A look at the Seahawks’ opponent this week in their regular-season opener:
When: Sunday, 1:15 p.m., Qwest Field
Record: 8-8 last season, 4-0 in the preseason
Where they ranked: No. 27 in offense last season (25th rushing, 22nd passing); No. 15 in defense (6th rushing, 21st passing); No. 19 in offense during the preseason (4th rushing, 25th passing); No. 6 on defense (5th rushing, 9th passing)
Series: Seahawks lead 12-10, and the teams have split their home-and-home series the past two seasons
Star power: Patrick Willis. The 49ers’ middle linebacker was the runway choice for NFL defensive player of the year in Pro Football Weekly’s preseason poll of writers who cover each team in the league. And why not? Willis made an immediate impact after being selected in the first round of the 2007 draft. He was voted defensive rookie of the year and the only rookie on the All-Pro team. He’s only getting better, as evidenced by his three consecutive Pro Bowl berths and his tackle totals – 174 as a rookie, 141 in 2008 and 152 last season.
Unsung hero: Justin Smith. Unsung might not be the right word to describe the 49ers’ pass-rushing defensive end. But Smith rarely has gotten the credit he deserves for the way he plays – and especially how relentlessly he plays. After collecting 43½ sacks in seven seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, the 49ers signed him to a big-bucks free-agent deal in 2008. Smith had seven sacks in 2008 and six last season. Sunday, he’ll be matched against whoever steps in to replace injured first-round draft choice Russell Okung at left tackle for the Seahawks – either Chester Pitts or Tyler Polumbus.
On the spot: Alex Smith. The 49ers are the trendy pick to win the NFC West. Whether it happens will depend greatly on how well Smith plays in his return as the starting quarterback. The only time the first pick overall in the 2005 draft started 16 games was in 2006, when his interceptions (16) matched his total of touchdown passes. He missed the entire 2008 season with a shoulder injury, but came back to start 10 games last season. He still has more career interceptions (43) than TD passes (37).
Burning question: Which Frank Gore shows up at Qwest Field on Sunday? The bruising back who has run for 212, 207 and 144 yards against the Seahawks in the past? Or the bruised back who has been held to 25, 61 and 72 yards in his past three games in Seattle? Sunday, he’ll he running behind a revamped line that includes rookies at right tackle (Anthony Davis) and left guard (Mike Iupati). Gore is well-rested, after carrying only twice in the preseason as rookie Anthony Dixon ran for 300 yards and four scores.
Familiar faces: Free safety Dashon Goldson, the 49ers’ second-leading tackler last season, went to the University of Washington. Backup safety Taylor Mays, who played for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC, is from Seattle and went to O’Dea High School. Offensive line coach Mike Solari spent the past two seasons with the Seahawks. Bill Nayes, special assistant to coach Mike Singletary, held a similar position with the Seahawks from 1999-2006.
The last word: “Once you experience loud, it’s loud. Once you can’t hear the guy next to you talking, that’s as loud as it gets. You can only see mouths move, and that’s it.” – Davis, anticipating the din generated by the crowd at Qwest