NFC West: Matt Williamson
ESPN.com Seattle Seahawks reporter Terry Blount makes his game-by-game picks for the 2014 season.
Week 1: Green Bay Packers
All the pregame hype will center around the so-called Inaccurate Reception, the controversial Hail Mary catch by Golden Tate two years ago that won the game over the Packers at Seattle on a Monday night. Tate has moved on to Detroit, but the Seahawks now have too many weapons for the Packers to stop, no Hail Mary required. Prediction: Win
Week 2: at San Diego Chargers
The Chargers better hope they play a lot better than they did in the preseason game at Seattle, a 41-14 victory for the Seahawks on Aug. 15. San Diego will play better, but not good enough to beat a much better team. Prediction: Win
Week 3: Denver Broncos
The Broncos and their fans got a tiny bit of meaningless Super Bowl revenge in the preseason opener with a 21-16 victory over the Seahawks in Denver. Enjoy it while it lasts, boys. Repeating that outcome in Seattle is not an option. Prediction: Win
Week 5: at Washington Redskins
Traveling coast to coast to play on the road for a Monday night game is a tough task against any NFL opponent, and even tougher against quarterback Robert Griffin III. But the Seahawks catch a break in this one by coming off a bye week with plenty of time to prepare and be fresh for the journey. Prediction: Win
Week 6: Dallas Cowboys
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gave Seattle a little bulletin-board material last month when he said the Seahawks were to blame for the increase in penalty flags during the preseason. There won't be near enough flags against Seattle for the Cowboys to win this one. Prediction: Win
Week 7: at St. Louis Rams
Any division game in the NFC West is a rugged battle. The Rams have a defensive line that gave the Seahawks problems a year ago. But they aren't strong enough overall to beat Seattle, even at home in their out-of-date dome. Prediction: Win
Week 8: at Carolina Panthers
The Seahawks were fortunate to win the season opener at Charlotte a year ago. That Panthers team was better than this one, but back-to-back road games against very physical defensive teams will end the Seattle winning streak. Prediction: Loss
Week 9: Oakland Raiders
Coming off their first loss of the season and returning home against an outmanned opponent, is there any doubt? Prediction: Win
Week 10: New York Giants
The Seahawks easily defeated the Giants 23-0 last year in New Jersey, a dress rehearsal for their Super Bowl victory at the same location -- MetLife Stadium. The Seahawks won't need a rehearsal to roll past the Giants in this one. Prediction: Win
Week 11: at Kansas City Chiefs
This likely will be a low-scoring game between two strong defensive teams. Odds are against any team that has to try to win by matching its defense against the Seahawks' D. Prediction: Win
Week 12: Arizona Cardinals
The last time the Cardinals played at CenturyLink Field was last December when they handed the Seahawks a 17-10 loss. That won't happen again unless the Seahawks get caught looking ahead to the 49ers game. The Seahawks don't look ahead. Prediction: Win
Week 13: at San Francisco 49ers
It's a Thanksgiving night, national TV game in the 49ers' shiny new stadium against the hated Seahawks. If San Francisco can't win this one, its time as a championship contender is over. Prediction: Loss
Week 14: at Philadelphia Eagles
This is the toughest part of the season for the Seahawks with back-to-back road games against likely playoff contenders. But the 10 days between games will help and be enough of a cushion to keep Seattle from losing two in a row. Prediction: Win
Week 15: San Francisco 49ers
This is a game that could decide which team wins the NFC West. No way the Seahawks lose to the 49ers twice in three weeks, especially not in front of a rabid full house of 12s. Prediction: Win
Week 16: at Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals probably will be fighting for a playoff spot, and the Seahawks already will be in at 12-2. That difference will be just enough for Arizona to win at home in the same stadium where the Seahawks will win the Super Bowl a few weeks later. Prediction: Loss
Week 17: St. Louis Rams
For the second consecutive year, the Rams close the regular season in Seattle. And for the second consecutive year, the Seahawks will beat them without much trouble. Prediction: Win
Predicted Record: 13-3
However, the addition of Cook is a sign the 49ers would like to do more press coverage and work in some one-high safety coverage, which Seattle Seahawks have executed so well. Cook is 6-foot-2, which makes him a nice fit for the scheme.
Cook, a second-round pick by Minnesota in 2010, made it clear in his introductory conference call what the 49ers want him to do.
"They want me to be the press guy," Cook said. "And that's what I like to do. I feel like I'll fit in well with the one-high scheme that they like to run. I came from a two-high scheme. And I feel like a one-high scheme and a man-to-man scheme fits me well."
ESPN scout Matt Williamson doesn’t believe the 49ers will adopt the one-high safety attack full time and instead thinks it will be a “wrinkle.” Despite the fact he doesn’t have an interception in four NFL seasons, Cook could help the 49ers.
“They want him to be their Richard Sherman with (safety Eric) Reid over the top. Cook is big and physical in press and does have a lot of ability,” Williamson said. “Not saying he is Sherman, but I do think that best uses Cook's skill set.”
Williamson said if the 49ers use Cook in press coverage, they can move new starting strong safety Antoine Bethea closer to the line of scrimmage than they played former starter Donte Whitner. Williamson said that can help compensate for playing without injured inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman early in the season. Bowman could miss up to half the season as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered at Seattle in the NFC title game Jan. 19.
So, perhaps, the acquisition of Cook could have multiple benefits.
Odds of landing them: There is competition. The Patriots want Edelman back and Cleveland has been connected to him as well. Nicks is visiting Indianapolis on Friday. Carolina is also interested. The 49ers don’t have a ton of salary-cap room, so they have to get creative in a deal with either player.
Who is the best fit? Probably Nicks because he is an outside receiver. Landing him on a short-term deal to see if he can become a top-notch player again could be smart. Don’t get me wrong; Edelman is good as well. You don’t catch 105 balls in a season if you’re not talented. But Anquan Boldin is essentially a slot guy as well. Still, I’m sure the 49ers could find ways to make it work.
How Crabtree, Boldin and the draft figure: Crabtree is a free agent next year and Boldin is 33. So, even if the 49ers sign Edelman or Nicks, I can still see them taking a receiver early in the draft.
Kaepernick factor: I’m sure quarterback Colin Kaepernick is paying attention. This passing offense could be nasty with Boldin, Crabtree, tight end Vernon Davis and Nicks or Edelman. It would open it up. It could also behoove Kaepernick to wait to get his contract done until next year. He could put up big numbers with another top weapon.
Should Seattle worry? Yes. The 49ers must get better on offense to beat Seattle. That was the reason why the 49ers couldn’t overtake Seattle in 2013. A big-time offensive weapon could even the playing field.
Scout's thoughts: “I was a little surprised to be honest, especially after the re-signing of Boldin. Quinton Patton also shows some promise, but this would be a heck of a receiver corps if is Patton is your No. 4. I would think if they were in the market for WR though, that they would be looking for a pure speed guy, which isn't Nicks or Edelman.” -- ESPN analyst Matt Williamson
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson concurs. He also thinks it’s a good fit, especially at the cost. The Dolphins will get a seventh-round pick in 2015 if Martin is on the opening day roster this season. Williamson thinks the label that Martin is soft is accurate, but he thinks he has ability and can help in the 49ers’ system as an extra lineman.
“There is a huge shortage of offensive linemen in the NFL, in my opinion, so why not add a guy that you are familiar with that was an early second-round pick based on his talent?” Williamson said. “Will he ever eat nails on the field? No, but San Francisco is the most physical running game in the league, and he will adhere or go away. Plus, they play so many six-man O-line sets (used to be Daniel Kilgore's job, who is now poised to start at center), so they need another quality sixth man.”
It appears Kilgore will get that chance. The team also has Joe Looney, and could sign a veteran or draft a rookie at the position. But it seems Kilgore, who has played some at guard, is set to anchor one of the NFL’s better offensive lines.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said the timing might be right for a switch to Kilgore.
“I know the 49ers like Kilgore and would get him involved in six-offensive lineman sets. He is young and I haven't been super impressed with Goodwin of late,” Williamson said. “Kilgore is a tough guy, though, that fits their mold in that regard, and is better run-blocking than in protection, which again, fits.”
Kilgore will have to cement his role in training camp. But Thursday’s move means the team believes he can handle it.
“This is the greatest sport there is,” the perennial Pro Bowl linebacker said. Bowman smiled and nodded.
As the 49ers have revisited their glorified past this season under coach Jim Harbaugh, it has been cemented by fierce, take-over defensive play. The team's five Super Bowl trophies may have been won by players like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Steve Young, yet their latest run at a dynasty is being paved on the other side of the ball.
It starts with Willis and Bowman.
“They are like two machines in the middle of our defense,” San Francisco rookie safety Eric Reid said.
The two inside linebackers are the heartbeat of the 49ers’ defense, which has shut out opponents in an NFL-high 35 of 78 quarters this season.
The defense is loaded with stalwarts such as outside linebackers Aldon Smith and Ahmad Brooks, defensive tackle Justin Smith, and safety Donte Whitner, but the personality of this unit starts with Willis and Bowman.
In fact, some believe the duo might be among the best linebacker tandems ever to play.
“They are historically good,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “They are there with [Jack] Ham/[Jack] Lambert, [Brian] Urlacher/[Lance] Briggs, [Willie] Lanier/[Bobby] Bell. [Willis and Bowman] are a truly rare and elite pairing.”
The 49ers came across this historic pairing unexpectedly. They drafted Willis, who will turn 29 later this month, with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He was considered a can’t-miss prospect out of Mississippi and has been first- or second-team All-Pro in his first six NFL seasons.
When the 49ers drafted Bowman three years later, they were just hoping to get a capable potential starter. He was taken in the third round out of Penn State in 2010. Running back Frank Gore recalls seeing Bowman as a rookie in camp and knowing the 49ers might have found the perfect complement to Willis.
“Even in training camp, OTAs, I just saw how fast he was,” Gore said. “How he could read and get to the ball. We have the same agent (Drew Rosenhaus) and I called my agent and I said, 'Man, you've got somebody right here, man. That’s a good pickup for you to represent.' "
Still, Bowman’s success was not instant. Harbaugh's staff came in 2011. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio told his new defense that only Willis and Justin Smith were guaranteed a spot. Everyone else had to go earn it. Bowman listened.
“No, because he really didn’t play much the year before,” Fangio said, when asked if he had big expectations for Bowman in 2011. "And all through that offseason, that was the lockout year, there was kind of an assumption that Takeo Spikes was going to come back here. And NaVorro probably would have been in the same role. In retrospect, it’s a good thing that Takeo didn't come back here because he would have been beaten out by NaVorro.”
Once Bowman, 25, got on the field, he and Willis instantly clicked. Both have been among the league leaders in tackles, and they have a unique chemistry. While Bowman was an All-Pro last season, he has taken his game to the next level as Willis dealt with hand and hamstring injuries early in the season.
Bowman, who came up with the 49ers' play of the year when he saved the final game at Candlestick Park in Week 16 by returning an interception 89 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta, is a candidate for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Willis fully supports his younger teammate. Asked about Bowman's candidacy, Willis said “he has my vote.”
Perhaps what makes this combination so strong is that they are as in sync off the field as they are on it. They each had 11 tackles, tying for a team-high (Willis also had an interception), in the 23-10 win Sunday against Carolina that sent the 49ers to the NFC title game against Seattle. They conducted their postgame news conference together. Willis, a country kid from Tennessee, and Bowman, who hails from a high-crime area in Maryland just outside Washington, D.C., both are quiet by nature, and neither is overly flashy off the field. Bowman said the key to their success is discipline in the study room.
“We are students, we are in school,” Bowman said. “We learn every day.”
The 49ers will be counting on them for the long haul. Willis is signed through 2016 and Bowman through 2018, and Harbaugh knows these two are a key to the team’s success.
“The teamwork, the respect that they have for each other, the love, is shared by many people on the team,” Harbaugh said. "And that, as a coach, there’s nothing that makes you feel as good as to hear that. That’s the team, the team, the team. And it’s genuine. It’s not talk."
Neither is the impact of Willis and Bowman on the 49ers' success.
However, there is no discounting it; the loss of the versatile, valuable Bruce Miller will hurt the 49ers.
“Very significant” 49ers' coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday of Miller's loss. “He does so many things in the protection and the run game. Receiving out of the backfield. He is a multi-talented, multi-use player. Special teams contributor on two, three phases, so it's a loss.”
The 49ers are one of the few teams to use a fullback in a major role. They are still mulling what to do. The top in-house options are backup running back Anthony Dixon. He is athletic, versatile and tough. He could be the first player the 49ers look at.
Another interesting possibility is reserve inside linebacker Michael Wilhoite. A special teams maven and a strong injury replacement for the great Patrick Willis earlier in the season, Wilhoite played some fullback in the training camp. He is more than willing to play offense while Miller is out.
Harbaugh said Monday the team was bringing in Owen Marecic for a look. He played for Harbaugh at Stanford and he spent a short time with the 49ers earlier this season. There were indications Monday evening that the 49ers weren't sure if Marecic was up to playing a huge role. So, replacing Miller is still a work in progress.
He played nearly 60 percent of the snaps. His presence will be missed.
“That is kind of a big under the radar loss,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said. “He is a bit of a fullback/tight end tweener to me, but a real hammer as a blocker. They really stress physicality and want to use a very wide variety of personnel groupings, which he was perfect for. I don't know what they plan to do as a backup plan, but lead blocking fullbacks generally are not hard to find, but few do as much as him.”
It would be overstating it a bit to say the loss of a fullback will devastate any NFL offense in today's game. But the 49ers liked what Miller brought, so it will be an adjustment.
The good thing is receiver Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham are playing after being out with injuries. So, the 49ers will likely do more three-receiver sets. Expect to see a lot of double tight end sets as well.
There are plenty of things the 49ers can do to mask this loss, but the point is they were very comfortable with Miller being a big part of the offense. In the meantime, they will have to hope his replacement -- whether it is Dixon or Wilhoite or someone else -- can raise his game when he is on the field. Miller was an enthusiastic player who fit with this group. His energy will be missed as well.
The Miller loss also means the 49ers will go the entire season without having their top 11 offensive players on the field for a snap. The 49ers have adjusted along the way and now will have to do it again without their feisty backfield security blanket for the stretch run.
Harbaugh did not have an update on star left tackle Joe Staley on Monday. Staley left Sunday's win against St. Louis with a knee injury. Sources said, after the game, the initial diagnosis was Staley sprained his right MCL. He could miss a couple of games. Harbaugh said Monday the team was hopeful it is not more serious.
With Staley out, right guard Alex Boone moved to left tackle and the inexperienced Joe Looney took over at right guard. Harbaugh said Monday the makeshift unit played well.
If Iupati misses Sunday's game, the 49ers will have three replacements playing. The 49ers' offense has yet to play a down this season with the starting 11 and that may not happen until Week 16.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said playing without so many offensive linemen at their natural spot will catch up to the 49ers if the situation lingers.
“I think Staley is one of the top three or four LTs in the NFL and is especially great in the run game and yes, he will be missed for sure,” Williamson said. “But Boone was a LT at Ohio State and came to the NFL as an OT prospect. He certainly has that body type. He might be a better 'band aid' player there for the short term than most teams have if their starting LT were to fall, but still, San Francisco is now weaker at three offensive line spots than when the starters are available."
On Sunday, the two dynamic young quarterbacks will play against each other in the NFL for the first time as the Carolina Panthers visit San Francisco.
Newton, spectacular as a rookie and helter-skelter last season, has settled down and has the look of quarterback who may soon see postseason success. He has led the Panthers to four straight wins after a rough 1-3 start. Kaepernick is also rolling, leading his team to five straight wins.
“Everything’s a competition, from being at the combine to being at practice to being in a game,” Kaepernick said. “Everything’s a competition.”
Kaepernick plays with a chip on his shoulder. He enjoyed beating the Titans in Week 7 and the Jaguars in Week 8. Like Carolina, those teams took quarterbacks in the first round in 2011.
It’s difficult to argue the Panthers blew it when they took Newton over Kaepernick. Newton has a big future, and Kaepernick was considered more of a project. But it is clear the 49ers are pleased the way it went down. Kaepernick is perfect athletically and emotionally to run Jim Harbaugh’s offense.
While Harbaugh called Newton’s talents “plutonium grade,” he would surely roll with Kaepernick. Harbaugh played along when a reporter suggested Kaepernick should be the 49ers’ scout-team quarterback this week to help prepare to face Newton.
“That’s a good idea. That’s a very good idea because they are so similar. And in ability, and makeup, and confidence, and in so many ways, talent,” Harbaugh said. “They’re both great. And that’s not a bad idea at all.”
I asked ESPN analyst Matt Williamson who he would rather have, Newton or Kaepernick?
“I will say that Newton is playing better [against some suspect teams] than CK right now, but I still take CK, as he is just a better pure passer,” Williamson said. “Newton has taken a lot more snaps in the NFL than CK. Just wait until CK has that experience under his belt.”
The numbers suggest a team couldn’t go wrong with either Newton or Kaepernick these days. They have been the top two rated quarterbacks in the NFL in the past month. Kaepernick’s Total QBR since Week 6 is a league-leading 94.1. Newton is second at 83.5.
Ted Ginn is an authority on both. He played with Kaepernick the past two years and is now teammates with Newton.
"They both have something a lot people don’t have, and they use it,” Ginn said Wednesday. “Speed. They can run."
On Sunday, the two young quarterbacks will try to outrun, outthrow and outscore each other.
In what has a chance to be one of the more compelling stories in the NFL in the second half, the 49ers are getting several reinforcements.
The 49ers (6-2) had their bye in Week 9 following a five-game winning streak, and the off week was not a quiet one.
Has a contender ever had this type of firepower come back to a team for the stretch run? Barring setbacks, they will all have major roles. The additions will deepen every aspect of a team that was already hot, one that outscored its opponents by a combined score of 174-61 during its win streak.
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks said Tuesday it's special to get all the players back and that it will allow the team to hit its stride when it counts most.
“I think San Francisco has weathered the storm, and right now, they would be my pick to come out of the NFC,” ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said.
Williamson and fellow ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said the key additions will be the receivers and Smith. Getting more out of the receiving crew beyond Anquan Boldin is paramount.
“Most importantly, the big-play weapons on the outside,” Riddick said. “[It's] going to make them more multiple in what they can do, which they will need ultimately to deal with the divisional nemesis Seattle.”
Smith brings serious pass-rush presence. His 38 sacks since entering the league in 2011 is second in the NFL.
ESPN analyst Gary Horton said the additions will have an effect on the entire team.
“It makes them so deep,” Horton said. “Their 45th-53rd players are strong. You won't see that around the league, but that's what you have in San Francisco.”
Asomugha, signed earlier this year, may be in danger of being cut to make room for Wright on the 53-man roster.
It will be interesting to see if Wright can become more than a dime cornerback on this unit. I asked ESPN analyst Matt Williamson his thoughts. He said he doesn’t think Wright will break into the top three.
Still, Wright's presence will make the team deeper and provide important injury insurance.
“It’s a pretty good group for sure,” said Williamson, who also said he thinks the unit will be better when pass-rusher Aldon Smith comes back.
The 49ers badly need more production from their receivers. Their only true passing-game weapons this season have been Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis. The team also hopes to get standout Michael Crabtree back from a torn Achilles, perhaps as early as Mid-November.
Manningham will get the first chance to help the 49ers. The 2012 free-agent addition had 42 catches for 449 yards in 12 games last season. Especially with Crabtree still out, expect Manningham to be a top option for the 49ers when he returns.
ESPN’s Matt Williamson said he doesn’t think Manningham is a top option, but he will give some life to this receiving crew when he returns.
“He is certainly an upgrade over what the Niners have been using as a No. 3 option in the passing game,” Williamson said. “He has big-play ability and at least some sort of pedigree of NFL success. He sure can’t hurt.”
With Mario Manningham out with an injury for another month or so and Michael Crabtree likely out until December, the 49ers need some help and Baldwin will get a chance. San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh was complimentary of Baldwin after the Rams’ game.
Baldwin was acquired by the 49ers in August from Kansas City in exchange for fellow former first-round pick A.J. Jenkins. Baldwin, the No. 26 overall pick in 2011, had a total of 41 catches for the Chiefs.
ESPN analyst Matt Williamson said he thinks Baldwin could develop in this system if he can improve his consistency. That was his biggest issue in Kansas City. He was terrific in practice, but often disappeared in games. Now that he is getting his chance in San Francisco, Baldwin has to show he came be a factor in the NFL.
“If the light is going to come on for Baldwin, I will say that it is likely under Harbaugh and in this offense,” Williamson said. “I thought Harbaugh wanted a big-time deep threat (he acquired Moss and then Jenkins last year), but he seems to have gotten away from that mold. I do know that he wants physicality at the position, including being an able run blocker. Baldwin could be effective as a big bodied guy that can do something after the catch and block.”
Baldwin’s opportunity is now. We will see if he can capitalize.
“Davis has to step up huge and become a true No. 1 receiving option, which he is physically capable of, but few tight ends can make that distinction,” Williamson said.
Kaepernick took over the quarterback job last season and sparked the 49ers all the way to the Super Bowl. Still, Moss, who is astute and opinionated when he wants to be, is skeptical.
“From my time there last year, it didn’t seem Kaepernick and Vernon Davis had a rapport. They haven’t shown that yet,” Moss said.
Kaepernick and Davis did have a strong connection in the playoffs. In the final six games of the regular season, Davis had just six catches. But in three postseason games he caught 12 passes for 254 yards and a touchdown.
Davis addressed the issue Thursday, saying, "I feel like me and Kaepernick are on a different level than where we were last year."
San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh doesn’t need to hear from analysts and former players. He knows the Kaepernick-Davis connection is paramount, especially with the team's injuries at receiver. It has been a focal point during training camp.
Expect the 49ers to quickly establish chemistry between Kaepernick and Davis moving forward.
It’s no secret -- the 49ers are stacked.
However, the team must show it can get enough from its receivers as Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham recover from injuries. New addition Anquan Boldin will be the No.1 receiver while several other players, including Kyle Williams, Quinton Patton and Marlon Moore will all be in the rotational mix.
The 49ers like the potential of the receivers, but there is no denying they have to prove themselves. I checked in with ESPN analyst Matt Williamson on the subject. He thinks the key is the 49ers getting help elsewhere on the unit.
“San Francisco must get more from (tight end) Vernon Davis and LaMichael James, although I realize he is out for about three weeks with ankle injury,” Williamson said. “I see James as a very Darren Sproles-like player for this offense this season. It would be a massive help. (San Francisco coach Jim) Harbaugh certainly has the creative and sharp offensive mind to make that happen. I also could see (running back Kendall) Hunter getting more receptions as well. Davis has to step up huge and become a true No. 1 receiving option, which he is physically capable of, but few TEs can make that distinction. As for Boldin, he rarely truly gets open and instead is just terrific at battling for the ball in the air and coming down with it. Ideally, he would be my third target, but unfortunately, San Francisco probably will not have that luxury. I do expect them to have an elite ground game again.”
It will be interesting to see how the personality of the San Francisco passing game develops in the coming weeks. I think because of the varied abilities of the personnel, Harbaugh’s offensive brilliance and the sheer talent of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, this passing game is destined to work just fine.