I don't care what DVOA says - the 49ers have the best defense in the league. The Bears are not in the same class. San Francisco is younger, faster, more versatile, harder-hitting, and not merely relying on ballhawk DB's to disguise decline up front. They've got a legit set of linebackers like any 3-4 defense does, a crazy good secondary and all kinds of pass-rushing weapons. S Dashon Goldson and LB Navarro Bowman have shaken off their youth and become stars and possibly Pro Bowlers. The 49ers are a much better matchup against the run and against our zone-read than anyone else in the league.
This, not Chicago, will be the toughest defensive test for Seattle. Okay, second toughest defensive test - the toughest was IN San Francisco, where we scored six points AFTER Russell Wilson had emerged from his early-season larval stage and started to figure things out. We've been fine since, but we haven't played a team like the 49ers since either.
Think back to that game - the most notorious case of drops by Seattle this season, and a conspicuously isolated case at that. I made a connection today when I read how punishing SF's back seven plays against opposing receivers. I realized that I'd seen the same case of pervasive dropsies in another team this year - the Cowboys in Week 2, facing Seattle. That game was where we truly established our "wear them down" identity on D, imposing our physicality on them with big hits until Jason Witten developed "short arms" and started uncharacteristically dropping everything. Their loss of execution on offense was a big reason for our blowout.
In San Francisco, it was our turn. Wilson generally looked fine, but several of our targets dropped crucial passes that were perfectly thrown, including the normally sure-handed Tate. It left most of us pandering for improvement at WR and TE. The clamor quieted down as we started winning after that, but IMO we have yet to face another defense of that caliber, at home or away. And today I started wondering just how much of that isolated week of dropsies was down to the physicality of the 49ers defense.
Let's cast a brutally honest look at our receiving corps: one thing they're not, is physical. At wide receiver, we have Sidney Rice, Golden Tate, and Doug Baldwin. All three have developed chemistry and grown into their roles on this offense. Yet we're also aware, in the back of our minds, that we're one injury away from relying on Jermaine Kearse as our #3, and Rice or Baldwin aren't known for their durability. Tate won't be winding his way through the 49ers on screens like he did Carolina, Minnesota, or Chicago. The 49ers tackle people. At tight end, we have the Carlson-esque Miller and the opportunistic Anthony McCoy earning their paycheck blocking for Lynch and Wilson, but neither has a particularly blustering reputation, and McCoy has been known to drop things. (So has Baldwin, this year.)
When the season opened, I felt that our receiving situation was a house of cards waiting to betray our developing QB. Believe it or not, I still feel that way somewhat. Not so much, but somewhat. Lynch, Wilson, Rice, Lynch, and Wilson have covered up a lot of this, and to be sure, that's not a gimmick. Our offense will always look like that.
But the 49ers are a tough, physical defense, built much like ours. Patrick Willis is the star of that defense for a very good reason - he's one of the few linebackers in this league both big AND fast enough to stand up against those freak receiving tight ends. He's our version of Kam Chancellor, except he's not a DB and frees our secondary up to handle an offense's other weapons. Against running backs and underneath routes, you have the hard-hitting Navarro Bowman, who's enjoying a fine season. Greg Cosell was talking today about how those are the two key matchups you have to overcome when you play the 49ers, and they're doozies. And they play MAN coverage in the nickel, a lot. With a safety like Goldson back there getting in WR's faces, this will be a challenge of a physical nature for our receivers.
I look at our roster and I honestly don't see a receiver built to stand up to the kind of physical punishment that, say, Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman would deal out. SF can match the intensity of those two. They don't give up a lot of big plays (33 pass plays of 20+ yards, tied with Seattle for 4th in the league), and Seattle relies on explosive plays in their offensive formula. SF tackles and they limit YAC. They are well-built to bring our offense back down to earth, if anyone is going to. Tate continues to put up his requisite sit-up-and-yell-wow-did-that-just-happen big play per game, but he's not big and he's not fast. Rice is a borderline #1 receiver, but ehhhh, he's Rice, and his absence would hurt everyone else. Our tight ends are unremarkable, though they get the job done at crucial moments.
Then we get the news that Seattle worked out Visanthe Shiancoe today, "just in case they needed a TE", according to the report. I find this interesting, since Miller and McCoy are both healthy, Miller is finally accruing touchdowns, McCoy just had himself a 100-yard game, nobody except me has doubted them for weeks, and #3 TE, despite being occupied by the disappointing Evan Moore, is usually not a glaring need. I'm not sure who would accuse Seattle of being in need of a tight end right at this moment, at least not on the surface. Not unless there were issues being masked.
A stab-in-the-dark hunch: Carroll knows his passing game is about to visit the most physical and best-matched defense they'll face this season, and he too has misgivings. We need more targets capable of running routes, getting open, competing for catches in traffic, and enabling more plays in the playbook (the read-option is great, but the route trees still look pretty limited). Shiancoe was on an injured reserve list as recently as September and has been on the decline for a while, and he's not the biggest (6'4"). But in his heyday was a good choice against a sturdy defense. New England releasing him wasn't a surprise once they finally got Gronk and Hernia-ndez back on the field at the same time. I doubt he'll experience any kind of career revival in Seattle, but Pete glancing Shiancoe's way might hint at what he thinks of our receiver situation going into Sunday's game against the 49ers.
Just a thought. Flame away.