Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio made no attempt this week to minimize the challenge the 49ers face coming out of the Seattle Seahawks’ backfield in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game.
“He’s either the best or second-best back in the league, depending upon who you ask,” Fangio said of Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. “He and (the Vikings’ Adrian) Peterson are the top two.”
The 49ers know they will get a heavy dose of Lynch and that their success will largely hinge on how well they contain the running game and force the Seahawks to move the ball in other ways. That, however, is easier said than done – even for a defense that was the only one in the NFL not to allow a 100-yard rusher this season.
Flash back to 2011, when the 49ers had a streak of 36 games without allowing a 100-yard rusher, and Lynch ended the streak in a Week 15 game in which he also became the first player all season to score a rushing touchdown against the 49ers.
In last year’s 42-13 drubbing of the 49ers in Seattle, Lynch carried 26 times for 111 yards and a touchdown. He just missed the century mark in Week 2 this season with 98 yards on 28 carries, and he rushed for two touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass in Seattle’s 29-3 win.
By now, the 49ers’ coaching staff is familiar with Lynch, having prepared to face him six times the past three seasons. But that doesn’t make it easier to bring down the seventh-year back out of Cal, who is known for bouncing off would-be tacklers and gaining many of his yards after contact.
“He’s a powerful back, but he (also) has the ability to get you off balance, which makes his power even more effective,” Fangio said. “And he’s a relentless guy. He doesn’t like to be tackled.”
Look no further than Lynch’s game-clinching 31-yard touchdown run last week against the Saints, on which he burst around the left end of the line untouched and covered the final 10 yards after shedding Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis with a ferocious stiff-arm.
Fangio said the 49ers need to swarm to Lynch when he has the ball and not allow him to get untouched into the secondary, where he presents a daunting one-on-one matchup for a defensive back. That puts an emphasis on the 49ers’ line and linebackers – especially when the 49ers are in a nickel package with five defensive backs, giving them one less defender in the box.
“I think that’s where the game comes down to, if they can lighten up the box and run the ball,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “That’s the reason why they run the ball so much when we’re in nickel, because the box is lighter. But if we can stop it, they have to go to another plan.”
Bowman said a lot of defensive players get into trouble trying to tackle Lynch when they “just sell out and hope the hit that you’re delivering knocks him down.” Often, Lynch is too strong for that.
“You want to gather yourself and make sure you have him in front of you,” Bowman said. “If you can do that, you can definitely get him down, or have a better chance of doing it, but a lot of guys shoot their gun, think he’ll fall down off of that.
“He’s a hard tackle, I will admit. But it can be done.”
The 49ers held Lynch to 72 yards on 20 carries in their 19-17 win over the Seahawks in December. Sunday’s rubber match provides each an opportunity to get the last laugh – somewhat appropriate for a running back who has previously been captured by in-game microphones chuckling on the ground after carries.
Linebacker Patrick Willis, who figures to cross paths with Lynch a few times Sunday, said he hasn’t seen Lynch laugh on the field, but it wouldn’t surprise him.
“Me and Marshawn trained together coming out (of college), and he’s always been that type of guy,” Willis said. “It’s funny – you said he loves to laugh when he’s running the ball. People sometimes look at me and they always ask why I’m smiling.
“You smile when you’re having fun. You smile when you know the next man is in trouble.”