The San Francisco 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks on Thanksgiving night, in a game with huge playoff implications for both teams. To help 49ers fans get ready for the game, we chatted with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls. He answered our questions about everything ranging from Marshawn Lynch's situation with Pete Carroll, to the team's defensive inconsistency, to how the team is trying to overcome wide receiver issues.
Niners Nation: How are the Seahawks health-wise?
Field Gulls: Not counting the twelve players already on the injured reserve, active-roster Seahawks are finally starting to get healthy. Seattle now has ten of its eleven regular starters back in the rotation - NT Brandon Mebane being the only exception - and not coincidentally, are starting to play faster and more disciplined football over the last few weeks. Kam Chancellor has battled a string of lower body injuries this season that have really slowed him down and robbed him of some of his punch, but he definitely looked a lot more like himself last week against Arizona. The combination Earl Thomas with a healthy Chancellor is absolutely huge for the Seahawks' defense. It allows Seattle to do a lot of things schematically - including using Thomas in man on slot receivers and running backs and moving Kam around from in the box to deep in the middle to keep offenses guessing.
On the offensive side of the ball, center Max Unger is still out with ankle and knee injuries, so that means either rookie third stringer Patrick Lewis will get the start again, or the Seahawks may turn to recently signed free agent Lemuel Jeanpierre, who was with the team the past couple of seasons before being cut out of training camp with a neck injury. He's healthy now, so it wouldn't be surprising to see him start this week - he's got more experience than Lewis and brings a little more continuity to the line having played with the majority of Seattle's guys. Next to whoever is playing center, James Carpenter is looking like he'll be back this week after missing the last three with an ankle injury. That should be a nice boost for Seattle and Carpenter has the advantage over his backup in Alvin Bailey in that Carp has a few years of experience lining up across from the venerable Justin Smith.
A few more injuries to keep an eye on: TE Cooper Helfet, who scored a touchdown last week against the Cardinals, had an ankle injury and hasn't practiced yet this week. His status will probably go right up until gametime. Rookie linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis still has a shoulder injury that's bothered him so i don't think he'll play this week either.
NN: What's the deal with the Marshawn Lynch-Pete Carroll storyline? Given the chatter about Lynch potentially being released after this season, what does his strong year mean in that regard?
FG: Well, there's obviously some tension between Lynch and the front office and/or coaching staff with regards to his contract status for next season. Lynch held out during training camp because he felt that he wasn't getting paid commensurate to the value he brings to the team (might be true, even in a league where "running backs are fungible"), and I think Seattle's refusal to budge much there created this discord. Apparently Lynch and Pete Carroll don't talk a whole lot (or ever), but over the last few weeks Carroll and OC Darrell Bevell have seemed to try to really back their star player in the media to try and repair some of that distrust there. For what it's worth, Lynch reportedly has the full support of his teammates and they trust him to show up on gamedays, so it's not a locker-room cancer type of situation. It's mostly just a contract type of distraction thus far.
Bottom line - Carroll specifically denied that the team plans on moving on without Lynch next year, and said the reports that this is their plan have come from somewhere outside the organization. While it's obvious Carroll isn't going to publicly admit this anyway, even if the report did come from the team and has legs, it feels like over the last few weeks the team may have changed their stance on that because they've not only started feeding him the rock at a much higher rate, they've been praising him even more than normal every chance they can get.
I think for the rest of the year, it all comes down to each side protecting themselves for the almost inevitable holdout again next summer as Lynch enters the final year of his contract. I'm guessing right now the team hasn't decided whether or not they plan to keep him and his $7.5M cap hit in 2015, and they're planning on seeing how he holds up health wise and seeing how he's doing from a mental standpoint. If he wants to be in Seattle, I tend to believe they will try and work something out that keeps him here. Obviously a non-holdout type situation early next year would be ideal, but this seems unlikely considering he's putting up better numbers than he did last year and he legitimately looks faster and more explosive on the field than I can ever remember.
They say you should keep emotion out of the equation when dealing with aging vets, especially running backs, but I think it would be a damn shame for Lynch to move on before his contract is up - he's been the foundation piece of the offense for the past four seasons and he's a huge part of the identity the Seahawks took on when Pete Carroll and John Schneider rebuilt the roster. Lynch is the real heart of the offense, even if Russell Wilson is the future.
For now, though, I think it's pragmatic to enjoy the ride when he's still in Seattle, and hope the two sides can work something out in the future.
NN: The Seahawks no longer have Golden Tate and Percy Harvin. How has the passing game adjusted?
FG: The passing game has taken a step back with the losses of Tate and Harvin, as you'd expect. Seattle doesn't have a true #1 receiver so their normal #3 receiver, Jermaine Kearse, is now the de facto #1. Doug Baldwin is probably the most talented of the group but has been playing more in the slot, where he's the most effective, and the shuffling that happened when Tate left, Sidney Rice retired, and Percy Harvin was traded (a debacle), means that Seattle's two rookie receivers in Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood have started to play pretty big roles. Ricardo Lockette has seen some increased action as well. It all adds up to less consistency, less continuity, and fewer "big-time plays" from the receiving corps than we saw last year.
With Zach Miller on the injured reserve too, some of the biggest focal points in the offensive gameplan over the last few weeks have been former UDFA practice squad TE Cooper Helfet, recent free agent signing TE Tony Moeaki, and second year TE Luke Willson. If you'd have told me this before the year, I'd have been terrified.
Overall, bottom line, Seattle could use an infusion of talent and experience in the passing game, there's no doubt. That may come in the offseason (hopefully). In the meantime, though, they're making due with what they've got, and they've really leaned on their run game heavily of late.
One corollary to the decision to let Tate walk and then subsequently trade Harvin is that Seattle's return game - both in punts and kickoffs - has been really bad this year. Bryan Walters is the primary punt returner and his most valuable trait is that he catches the punts (he's not shown a whole lot in the return part of the play). Meanwhile, the Seahawks have shuffled people in at kick returner but everyone seems to end up fumbling (literally) away the opportunity to lock down the job. I think right now Doug Baldwin will be the kick returner, but I'm not sure about that.
NN: The defense seems to have taken a step back in consistency, with the pass defense appearing to be a little more mortal this season. What are the issues (if any), and what do you expect the remaining five weeks of the season?
FG: The main issue for the Seahawks' pass defense has been two-fold: First, injuries were a real jerk early on in the year and starters Kam Chancellor, Byron Maxwell, and (nickel back) Jeremy Lane all went out with various injuries. This meant the Seahawks were starting second-year corner Tharold Simon outside - his first NFL snaps - and Marcus Burley, a nickel corner they traded for from the Colts during the preseason - on the inside - also his first NFL snaps. DeShawn Shead and Jeron Johnson got starts in Chancellor's place. The continuity, communication, and cohesiveness of the group were affected negatively, and the Seahawks' pass defense wasn't quite as sharp.
The second main issue is that the Seahawks' pass rush has not been as potent as it was last season, and that has diminished the potency of the pass defense. When you're not moving, hitting, affecting, or sacking the quarterback, it's a whole lot easier for him to find open receivers. So, the pass defense is highly connected with the pass rush, and the pass rush hasn't been as good, or it wasn't as good early on the in the season.
That said, the Seahawks are third in the NFL in opponent passing yards per game (208.5), 8th in yards per pass attempt (6.7), 5th in opponent passing touchdowns (15), and 2nd in opponent passes of 20+ yards (26). Where they've fallen off is in interceptions - they only have 7, and opposing QB passer rating, currently 89.9. They're the 11th ranked pass defense per DVOA, so not terrible, but obviously not where they want to be.
Now that they're all relatively healthy for the homestretch though, the hope is that things will start clicking.
NN: What have you gotten from the draft class, and newcomers in general?
FG: The Seahawks' first pick - Paul Richardson - has found his way onto the field a lot more of late and while his numbers haven't popped, generally speaking people have liked what they've seen. The hope is that the Seahawks can get him more involved in the vertical passing game but that hasn't really happened yet. Fellow rookie receiver Kevin Norwood has earned more snaps as well and he could be a factor this week in the passing game. He's more of a possession type of guy.
Justin Britt, a pick for the Seahawks in the second round, has been the starter at right tackle all year and while his pass protection chops could certainly use a little refining, his run blocking has been pretty good. He plays with a nasty temperament and is pretty athletic for the position, so he's a good developmental player for the Seahawks.
The rest of Seattle's draft class is either hurt or cut - Cassius Marsh is on the IR, Kevin Pierre-Louis looks like he's heading there any day now, Garrett Scott and Eric Pinkins are on the NFI list, and Jimmy Staten and Kiero Small are off the roster. In general though, the Marsh and KPL picks look very solid - both had performed well in their limited reps on the defense before getting hurt. Staten was on the practice squad until this week so my guess is that he'll be back - he's a developmental DT.
The newcomers to watch this week are TE Tony Moeaki, and a couple of former Niners in FB/DE Will Tukuafu and DT/DE Demarcus Dobbs. All three of those guys will play roles on Thursday.