Passing fancies aside, 49ers-Seahawks football is as subtle as the proverbial punch in the mouth. (Michael Zagaris/Getty Images)
RENTON, Wash. -- It is the NFL's most compelling current rivalry, led by two coaches whose personal and professional beefs with each other go back to the days when the Pac-12 was the Pac-10. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh couldn't be more different personally, but they prefer very similar brands of football. The hyperactive Carroll, who never met a press conference he didn't like, and the usually tight-lipped Harbaugh, each subscribe to the same basic tenets: If you lead with a great defense and strong running game, and mix in an increasingly explosive passing game while minimizing mistakes, you will be tough to beat.
"Running the football and playing good defense and flying around on special teams is really good football," Carroll told me on Wednesday when I asked about those similarities. "I think that’s the formula that we came here with and what we believed in. We like throwing the ball too, but we really want to run the football -- at USC, that’s what we were trying to get done. It’s no different here. I think that anybody that has coached long enough or has that thought in the back of their minds, they are going to go for it. [The 49ers] certainly have the same feeling. They like to mix it up, and they’ve come up with a fantastic passing game with their quarterback. They’ve really shown that they have expanded that. So, I do think that are some similarities in their overall formula.”
GALLERY: Seahawks-49ers is becoming one of the best rivalries in the NFL
Both the Seahawks and 49ers mirror the personalities of their coaches -- the Seahawks tend to gab a bit more and the 49ers prefer to fly under the radar -- but one of the many reasons this NFC West battle is so attractive is that these two teams, much like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens of recent years, see the game through the same prism ... and would like very much to beat each other over the head with it.
Both will get the chance to do so again this Sunday night, in front of over 70,000 rabid Seahawks fans at Seattle's CenturyLink field, and a national television audience to boot. They split their series last season -- the 49ers took the Week 7 matchup, 13-6, at Candlestick Park, and the Seahawks responded in Week 16 on their home turf with a 42-13 beatdown. Now, with both teams at 1-0 after satisfying wins over NFC opponents (the 49ers over Green Bay; the Seahawks over Carolina), everyone's ready to rumble again.
Carroll's key challenge this time around will be to stop San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who riddled the Packers for 412 passing yards and three touchdowns last Sunday. Just when everybody expected the second-year starter to be limited to a run-and-throw ideology, he split the Packers right up the middle by staying in the pocket and showing an arm as good as any in the league.
Carroll won't be fooled -- he's seen what Kaepernick can do to defenses in all sorts of ways, and he'll have his team as ready as it can be for a player who seems to get more dangerous every time he hits the field.
“I think they are more in tune with his talents and they trust him more," Carroll said of the 49ers' plan of action with Kaepernick. "They threw the ball down the field a ton in that game and hit a bunch of plays. You can tell that they are not dinking the ball around or worrying about him. They are giving him the chance to make things happen, and he did.”
Carroll has his own talented young quarterback in Russell Wilson, but the emphasis around the NFL seems to be shifting more to Kaepernick's orbit these days, and for good reason.
“He's as well-equipped as you can get, just like Cam Newton," Carroll said. "He’s big, strong, fast, terrific arm, great mobility, courage, willingness to run, all of those things. They give you every factor that the quarterback position could give you, and then when you have an offense that highlights what the guy can really do like these guys do, it makes it really difficult. He’s about as fast as a quarterback can get, and he can throw it about as hard and as far as you need to, and they have good style to their system. So they make it as difficult as it can be.”
Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh, keeping it real in 2011. (AP/Paul Sakuma)
The Seahawks faced Newton last Sunday in the Panthers' home stadium and came away with a 12-7 win. They kept Carolina's mobile quarterback under wraps, but Wilson was running far too often for the wrong reasons against the Panthers' improved front seven, and Seattle's iffy offensive line will find a severe test against San Francisco's defense -- especially the right-side tandem of defensive tackle Justin Smith and end Aldon Smith. Wilson still made plays when he needed to, but the 49ers have even more effective ways to keep the Seahawks' second-year starter (yes, another similarity) on his toes.
“He’s a focal-point guy," Carroll said of Justin Smith. "He’s a real steadying piece to how they play. He’s so dominant physically. As a veteran does, he takes full opportunities to take advantage when you make mistakes. He anticipates beautifully when the ball is snapped, plus the problems that he creates in pass rush."
Carroll also spoke to Mr. Smith's veteran ... acumen.
"He’s a tremendous holder; pulling and doing all of that. He’s very gifted pass rusher in that regard and it’s really worked out well for him. He really gets it done the right way. They are effective and he has a lot to do with it. He’s not the focal point for us in the pass rush because those speed guys on the outside, you can’t focus on everybody. But he creates a lot of their rush for them.”
Seattle's defensive front is a bit more marginal right now. End Chris Clemons is still trying to make it back from offseason ACL surgery, second-year pass-rusher Bruce Irvin will be out until Week 5 with a league suspension, and Seattle's reserves amassed one sack, five hits, and 11 hurries against Newton, per Pro Football Focus' metrics. Kaepernick, who currently ranks first in the league in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted per play stats among qualifying quarterbacks, demands that a defense do more to stop him. The Packers, petrified that Kaepernick would run wild against them as he did in last year's playoffs, switched their defensive philosophy and played more zone. Now the league realizes that there is no one way to beat him.
Seattle cornerback Walter Thurmond, who got the start against the Panthers in place of the injured Brandon Browner and played well, told me that the 49ers should expect no such adjustments from Seattle's aggressive secondary -- especially a group of cornerbacks who play the line as physically as any you'll see.
That's the case even though receiver Anquan Boldin, who will match whatever smashmouth the Seahawks want to bring, is coming off a 13-catch, 208-yard performance against Green Bay.
"He's a physical player," Thurmond said of Boldin. "He's not the player he used to be, but ... Green Bay just got caught in a situation where they missed a lot of tackles. They played a lot of softer coverage, and he's able to find those creases and make big plays. We're just trying to play our game ... at the end of the day, we're not looking at one guy being the focal point. He had a great game last week, but it's a new week now and you can't get hung up on that.
"If they want to use the excuse of the man coverage -- that you can't play man coverage because he's a running quarterback -- then there must be a lack in their front four, and there doesn't seem to be. We have a lot of depth on our defensive line, and he's going to find something out there. We did a pretty good job of containing Cam last weekend, and we go against Russell every day in practice. We see running quarterbacks all the time, and we're able to play man coverage."
Two teams, one division, one hopeful road to the Super Bowl, and the first of two battles on Sunday night. After an offseason of hype, the real game is finally afoot.