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Key matchup: Niners wide receivers vs. Seahawks cornerbacks

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
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By Dan Arkush

Niners wide receivers vs. Seahawks cornerbacks

While the ground games figure to provide the biggest rush for observers of this prime-time heavyweight NFC West battle — with the Niners’ and Seahawks’ offenses featuring potent rushing threats at both quarterback (Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson) and running back (Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch) — it would be a big mistake to discount the part the passing game will play in the drama set to unfold at CenturyLink Field Sunday evening.

All one needs to do is look back at how the Niners’ offense instantly got New England’s defense back on its heels in last Sunday night’s instant classic in Foxborough. Straying from the conservative, clock-chewing, chain-moving attack most observers expected, the Niners took to the airways on their first possession, with Kaepernick completing 4-of-5 passes, all of them to either WRs Michael Crabtree or Randy Moss, in a 63-yard scoring drive culminated by a 24-yard TD toss to a wide-open Moss, who had broken free of Patriots CB Alfonzo Dennard’s coverage.

By the end of the evening, Kaepernick had slung a career-high four TD passes in a 41-34 victory, including a pair to Crabtree (7-107-2), whose 38-yard TD catch after the Pats had battled back from oblivion to tie the game turned out to be the game-winning score.

In this particular matchup, the status of both position groups entering the game is cause for concern.

In the case of the Niners WR corps, free-agent addition Mario Manningham, who substantiated his prowess for clutch catches in last year’s Super Bowl as a member of the Giants, is looking iffy again this Sunday, continuing to feel the effects of a shoulder injury that has forced him to miss the last two games.

Should Manningham remain out of the mix, his role figures to be collectively filled by Ted Ginn Jr. and first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins. But if the New England game was any indication, the Seattle secondary’s attention will be primarily devoted to Crabtree and Moss.

Crabtree has emphatically separated himself from the rest of the Niners WR pack, having established an instantly strong chemistry with Kaepernick. He had his sixth career 100-yard game vs. New England and has set single-season career highs in catches (73) and TDs (seven). With 132 yards in the Niners’ final two regular-season games, Crabtree can become San Francisco’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Terrell Owens in 2003.

Crabtree, a natural pass-catcher with “the best hands I’ve ever seen” according to Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh, has been particularly adept at coming up big on third down and picking up yards after the catch — a skill the Seattle secondary must concentrate on minimizing.

Moss, meanwhile, still showed he has plenty of gas left in his Hall of Fame-bound tank with his TD catch vs. his old New England team — a catch, it should be noted, that enabled him to pass former Rams-Niners WR Isaac Bruce for No. 3 all-time in receiving yards.

It’s a receiving duo that could present a serious challenge for a Seahawks CB corps with major depth concerns. In the last three games, Seattle has started three different right cornerbacks (in order, Brandon Browner, Walter Thurmond and most recently sixth-round rookie Jeremy Lane).

Under normal circumstances, Browner and LCB Richard Sherman are as good a starting CB duo as there is in the league. But Browner is suspended through the rest of the regular season for testing positive for a banned substance, while Sherman is appealing this Friday a potential four-game suspension for taking Adderall. While it’s not a given, most observers seem to think Sherman should probably be able to play Sunday evening, with a ruling on his appeal expected to linger into next week (check status).

Making matters shakier are the hamstring injuries currently limiting Thurmond and veteran Marcus Trufant, who has missed the last three games. Neither Thurmond, a skilled defender when healthy, nor Trufant was expected to practice until Thursday of this week at the earliest, and both of them must be considered questionable at best for Sunday’s game.   

Regardless of whether they can play or not, Lane, second-year pro Byron Maxwell and Ron Parker could all see considerable action Sunday evening.

Lane wan’t bad in his first pro start last Sunday vs. the Bills in Toronto, making three tackles and doing a solid job in coverage. Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick went right at Lane early, throwing deep to T.J. Graham, but Lane blanketed Graham step for step.

When the Seahawks switched to five DBs on passing downs vs. Buffalo, Lane moved to nickel back with Maxwell playing on the outside. As is the case with Browner and Sherman, Lane, Maxwell and Parker all have good size, making them well-suited for the press-cover tactics that coach Pete Carroll covets.

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