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49ers-Seahawks preview: Trying to figure out why Seattle is struggling

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks square off for the first of two divisional matchups when they meet on Thursday. Both teams are struggling, tied for last in the NFC West at 2-4. We took a few minutes to chat with Danny Kelly from Field Gulls to get some thoughts on why the Seahawks are scuffling along. We also answered some of their questions, which you can read here.

Niners Nation The four losses have come thanks in part to four blown fourth quarter leads. What exactly has happened with the Legion of Boom, and the defense as a whole?

Field Gulls: That's a great question, and I wish I had the answer (I'm guessing they do too). I saw a tweet by the NFL Network that showed Seattle's defensive ranks in the 1st-through-3rd quarters and the 4th quarter respectively, and it's weird. In Quarters 1 through 3, Seattle is 3rd in points per game, yards per game, and passing yards per game, then in the fourth quarter and overtime they're 28th in all those categories. So, early on in games the defense has "looked liked themselves" but then they just collapse late in the game. There are probably a confluence of variables contributing to this — psychological, schematic, and personnel-wise.

The Seahawks may still be shell-shocked by the ending of the Super Bowl, they may be dealing with players changing after they've been paid, they may be seeing some issues with new defensive coordinator Kris Richard not having the experience or savvy of Dan Quinn, and there may be a talent drop-off going to Cary Williams from Byron Maxwell. I tend to think it's a combination of all these things. Seattle's depth is not as good as it's been either due to losing quality role players in free agency as they pay their core players.

It's not like the Seahawks have never blown a fourth-quarter lead under Pete Carroll, but this crazy string of losses this year is obviously concerning going forward. We'll see if they can sort out what's going on and get it fixed or if it just snowballs on them and gets worse. All I know now is that fans don't have a ton of confidence in leads of any size late in games these days.

NN: Russell Wilson currently has got a career-high completion percentage, but something seems a little off at times. What kind of quarterback is Wilson midway through the fourth year of his career?

FG: Yeah, on one hand he's done some nice things — his completion rate is up, his YPA is up, his passing yards per game is up, and he's made some really good plays at times. But, then there are other times where he and the offense can't get anything going, he looks skittish in the pocket, drops his eyes, and runs himself into trouble. I think a lot of the problems he's having are problems he's had his whole career so it's just him continuing to have to adapt and develop his game. He's definitely not a fully developed quarterback at this point after three seasons in the league.

Wilson still needs to work on getting passes out more quickly and he's got to improve at subtle pocket movement to find a new angle to throw — rather than heeding his first instinct to take off and run — but he's also not getting much help from his offensive line, at all. He's been sacked 26 times already — on pace for 69 on the year — after "only" getting sacked 42 times last year behind what we all thought was a pretty crappy pass-protecting group in their own right.

This year's offensive line is re-setting the bar to a point lower than many maybe thought possible, and Wilson rarely has time to set and work through theoretical progressions because as soon as he gets into his drop, he's getting free rushers in his face. I am aware that mobile quarterbacks tend to have much higher sack rates and some of the sacks are definitely on Wilson, but there are guys on this OL consistently blowing one-on-one blocks almost immediately after the snap.

So, considering the sack rate and the issue the Hawks have had in giving him anything resembling a pocket, the fact that Wilson's numbers are up this year is encouraging, generally speaking. I've had moments in games where I think he's really improving, but then there are plays where his old bad habits show up. The biggest thing is his throwing on third downs, where the Seahawks have been pretty awful.

NN: Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson are among the NFL leaders in QB hurries. The Seahawks offensive line entered the season with question marks, and does not seem to be answering them. Where are the biggest problems in the group, and are the Seahawks trying anything to actually counter them?

FG: Yeah, the Seahawks offensive line is terrible, and they don't seem to be getting a whole lot better six games into the year. They consistently miss blocks, they are often not on the same page, and pass pro has been a total mess. I think the Seahawks expected "growing pains" because they were starting three guys in new spots (Justin Britt at LG, Drew Nowak at C, and Garry Gilliam at RT) but it's been way worse than I think any fans imagined it would be.

The issues stem from inexperience, a lack of investment in the position, and probably just a lack of talent. There is still some hope that with time the group will gel together and improve, but holy crap, some of the missed one-on-one blocks are so bad that my hopes are pretty low.

As for fixing the problems: Nowak was benched after five games and replaced by Patrick Lewis at center last week, but he promptly got hurt. The team now signed Lemuel Jeanpierre as depth and will probably go back to Nowak in this game, so... uh, yeah, they haven't really done anything to address the problem other than hope these guys will improve as they get more experience together.

NN: What is the Seahawks biggest strength and biggest weakness at this point?

FG: When you're talking about a 2-4 team, it's hard to pinpoint their biggest strength is, but I guess I would say their run game is still a relative strength. They're leading the NFL in YPC and are second in yards per game, even with Wilson running less, so that's encouraging. The problem is though that they're still pretty inconsistent there and have had issues closing out games because the run game disappears when they need it most late in games.

I think that it looks like Russell Wilson and Jimmy Graham are developing some rapport so that might help in the Seahawks' biggest offensive weakness right now, which is their red zone offense. They're dead last in the NFL in red zone efficiency and that's been a big part of the reason they've allowed teams to hang around and mount these fourth-quarter comebacks. If Seattle can continue to get Graham involved and work him into more redzone stuff, that should help matters.

Then, on defense, the obvious issue is "finishing". Seattle's pass rush seems to disappear late in games and so does their tight pass defense, and the stats for opposing quarterbacks in the fourth quarter of games this year is appalling. I'm afraid to even look it up at this point — it was something like an 80% completion rate and a 136 quarterback rating BEFORE they crapped the bed against Cam Newton and the Panthers.

Seattle's run defense is still pretty good, though. They're only giving up 3.6 YPC on the year (4th) but kinda faltered a little against the Panthers on Sunday. I would expect that San Francisco will give them a pretty good test this week in that area though, assuming Carlos Hyde can go.

NN: Who are two or three under the radar players that have stepped up for the Seahawks this year?

FG: Well, one guy that the Seahawks are getting back this week that had been playing pretty well before he got hurt was nickel back Marcus Burley. He'll help out depth-wise at that spot and gives Seattle a shifty inside guy that they don't really have when he's out. Assuming he plays, he'll feature in nickel downs covering slot receivers.

Another guy to keep an eye on is a former 49er, Will Tukuafu. He's been playing a little fullback for Seattle but also gets some snaps at tight end and at defensive end. He's a very versatile player that also features on special teams. With Derrick Coleman's status up in the air for this week, he could be in on a lot of snaps.

One other under the radar guy to keep an eye on is Ahtyba Rubin, who's been really strong for the Seahawks inside. He plays on Seattle's base downs and is primarily a run-stopper, but he's been an underrated part of the good run defense so far.

NN: Bonus: What kind of prediction do you have for this game? It does not have to be a specific score necessarily.

FG: I am guessing it's going to be one of those typical Seahawks-Niners games, sloggy and physical, close to the end. I think both teams have a lot riding on this game so I imagine it's going to be a pretty fun one from a rivalry point of view. I went with the Vegas line and picked the Seahawks in this game, but I will not be shocked if it goes the other way — I think the Niners are playing better over the past few weeks it's going to be a close one, and if the Seahawks' struggles in the fourth quarter continue, it could mean the Seahawks are looking at sole possession of last place in the division.

NN: Follow-up question.....What the hell on the drag-racing?

FG: The Seahawks are a circus.