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.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
Matchup No. 1: Seahawks CB Cary Williams vs. 49ers WRs Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith
Given his heroics (and post-game tirade) against the 49ers, Seattle's Richard Sherman will get most of the attention from the media but San Francisco will likely ignore his side of the field and instead target Williams, who, of course, is new to this bitter rivalry.
Regardless of which of San Francisco's wideouts he'll be facing on any given play, Williams is a potential liability. That isn't to say that Williams isn't talented or that he's been a disappointment as Byron Maxwell's replacement. Rather, the ultra-physical Boldin and speed demon Smith possess the rare physical attributes which could put a large target on Williams' back if the Seahawks are unable to generate real and consistent pressure on Colin Kaepernick.
Strong, aggressive and capable of latching onto passes even with defenders draped over him, Boldin is simply a cover-corner's worst nightmare. When Williams is locked up on Boldin one-on-one, it will be critical that Seattle's defenders converge on him quickly to limit any post-catch yardage gained. The Seahawks could get lucky with Boldin, who is officially listed as questionable for this contest. The even tougher matchup may be Smith, whose confirmed 4.3 speed (and Kaepernick's improved touch on the deep ball) make him a frightening vertical threat.
As broken down well by the San Francisco's official team website, Kaepernick found Smith for a long touchdown a week ago in San Francisco's win over the Baltimore Ravens. Williams and Seahawks' All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas must show better awareness and communication this week against the 49ers or else the coverage breakdowns which resulted in touchdowns in losses to the Bengals and Panthers the past two weeks could be repeated.
Matchup No. 2: Seahawks MLB Bobby Wagner vs. 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick
The Seahawks should get both an emotional and very practical boost with the return of Wagner in the middle. He's a more instinctive and reliable open-field tackler than last week's replacement (K.J. Wright) and is both stouter against the run and faster, as well. Wagner's relatively compact frame helps him hold up against the run, which is, of course, something the 49ers will be looking to establish after the Seahawks surrendered three touchdowns on the ground last week against Carolina. Assuming he plays, running back Carlos Hyde (officially listed as questionable) should be Seattle's focus but don't discount Kaepernick, whose sprinter speed makes him a constant big play threat.
Under Kris Richard, the Seahawks have shown a greater willingness to call exotic blitzes. It could be up to Wagner to opt out of these blitzes if he feels that Kaepernick has recognized it and called for an effective audible. Seattle's edge rushers must remain disciplined, keeping Kaepernick in the pocket. As long as Kaepernick doesn't get a head start, Wagner should be able to contain the 49ers quarterback from breaking into the secondary as a rusher. Wagner, of course, will also have coverage responsibilities, at times, potentially including against Reggie Bush - who has the speed and soft hands to rack up yardage just as similarly-built backs like then-Patriots standout Shane Vereen, the Rams' Benny Cunningham and most recently the Bengals' Giovani Bernard have against Seattle.
Matchup No. 3: Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin vs. 49ers CBs Tramaine Brock, Kenneth Acker
Perhaps most critical to Seattle's success on offense in this game is its ability to consistently run the football. However, even with the woes along the offensive line and Lynch missing the better part of two games so far this season, the Seahawks still currently rank second in the NFL in average rushing yards per game (137.8), behind only the New York Jets (146) - proving that statistics mean little if those yards don't come when the game is on the line.
That's why getting Baldwin - arguably Seattle's most competitive player - more involved could be key in earning a win at Levi Stadium. Baldwin, of course, played under former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and plays with a chip on his shoulder. That chip hasn't earned him enough playing time in recent weeks, however, as the Seahawks have funneled their passing game through tight end Jimmy Graham at the expense of the ultra-quick and dependable Baldwin. As noted by Rotoworld.com's Evan Silva in his preview of tonight's game, Baldwin has seen his snaps drop significantly the past two weeks. While it is certainly understandable to get Seattle's "other" receivers on the field more, their playing time should not come at the expense of Baldwin, who perhaps possesses the best on-field rapport with Wilson.
Baldwin may not wind up leading the Seahawks in snaps, receptions or receiving yardage Thursday night. If the Seahawks are to beat the 49ers, however, don't be surprised if it is Baldwin with the clutch third down conversions against San Francisco's taller, stiffer corners. Whether lined up outside or in the slot, Baldwin should be a key component of Seattle's passing attack.