Three points was the difference on the night. Three, maddening points. The 49ers’ defense held up their end of the bargain as they repeatedly shut down the Seahawks’ offense, until they could shut them down no longer. Even then, Blair Walsh conspired to Walsh (synonym for “miss”) the extra point, giving the 49ers a shot to go downfield and at least tie the game at 12-12. But the offense failed, as it had done for much of the night.
Of course, the primary offensive problem was the passing offense, of whom the root cause was Brian Hoyer. Unlike last week, pressure wasn’t an issue. Hoyer was under pressure on just seven of his twenty-nine drop backs (per PFF) as his interior offensive line bounced back from the beatdown it took at the hands of the Panthers, not least thanks to Laken Tomlinson replacing Zane Beadles. His tackles were superb, with Trent Brown registering a clean sheet in pass protection and Joe Staley performing effectively as a pass blocker. Yet Hoyer conspired to throw a dreadful interception (again) and generally appeared a little blind to the positioning of linebackers throughout the game.
Yes, Marquise Goodwin dropped another key play - let’s hope two doesn't mark the establishment of a painful pattern - but the dire performance of the passing game is on Hoyer, and to a lesser extent Kyle Shanahan. Hoyer missed open men, continually denying the 49ers opportunities to move the chains. Shanahan dialed up a couple of unusual play calls - notably the third down call on the final drive when Garrett Celek was matched up against K.J. Wright and predictably was tackled short of the sticks. You could argue even that was on Hoyer. He had man coverage, so he needed to allow Celek more time to get open running across the field. Shanahan certainly schemed several receivers open, but his handpicked quarterback (albeit from a laughable selection of options) failed to execute.
Hoyer acknowledged the need for him to improve after the game, as did his head coach, and the duo have the opportunity to redeem themselves somewhat against the Rams on Thursday night. Nevertheless, a large portion of the 49ers’ players and coaches should go into the Thursday night sore, but full of confidence. Special teams, the running offense and Robert Saleh’s defense all played excellent games against the Seahawks and will be favored to continue their solid efforts against a Rams team brought crashing down to earth by a defeat to the Redskins.
The Run Defense
Even including Chris Carson’s game sealing (hold assisted?) 16 yard gain to close out the match and several Russell Wilson scrambles, the 49ers’ defense only allowed 3.5 yards per carry.
The defensive line were immoveable for large periods of the contest. Tank Carradine was a force once again, whilst DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and Earl Mitchell all got in on the act of abusing the Seahawks’ run blockers.
The 49ers do an excellent job of dealing with a run to the weak side, with Buckner particularly to the fore as he dominates his man and shows good lateral quickness. Mitchell gets good penetration to force the runner inside and Carradine is also in to make the the play.
Another good run stuff. Absolute chaos in the middle but Armstead and Thomas both defeat their men and are in to make the stop.
Behind the defensive line, Navorro Bowman was excellent against the run for the most part - though his partner at the linebacker spot Ray-Ray Armstrong missed several assignments on zone read keepers in particular. The safeties were also solid coming up against the run and there can be little doubt that Robert Saleh’s defense as a whole is performing as advertised against the run game. This is a massive improvement on last season.
Carradine dominates the right tackle Ifedi here and Eli Harold does a decent job of putting himself in position to make the play. His work forces the running back wider, allowing Bowman's mobility to take over and he makes a big tackle for a loss.
Perhaps most pleasing however, is the early performances of a pass defense that many expected would really struggle this season.
The Pass Rush
After drawing a blank in the sack category against the Panthers, the 49ers’ pass rush feasted (as they had to) on a sub-par Seahawks offensive line. The 49ers pressured Wilson on a staggering 46.7 percent of his drop backs, sacking him on three occasions.
Despite not getting a sack himself, DeForest Buckner led the 49ers’ pass rush, recording nine pressures (four hits, five hurries) as he made his presence known to Russell Wilson. He was ably supported by Aaron Lynch and Arik Armstead. Lynch showed his pass rushing prowess as a specialist edge rusher whilst Armstead did his damage lined up all over the offensive line, and often showed far too much power for the Seahawks’ pass blockers. Solomon Thomas flashed his power on occasion, and the Hawks actually double teamed him a surprising amount, showing the respect they had for him.
A great, disciplined rush by the 49ers. Thomas is double teamed, but the edge rushers squeeze the pocket laterally, keeping Wilson contained whilst Arik Armstead has the guard on skates with a bull rush. Wilson can’t step into his throw and is off target.
DeForest Buckner blows this play up on his own, forcing Wilson to throw to his check-down well behind the sticks on a third and three that resulted in a three and out.
The Rams’ offensive line isn't one of the better lines in the league, and Jared Goff is far worse under pressure than Russell Wilson. If the 49ers can get pressure at anywhere near the rate that they did against the Seahawks, they could pave the way for a similarly dominant defensive effort.
The Pass Coverage
The other key component of pass defense is, of course, the actual coverage. Once again, the 49ers shut down opposition tight ends, which will continue to be a major strength of this defense going forward. Safety Jaquiski Tartt, who once again performed well (recording an 85.4 coverage grade and 82.6 grade overall), set the tone for Jimmy Graham’s day when he demolished him early on.
The rules for the free safety in this scheme are no seams, no posts. The Seahawks tried to test that rule, without success, as Tartt makes a tremendous play, reading Wilson’s eyes and dislodging the ball at the catch point with a big hit.
From that point on, the Hawks’ tight ends were largely contained. Against a Rams’ offense that really uses its tight ends (notably rookie Gerald Everett) to make Jared Goff’s life easier, this strength of the 49ers’ defense will have a huge effect limiting the Rams’ offensive output.
Other players to impress in coverage were safety Jimmie Ward and cornerbacks Dontae Johnson and K’waun Williams. Williams continues to impress as the slot corner (only allowing receptions on just over half of his targets) whilst Johnson bounced back from a disappointing Week 1 effort with a much improved performance in Week 2. Though he allowed three receptions on four targets this week, they went for only 27 yards and for much of the game he locked up the man he was supposed to be covering.
Williams is giving up nine inches to Tanner McEvoy here but manages to disrupt the throw. Tartt comes in with a big hit to make sure McEvoy cannot reel the ball in at the second attempt.
Great coverage downfield by Dontae Johnson. He understood his responsibility, not allowing Lockett in behind him and used his body and the sideline to stay on top of the receiver.
Ward returned from injury to have an excellent game against the Seahawks, and will likely have a far more significant role this week with fellow safety Eric Reid looking unlikely to be available. With the flexibility of Tartt and Ward, they will be able to operate interchangeably going forward whilst Reid is unavailable and allow the 49ers to put them wherever matchups dictate.
The 49ers special teams (barring one miscued punt) did a good job on Sunday. Brad Pinion’s punting was impressive and the coverage units held up their end of the bargain, with one play from Adrian Colbert a notable standout. Kicker Robbie Gould kicked all three of his field goal attempts.
The 49ers’ rushing offense was all their offense at CenturyLink. Carlos Hyde had a huge game, including a career long 61 yard rush.
This was as much a result of his supporting cast as it was a great run by Hyde, as Joe Staley carved out a gaping hole and Kyle Juszczyk operated as a lead blocker, where he has excelled.
Hyde was nevertheless extremely productive and proved a difficult man for the Seahawks to drag down. He was effectively spelled by rookie back Matt Breida, who too demonstrated speed, elusiveness and power and was a thorn in the side of the Seahawks’ defense.
Excellent burst and explosiveness from Breida, who is instantly onto the second level and making people miss.
The 49ers will need to lean on their run game as much as possible if they are to have offensive success this season. In Breida and Hyde, they have two backs capable of carrying the load whilst they have an offensive line which looks reasonably capable as a pass blocking unit. Players such as Juszczyk and George Kittle will help to complement their offensive line as well.