49ers vs. Seahawks: 5 players to watch from San Francisco

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Defenses will define the matchup, but strong offensive play could be the difference.

SB Nation 2014 NFL Playoff Coverage

The San Francisco 49ers visit hostile territory when the team heads to Seattle for the second time this season. It's a rubber match for bragging rights, but more importantly a Super Bowl berth as Jim Harbaugh's team tries to make football's biggest game for the second year in a row.

Defense is dominating the perception of the game, but it's one that could be defined by a few standout offensive performances on both sides. The players who are capable of breaking through the lines have a chance to be heroes for their teams. Here are five key players (non-QB edition) to watch for the 49ers:

Frank Gore

Running the ball will be difficult for both sides given strong defensive line play, but Gore is key to setting up the 49ers' passing game.

San Francisco struggled in the first half against the Panthers in the Divisional round largely because Gore didn't run successfully. Getting stuffed at the line put too much pressure on Colin Kaepernick to win with his arm, which created a first-half deficit.

The team didn't give up on running the ball in spite of its early struggles. Things began to change in the second half, which allowed Kaepernick to become comfortable in the pocket and turn things around. It was a case of smartly not abandoning the run. This needs to continue against Seattle, even if the run isn't gaining yardage early.

Michael Crabtree

The single biggest change to the 49ers in 2013 was the return of Crabtree from injury. The team struggled on offense early in the season and lacked big-play potential, but his addition to the team helped propel San Francisco into the playoffs.

Crabtree will need to be more than a downfield threat against Seattle. He will be covered by Richard Sherman, who has the physical edge at the snap, but Crabtree can't afford to be outmuscled. The 49ers receiver will need to use his speed to try to do more than he did when these teams last met, when he finished with four receptions for 40 yards.

Ahmad Brooks

Rushing Russell Wilson is of vital importance to win on Sunday. The second-year quarterback is almost unflappable in the pocket, but a blitz-heavy scheme can throw off his timing -- something Brooks did to great effect against Cam Newton.

Wilson is a different player, but the same principles apply. Too often he looks downfield in lieu of picking up a first down with his legs, which opens up opportunities for a speed rush to catch him off guard.

Brooks had the best season of his career in 2013, but has not had success against the NFC West rival. In eight career games versus the Seahawks, he's recorded just 2.0 total sacks. He is an established threat on defense, but needs to improve on his prior performances.

Vernon Davis

The Seattle secondary is of significant renown, but getting Davis matched up on the Seahawks linebackers is one area the 49ers can win on Sunday. He creates problems for the opposing defense, and when coupled with a reliable running game, he can become a difference-maker.

Davis struggled against the Seahawks in 2013, becoming a non-factor in the two matchups between the teams. He totaled 21 yards receiving and scored one touchdown in the 49ers win in early December.

This could be the most important contest on Sunday. If Davis can beat his coverage, San Francisco stands a chance. If he fails, there will be a lot of pressure on Gore.

Anquan Boldin

Boldin became the biggest reason the 49ers won against the Panthers in the Divisional round. Carolina bracketed Crabtree in an effort to prevent the deep pass, while allowing his counterpart to have free release. The result was a 136-yard game that helped ensure the victory.

Seattle's safety play will be of utmost importance in stopping Boldin on Sunday. It's far better than the unit he faced in the last round, but adding to the offense is key in moving the chains. Kaepernick made Boldin his favorite target a week ago, and that could be key once again.

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