How does Seattle Seattle stack up player to player and group to group? Can they win enough individual match ups to win this game? What might be the match ups that swing this game?
First up, Seattle's offense.
If Rice is playing, Seattle has a distinct advantage when matching up the receivers against the cornerbacks. Mike Williams would likely draw coverage from Carlos Rodgers, and the 5 inch height advantage, plus about 40 pounds, gives Mike a distinct advantage. Carlos lacks ball skills, a la Kelly Jennings, so Big Mike could have a real good day. Similarly, Rice would have a huge advantage on Tarell Brown, being 5 inches taller. In the slot, where Seattle will likely feature Golden Tate, San Francisco counters with the oft-maligned Shawntae Spencer or the rookie Chris Culliver. If Tate can't take advantage, it won't be because the match up is too difficult. Advantage: Seattle.
Zach Miller is likely to draw a variety of defenders, from a safety to even MLB Patrick Willis. OLB Ahmad Brooks picked off Matt Schaub for a touchdown in the pre season, and has gone from a rotational player to first string. Niner fans are high on his sack ability, which is actually not bad, but expect him to be tested if covering Zach Miller. Parys Haralson is keeping a spot warm for first rounder Aldon Smith, who will only see the field as a pass rusher because his coverage skills are dreadful as of now. I think Seattle can really take advantage of San Francisco with their tight end match ups in this game. Advantage: Seattle.
It is pretty difficult to draw up personnel matchups with the running backs, but if you match them up as a group, San Francisco has a big advantage here with Donte Whitner at strong safety and Patrick Willis at MLB. Together they could approach 300 tackles for this season, and could make it difficult for Forsett or Lynch to get on track. I don't expect a lot of broken tackles. More on this when we get to the offensive line, but in stopping the run, advantage: San Francisco. In backfield passing game, advantage: Seattle.
Offensive line. Center Max Unger will need constant help with nose tackle Sopoaga. Justin Smith is equally difficult to stop, and will do more to collapse the pocket whether lined up over John Moffitt or Robert Gallery, if Gallery even plays. Expect the Niners to exploit the fact that the Sopaga/Smith tandem will need 3 blockers most of the time. If Brent Giacomini is at RT and Moffitt at RG, San Fran really doesn't counter with a scary pass rush on the right. Parys Haralson is not great at getting to the quarterback and may be logically viewed as only keeping the seat warm until Aldon Smith takes it, and McDonald has never been a full time starter until now. Aldon could see some snaps in this game, and the 2.5 sacks he posted in the final preseason game have Niner fans hopeful. Aldon Smith is not a good 3-4 outside linebacker, not yet. If you see him on the field, expect Seattle to test the rookie. On the Seattle offensive line, the edge goes to the Niners, and the advantage grows if Gallery is out.
And on to the swing position on Seattle's offense, quarterback. First the good news. Tarvaris sports better statistics on the road than at home in his small sample size career so far, and San Francisco's league-average ability to provide pressure can only help him. San Fran's 3-4 defense seems custom-made to take advantage of on the edges, so expect a steady diet of passes to the backs and a smattering of screens. Patrick Willis and Donte Whitner will probably blitz a few times, and so far Tarvaris has at least shown the ability to avoid that first big hit. The continuity of the offensive line will likely be a problem for Jackson. If Gallery isn't playing, expect the middle of the line to provide a couple of electric moments for Jackson. If Jackson looks settled in the first half, I will be surprised. Advantage here: San Francisco, but not by a huge margin.
Overall, San Francisco wins this battle, despite Seattle's huge offensive advantage against the secondary. Without Gallery on the field, which sounds more and more likely, Seattle is a very inexperienced line, and I expect Justin Smith to have a very good day chasing Tarvaris around and to prevent him from having the time to exploit the receiver advantage. But Seattle has definite big play potential to the WR position if there is time to pass.
The Niners feature Braylon Edwards and Michael Crabtree at WR, and the Edwards match up is one they could exploit. Edwards is strong enough to get off of press, and he gets to the deep zones very well. His strength is the sidelines, with outs to set up the go routes being a particular strength. Seattle's press tries to force the out pattern, as the more difficult throw, so I expect Edwards to take advantage. Crabtree thus far has been more of a paper lion; expect the lack of continuity that plagued him and Smith last year to continue. I don't expect him to respond well to press coverage mentally, though he is physically capable of dealing with either of Seattle's starting corners. Browner matches up best with Crabtree, and Trufant would be better on Edwards.
Tedd Ginn, Kyle Williams, and Josh Morgan round out the WR corps for the Niners, and they present some specific issues for Seattle's largish secondary, Ginn in particular. Ginn and Edwards tend to drop a ball or two per game, and Ginn's game does not seem particularly suited to Alex Smith's talents. Advantage: this one is a push. Seattle lacks experience, and is pretty much an unknown quantity outside of Trufant, but San Fran doesn't seem well suited to pick them apart either.
At tight end, the Niners feature known quantity Vernon Davis. Seattle does not feature a single linebacker who has the proven ability to cover him in space. When possible, expect Seattle to line a player like SS Atari Bigby or Browner up on Davis. Delainie Walker averaged a couple of receptions a game last season, but no touchdowns, but of course Davis is the headache for Seattle in this group. If the Niners want to go deep down the middle of the field, expect Vernon to be the target. Earl Thomas should be able to control that area, but Davis might have a very good day in the underneath zone. Advantage: San Francisco.
At running back, San Francisco features a man Seattle fans have come to dread, since there is about a 50 percent chance he has a really good day. Frank Gore has feasted on Seattle several times in his career, having the two best days of his career at Seattle's expense, both efforts that gained over 200 yards. You know that prospect has him salivating for this match up. With all that said, Gore is coming off of a bad injury, and the miles could be taking their toll. And, he just got PAID. In the week one match up last year, he was very ineffectual against the debut of the Red Bryant run defense. He has a mixed bag of run blockers, led by Mike Iupati at LG. Expect any short yardage or goal line runs to be primarily behind Iupati, who can effectively pull. Gore is backed by Anthony Dixon, who could carry in short yardage, and Kendall Hunter who is capable of some big plays.
Advantage: San Francisco, but just barely.
Offensive line: I have already mentioned Iupati, who should be able to stall Mebane effectively. Staley mans the LT position, and he isn't bad, but has had his fair share of troubles with a Chris Clemons-type player in pass blocking. He got manhandled by Connor Barwin of the Texans in preseason this year, and Clemons is quicker than Barwin. Anthony Davis mans the right side, and he is big worry for Niner fans. In obvious passing situations he may struggle to contain Raheem Brock. Center and right guard are positions in flux for the Niners right now, but Branch has not yet shown Seattle that he can get much push at the 3 technique, so that spot is a push. Red Bryant is simply going to cause Anthony Davis to have nightmares.
Offensive line rush blocking: Push. Offensive line pass blocking: big advantage for Seattle.
Quarterback. Alex Smith is back, much to the delight of Seattle fans. The defensive line Seattle will be showing in week one is much more like the line that made Alex look bad in week one of last year than the one that made Alex Smith look All Pro later in the season. Expect Alex to get some early hits on him, which experience tells us rattles him. Alex has some pretty good accuracy to the sidelines, so watch to see if he takes advantage of Seattle's press at the edges of the field. Alex has always been more comfortable from the gun. He does not always look off safeties, so the chances that Earl Thomas gets his hands on a ball should increase. The offensive line in front of him will not be likely to give him any confidence either.
This is one of those games that has the potential for lots of early season sloppiness. There has been so much turnover on both squads, and both teams feature quarterbacks who average about an interception per start. If Seattle can get an early lead, Smith is a quarterback who plays poorly from behind. No matter who wins, it will probably feel like the losing squad gave the game away somehow. If Gallery misses this game, I expect that to have a big impact. Is Okung really healthy? Is Rice at anything close to 100%? Can Tarvaris take advantage of a hugely disadvantaged San Francisco secondary? Have Harbaugh or Carroll figured out what the other guy's deal is yet?
In a game of mistakes, I expect Seattle on the road to make one they shouldn't. Don't worry, San Francisco will counter with two mistakes they should not make. In a game so filled with mistakes and mental errors that both coaches will feel like they lost, Seattle wins 23-16.