the 49ers will have an opportunity to shut down the Seattle running game and force the Seahawks to the air, where they are without their three top receivers. Now that he's the leader of the defense, Willis needs to step up and make some plays against a hurting Seattle offense and set the tone with a turnover or something of the sort – the San Francisco defense went without a turnover in its opener.

4. OT JOE STALEY
Staley had a decent game in his starting debut at the all-important left tackle position, but he did have some problems with speed rushers from the edge, allowing two sacks and two other quarterback pressures. One of the sacks resulted in a lost fumble when Bertrand Berry came racing around the left edge and slapped the ball out of O'Sullivan's hands just when the quarterback was about to unload what the 49ers are saying would have been a touchdown throw to Bruce in the corner of the end zone. Instead, the 49ers came away without any points after beginning that play at the Arizona 20-yard line. If Staley thinks Berry is quick off the edge, wait until he gets a load of former 49er Julian Peterson. And he will, as the Seahawks figure to be sending Peterson after O'Sullivan throughout the afternoon. He'll be coming often off San Francisco's left edge, where Staley will have to pick him up. Rookie Lawrence Jackson, the first-round draft pick from USC who won the starting position at right defensive end for the Seahawks this summer, also will challenge Staley, so San Francisco's promising young tackle needs to step it up and have a big game.

5. LB PARYS HARALSON
Talk about making the most out of your opportunities. Haralson, who earned himself a regular role in the San Francisco defense this year with fine performance this summer and throughout the offseason program, was on the field for 19 plays last week against Arizona, and he used that time to make a considerable impact with two sacks, four tackles, two tackles for loss and three hits on quarterback Kurt Warner. Haralson and veteran Rod Green are the reasons that last year's starter at right outside linebacker – Tully Banta-Cain – couldn't even make it onto the active game roster last week, and the 49ers need him to build on his season-opening performance by getting into Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's face and staying there on passing downs. The Seahawks will be starting second-rate talent on the offensive edges – two unproven young receivers that Hasselbeck doesn't have a lot of experience with. Hasselbeck is good enough to find any receivers if he has the time, so the 49ers must work all day to make him uncomfortable in the pocket and throw off the timing in Seattle's passing game. That's where Haralson comes in. He'll be pinning his ears back on passing downs, and the 49ers need him to be well acquainted with Hasselbeck before this afternoon is finished.



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