Renton - Since the Seattle Seahawks lost to the San Francisco 49ers, 23-10, in Week 2 of this season, their NFC West rivals have gone through a conversion on offense.
And they’re a better team for it.
In that loss, San Francisco running back Frank Gore rushed for 207 yards, including touchdown runs of 80 and 79 yards. But since then, the Niners have switched to 25-year-old quarterback Alex Smith and added rookie wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who missed the first five weeks of the season while negotiating a contract with his new team.
With the new parts, the Niners have evolved into more of a spread passing game to take advantage of Smith’s and Crabtree’s abilities.
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But you won’t find run-oriented San Francisco coach Michael Singletary using the word “spread.”
“There’s just something about the spread name that I hate,” Singletary said. “But I wouldn’t say spread. … For me I would just call it versatile.”
Whatever you want to label it, the change in offensive philosophy has produced results. The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2005, Smith was given another chance when quarterback Shaun Hill struggled to produce points in Singletary’s ball-control offense.
Smith threw a season high 41 times in a 20-3 win at home last week against Jacksonville, totaling 232 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
For the season, he’s 2-3 as the starter, throwing for 1,267 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Those numbers don’t hold up next to what Peyton Manning does, but they’re solid. The last five weeks of the season will be important for both Smith and the Niners as they determine whether Smith can be their quarterback of the future.
“He’s just chosen to go out and work his tail off and do what he has to do and let that speak for him,” Singletary said about Smith. “And so far, so good.”
Crabtree, the team’s first-round draft pick this season, did not join San Francisco until the sixth game because of a contract dispute. But the 6-foot-1, 214-pound rookie, who like Smith played in a spread offense in college, has been surprisingly productive, totaling 26 catches for 346 yards and a touchdown in six games, all starts.
“What he’s done thus far has been a little short of remarkable – to come in when he did off the street and start the next week, and really make a contribution,” Singletary said. “I mean, it was very evident from the very beginning that he was going to be a football player, a special football player. So he’s as happy as a kid in a candy store.”
Regardless of the changes on offense, Seattle coach Jim Mora said the Seahawks are still focused on stopping Frank Gore.
“Their identity still is they want to run the football,” Mora said. “We just have to be ready for whatever they present on Sunday. I’m not sure what their game plan will be. Really it all goes back to us doing what we do and doing it as well as we can do, regardless of what they do.”
San Francisco ranks No. 5 in the NFL in rushing defense, and has one of the better defensive fronts in the game, led by athletic linebacker Patrick Willis. So Seattle offensive coordinator Greg Knapp understands it might be tough getting the ground game going again, after the Seahawks rushed for 170 yards against St. Louis last week.
“We believe San Francisco’s rush defense is the toughest we’re going to face all year,” Knapp said. “We already saw them once, and they’re outstanding against the run.”
That said, the Niners rank 28th against the pass, so expect the Seahawks to put the game in the hands of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
Hasselbeck said even with the backdrop of team president and general manager Tim Ruskell stepping down this week, the team’s focus will be on the Niners today.
“We all know what’s at stake,” Hasselbeck said. “Every single guy in that locker room realizes that just like every other year, how you play will determine your status for next year, whether you’re in this league or not, or whether you’re starting or not, or whether you’re on this team or not.
“And so that’s unchanged.”
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SAN FRANCISCO (5-6) at SEATTLE (4-7)
Kickoff: 1:15 p.m., Qwest Field. TV: Ch. 13. Radio: 710-AM, 97.3-FM.
The series: The Niners defeated Seattle in the first contest between these two teams earlier this season, 23-10, after quarterback Matt Hasselbeck left the game with a rib injury late in the first half. The teams will meet for the 22nd time, with Seattle holding an 11-10 edge in the series. The Seahawks have won nine of the past 13 meetings
What to watch: Seattle coach Jim Mora is uncertain who will start at running back today. Justin Forsett suffered a strained quad in practice Friday and is questionable for the game, although he said after practice that he’d be ready to go. Starting running back Julius Jones (bruised lung) should return to action for the first time in three weeks. … Look for San Francisco to use more two tight-end sets to get reserve tight end Delanie Walker on the field in order to try to create a mismatch in the passing game, with Walker matched up on a linebacker.
TNT pick: Seahawks, 24-21.
No. Name (position) Ht./Wt./Year
60 Max Unger (OG) 6-5/309/first
Rookie is much improved since the first game against Niners.
84 T.J. Houshmandzadeh (WR) 6-2/203/ninth
Needs to make plays in passing game.
57 David Hawthorne (LB) 6-0/240/second
Tasked with containing Frank Gore.
23 Marcus Trufant (CB) 5-11/197/seventh
Due for a breakout game.
No. Name (position) Ht./Wt./Year
85 Vernon Davis (TE) 6-3/250/fourth
Versatile athlete creates matchup problems.
11 Alex Smith (QB) 6-4/217/fifth
How will he handle Qwest Field noise?
52 Patrick Willis (LB) 6-1/240/third
A one-man wrecking crew defensively.
99 Manny Lawson (LB) 6-5/240/fourth
Team’s leading sacker with 4.5 this season.
Eric D. Williams, The News Tribune