Seahawks-49ers: Three Key Matchups

Just in time to squeeze in a second helping of turkey, the NFL's most physical and contentious rivalry will kick off at 5:30 pm Pacific on Thanksgiving Day. The Seahawks and 49ers certainly know each other well and the usual cast of characters will no doubt lead the way. There are new faces to know, however. Among them, rookies whose play could very well determine pecking order in the NFC West.

As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis. Scout.com brought in greater Seattle resident and NFL scout Rob Rang to help determine the individual matchups that will determine whether the Seahawks will win or lose this week.

Here are his thoughts on the three critical one-on-one matchups for this week's game.


Seahawks OTs Russell Okung, Justin Britt vs. 49ers Aldon Smith
Given that the Seahawks surrendered seven sacks at home against Arizona, pass protection is obviously going to be a point of emphasis this week. And though the 49ers are currently tied for 22nd in the league in sacks, the return of Aldon Smith from suspension means that the 49ers are back at full strength in this department and that is bad news for opposing quarterbacks.

In the two games since he's returned to the field, Smith has once again emerged as the 49ers top pass-rusher. He has 14 QB pressures over that span, including two sacks last week of Washington's mobile quarterback Robert Griffin III. At 6-4, 265 pounds, Smith's length, burst and closing speed make him one of the league's top finishers. With San Francisco's stellar defensive ends Justin Smith and Ray McDonald occupying blockers, he's often allowed to loop around and wreak havoc. Rookie Aaron Lynch, 6-5, 270 pounds, boasts a similar skill-set, meaning that San Francisco can attack both edges simultaneously. The only other team Seattle has faced on the road this season with equally effective edge rushers was the Kansas City Chiefs, whose Justin Houston and Tamba Hali proved critical in Seattle's loss.

Physically-speaking, Russell Okung and Justin Britt have the length, strength and overall athleticism to protect the edge. Each, however, has struggled a bit with balance, over-extending in an effort to protect against speed rushers and leaving space between the guards for counter-moves. Further, communication up front will be key for the Seahawks offensive linemen and that, of course, has been an issue with new center(s) this season, especially when in hostile environments. On Wednesday, Pete Carroll said that Lemuel Jeanpierre would "play more" this week after center Patrick Lewis struggled against Arizona.

The easiest way to combat San Francisco's aggression would be to pepper the 49ers with read-option, draws and screens. Unfortunately, the instincts of rookie linebacker Chris Borland means these relatively obvious options may not be as effective as normal.

Seahawks QB Russell Wilson vs 49ers ILB Chris Borland

It is a testament to savvy drafting and player development that the 49ers aren't getting gashed up the middle given the absence of All-Pro inside linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis, each of whom are out due to injury.

Rookie Chris Borland has been a revelation for San Francisco. While shorter and slower than scouts would like, he possesses Jedi-like instincts and is a heavy hitter and reliable open-field tackler. These are traits which led to my pre-draft comparisons of him to Lofa Tatupu.

Borland leads the 49ers with 71 tackles, including an impressive 53 solo stops. For those who appreciate old-school football, watching him slug it out with Marshawn Lynch all evening long could be as gratifying as Grandma's pumpkin pie. If there was ever a game in which Seattle's guard tandem of James Carpenter and J.R. Sweezy needed to show the mobility and strength combination that led to some early Pro Bowl chatter, this is the contest. Borland is very alert, quick and surprisingly powerful but he can be overwhelmed by sheer mass. At least part of the reason why Seattle didn't push Carpenter last week against the Cardinals was because they wanted to be sure he'd be ready for Borland, Ahmad Brooks and the 49ers.

While the physical battle between the rookie linebacker and Lynch will be important, it is the mental chess match between Borland and Russell Wilson that could prove even more important. Wilson's unique awareness and elusiveness have helped him zip past most linebackers when scrambling but Borland's familiarity with him - after playing together at Wisconsin - could make the rookie better suited than most to handle the quarterback's mobility.

49ers WR Michael Crabtree vs. Seahawks CB Richard Sherman

While the first two matchups will likely play a more critical role in determining Thursday's winner, from a national perspective there may not be a more eagerly anticipated one-on-one battle than Crabtree-Sherman.

Despite suggestions by some otherwise, Sherman has been every bit as effective this season as last year. Crabtree, on the other hand, has been supplanted by the much more physical and reliable Anquan Boldin as San Francisco's top receiver.

Boldin's ability to fight through press coverage and win contested passes makes him the scarier proposition for most defenses. Crabtree (and rookie Bruce Ellington), however, are niftier after the catch. Given how often Seattle plays man coverage, a single missed tackle could be the difference between a short gain and a long touchdown.

Crabtree (and his quarterback Colin Kaepernick) have the revenge factor on their side in this contest. It will be fascinating to see if each can harness those emotions and play with controlled aggression rather than attempt to force big plays against the Legion of Boom.

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