I can't really put into words how grateful I am for this opportunity, participating in the NFC Championship game as a San Francisco 49er. This season has most definitely been an emotional roller coaster from the beginning.
Is it a coincidence that we've been on this roll since right after I made my 49ers debut?
Still, it is a great coincidence.
Honestly, we're really coming together as a team right now. We've been executing our responsibilities to the best of our ability these last eight weeks. These have been total team efforts. We've done a great job of taking care of the ball for the most part, and we're forcing enough turnovers to win these games.
When you get that kind of production from every phase, week-in and week-out, it's a recipe for success.
We're a very deep team, so the last few weeks, I've been pitching in more on special teams than defense.
I've never taken special teams for granted, or the guys who play in that capacity. I know what special teams means to the game, and how hard it is to play that role. I've played special teams pretty much every year of my career, and that's enough to have a feel for it, to have a level of respect for it and to take pride in it.
Not playing on defense has been a huge adjustment for me, though. It's something that I've never experienced before. It's not easy because you don't have a natural rhythm when you're not out there, in the flow of the game. I'm still learning how to stay prepared, warmed up and ready — both mentally and physically — to go out and potentially play at a moment's notice.
Even when I'm not playing on defense, it's always important to me to get with the other defenders and review plays. When the offense is on the field, we go over the pictures and talk over what's going on out there, and whatever in-game adjustments we're trying to make. From there, you're trying to lend a voice, and encourage the guys on defense to go out there and do what we do.
Last week, we played really well on defense. We stuck with the game plan and paid attention to detail, which allowed us to execute some of the things that our defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, was asking us to. We knew we had to contain Cam Newton and limit his big play ability in both the run game and the pass game. The secondary executed the coverage calls, and limited his options. When we were in man, everybody stuck tight to their man, and didn't give him much space to throw the ball in. In zone, we tried to limit the windows so he couldn't find his targets.
I also think we did a good job of collapsing the pocket, and didn't give him lanes to escape when plays broke down. We were able to get some sacks, and really hold him to short gains or losses when he did try to improvise.
Our offense has played very well the last several weeks, and I think the return of Michael Crabtree has been extremely valuable. This is something that we expected to happen once he got back. Just having another playmaker out there — somebody else the defense has to account for — makes it extremely hard for teams to match up against us.
When you already have Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore, a legitimate dual-threat quarterback in Colin Kaepernick and a great offensive line, it just catapults us into another category offensively when Crab is out there. He's a dynamic receiver and a guy who has been playing well consistently since he got into the league. Through watching him and studying him before I got to San Francisco and now being around him here, I can tell that he has a great feel for the game. Most playmakers do. They know when it's their time to make a play, when it's time to step up and when they're needed.
Crab is just an all around solid wide receiver. He's always there and he's consistent. He can run every route on the tree, and he's very well rounded, so you can't pin him in to one particular category. He has sneaky speed, and runs good routes.
Most of all, Kap trusts him. That's one of his favorite targets.
Kap is a really cool guy, a young guy who has attained a lot of success at a very early age. His ability is obviously admirable, but the thing about Kap that sticks out to me is that he just has a good head on his shoulders, and he's about the right things. For a young kid to come into the type of success that he's come into and still remain humble and 100 percent team-oriented, that says a lot.
I'm sure it sticks out to everybody else on this team as well. That's why we look to him as a leader and one of our captains. Naturally quarterbacks are thrust into those roles, but Kap is very well-respected amongst all the other guys. He's also extremely humble. He has his priorities straight. He comes to work and handles his business. He's about success and winning. We trust him with the ball in his hands 70-80 plays a game playing that quarterback position because we know what type of work he puts in, and what type of guy he is.
It's the NFC Championship, so it doesn't really matter at this point who we're facing. The energy and excitement is going to be there regardless. But we definitely have a little bit of extra adrenaline pumping because it is the Seahawks, and we have to go to Seattle.
I've been a part of some great rivalries, but none as closely matched -- at least on paper -- as the one between these two teams. But we're approaching this game as if we don't know them that well, and I think it's important to prepare as if we haven't played them. The worst thing you can do is go into a game thinking that you know your opponent simply because you've played them a couple times before.
There are things that you can relate to, for sure. We know them from the standpoint of their team philosophy and their approach. But as far as preparing for plays and the game plan, it's a totally different game, a totally new set of circumstances. They do some things now that they may not have done in Week 2 or Week 14. So you definitely have to study.
Seattle is solid on defense. They have a good secondary. They've proven that. Earl Thomas is a high-energy guy, a smart player and he's all over the field. In the running game, in the passing game, he's always by the ball. He does all the things that you would want from a safety.
Richard Sherman has been doing his thing, playing well and making plays. Some people love him for what he does before a play, after a play, during TV timeouts and interviews, just the smack talk. But he also goes out there and proves that he is that good. Those guys make plays and give up limited production. And they'll let you know about it.
There's definitely respect from our end for what they do because we know how hard it is to put up the type of numbers they've put up. That's something that you have to respect. But that's where it stops.
I have respect for a lot of guys on that team. I've played against Marshawn Lynch in high school, college and in the pros. He's somebody that I would call a friend, so I definitely have a lot of respect for him. He's one of the best running backs in the league.
Marshawn has great knowledge of his ability. He's a unique running back in the sense that he's bigger, so they can utilize him in the power running game, but he can run it with a little more finesse if he has to. He has great balance and great vision as well.
We've played them twice already, so you kind of get a feel for how they want to attack you with him. It also allowed a lot of our guys to get a feel for how we need to tackle him. It's still a big task. Trying to tackle him is just one of those things, especially as a DB, where you just want to get him down, however that has to happen. We have to make sure we get a lot of hats on the ball. He's that elusive. Everybody has to be hustling to the ball and swarming on him to limit his yards after first contact. Naturally, he's going to make somebody miss or try to carry somebody down the field. He's just that relentless type of player. That's been his running style since we were younger.
They also have a good quarterback over there in Russell Wilson. He's a dual-threat quarterback, so he can run their read option, or he can drop back and simply throw the ball down the field. He has the accuracy and the arm strength to do that. But what he's great at is extending plays and turning them into recess. We can't give him those opportunities to throw the ball down the field. He doesn't really take off to run unless he has to. He does a good job of keeping his eyes down field for open guys when he does scramble outside the pocket.
That's what we have to make sure we limit -- those big plays when he does extend the play with his legs by scrambling out of the pocket. Those plays make your job as a corner extremely difficult. You can have the initial route destroyed, but he can scramble out of the pocket and then there's no telling where that wide receiver is going. You just have to do whatever you can to stay as tight as possible to the receiver, and not allow him to catch the ball. We have to do our job and keep those windows closed. That boils down to effort.
Wilson has a lot of talent at his disposal. Golden Tate is a really good player, one of their premier players, so he's going to get his fair share of looks. There's no telling where he may be on the field because they use him all over place. He makes plays on the outside, and they can throw a fade to him. He runs intermediate routes, short routes and deep routes. He has that double move, and every so often, he goes inside and plays in the slot.
He has good speed and quickness. You can't let him get open. If you let him, he's very good after the catch. He's a returner as well as a receiver, so he has that type of vision. So we have to stay as tight to him as possible.
Likewise, Doug Baldwin has good quickness. He's more of your prototypical slot receiver. He can get in and out of his breaks pretty fast. He's a guy who fits well into their system, and does what they ask him to do. He plays his role very well.
What it comes down to for us on Sunday is doing the same thing we've been doing, sticking with the game plan and paying attention to detail. We know we have to stop the run. We know we have to limit the big plays.
Now, it's about execution.
The atmosphere up there is going to be electric. That crowd is already extremely loud, and they're going to be even louder because it's a championship game. It's going to be obnoxious. It's going to be crazy. It's a rivalry, and it's in Seattle. The energy is going to be there, and the adrenaline is going to be there.
The stakes are so high now. It's a win or go home situation. But I'm excited. I'm happy that my first opportunity in a conference championship is with the team that I've been wanting to play with my whole life. The stage is set for us to go out there and take it.
Every man in that locker room is up for the challenge.