This is the big one. The matchup we’ve all been waiting for. The undefeated San Francisco 49ers host the Seattle Seahawks in what could be the game that revives a rivalry. This game has plenty of implications for the NFC West and future playoff seeding. What do you think of when someone brings up the Seahawks? Russell Wilson. What do you think of when someone brings up the Niners? The defense. I’m joined by my buddy Griffin—who knows all about the Seahawks—to discuss the matchup on this side of the ball.
First, here are five key stats. This is as close as an offense has been to the 49ers defense this season.
When the Seahawks have the ball
The Seahawks have been trending away from being a club built on a dominant defense complemented by an explosive, ball-control offense for a few years now and now find themselves a stark inversion of the Carroll era’s reputation. It is now the Russell Wilson show as the offense, and thus, the collective team, in light of the defense’s struggles (bottom bin by DVOA and other measures), runs through him.
He is on pace for career highs in efficiency, touchdowns, and passing yards while being just behind his career-high pace in pass attempts per game. Despite this, there are some in the Seahawks blogosphere that would like to see Brian Schottenheimer dial-up more passes in earlier downs and neutral script scenarios. However, that wish was granted last week in Seattle’s match-up with Tampa Bay when they came out swinging early.
The pass game success is built off the back of Wilson’s connection with Tyler Lockett, who has been doing most of his damage as an explosive slot receiver, running the play-action deep over, sail floods, the boot-smash, and seams or slot-posts that could very well be a read based on the coverage shell. I’ve noticed that when teams make a point to cross bracket from single-high or seam match Tyler Lockett from two-shells to tighten the window on those routes, they haven’t been able to connect as often. Otherwise, Lockett eats up man coverage and finds the holes over the top of the linebackers with ease (though the 49er’s excellent linebacker crew will make this a very interesting battle).
The Saints, for example, schemed Lockett out of the game when they really wanted to. Seattle can survive such events though, even with the loss of their emerging second-year tight end, Will Dissly, to an Achilles tear, due to the ascending rookie DK Metcalf. Even through his general rookie struggles, and issues with optimizing his skillset, he has been wildly productive for Seattle, owning the routes that even the most critical draft projections conceded he could run. Recently, Seattle has been letting him run the deep and shallow cross too. A player that has gone under the radar, even among Seahawks fans, is TE Jacob Hollister. He had somewhat of a breakout game last week against the Bucs.
While the football community takes victory laps on Metcalf, I’m glad you mention the rookie struggles and his skillset. Seattle’s quarterback is the main reason for Metcalf’s success. The majority of plays he has made have been due to him running wide open in an offense. There are plenty of plays people ignore that highlight Metcalf’s weaknesses. That said, he’s made plays, and that’s all you can ask. I worry more about Lockett and wonder how much two-deep safety looks we will see from the 49ers defense. The Wilson to Locket connection has been dangerous for a few years now, and Lockett is catching 84% of his throws. It’s as efficient as it gets considering how often there are deep passes involved.
This will be a game where the 49ers safeties are tested deep. Against Seattle, there will be four or five plays a game where you may have to cover for five seconds as Wilson extends the play. That’s when it gets difficult as the Seahawk receivers seemingly always find an opening downfield for a big play.
With that said, Seattle hasn’t sniffed a defense as good as San Francisco’s. The 49ers have allowed the fewest explosive pass plays in the NFL. Opposing offenses have tried to test this unit deep, but Emmanuel Moseley has been fantastic at taking away routes down the field and preventing the ball from being thrown. Safeties Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt have done well working in tandem. Mike mentioned how the Saints took away, Lockett down the middle of the field. Defensive backs coach Joe Woods has brought zone and a man matching coverages to this defense, and, aside from adding talented players, that’s been the biggest reason for the 49ers’ success. Gone are the days of an offense lining up in trips and eating the throwback Cover-3 defense alive. Every route is accounted for, and when you have four players up front that can beat their man on any given play, that’s the formula for the best pass defense in the NFL.
However, all of this presupposes that Seattle’s pass protection can hold up. Against a front like San Francisco’s, I’m uncertain that they’ll be able to get into their deeper concepts. I’d characterize Seattle’s pass protection as “competent,” but they’re facing an elite rush this week. I name right tackle Germain Ifedi as Seattle’s X-factor for this game. His performance against Dee Ford might make or break Seattle’s ability to air it out just enough to keep pace.
Seattle is odd in that schematically they operate in two distinct pass offenses: the aforementioned deep play-action game (replete with a variety of drops—waggles, boot, sprint-out) and a quick game out of the gun that Wilson has taken to well this year as well (largely stick, spot, iso-slants, swing passes). Of course, this implies the absence of a robust intermediate game of which Schottenheimer doesn’t scheme for Wilson—which perhaps follows from Wilson’s limitations therein—he finds more success in short drops and deep drops, and less with the five-step game. And while the quick game ran smoother with Will Dissly in there, I expect Seattle to revert to it if they can’t hold off Buckner, Bosa, and Ford, as well run more shallow play-action concepts with moving pockets and platforms with creative pre-snap shifts and motions to get the underneath out positioned and slow down the 49er’s front.
All of this has been said without mentioning Seattle’s run game. While the team goes as Wilson goes (in the two games he hasn’t been more or less perfect, they’ve lost), Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer both believe in the schematic and philosophical value of a strong run game. Even though Tom Cable is gone, Seattle is still primarily a zone running team, but they have mixed in enough power, trap, and counter to break tendencies.
Before Will Dissly’s injury, they really worked the backside combo running zone-weak from gun-strong. Coupled with starting center Justin Britt’s season-ending injury, his replacement, Joey Hunt, being a smaller finesse oriented blocker, Chris Carson has generally looked to bounce more frontside when they call inside-zone, as well as wide-zone being called more often to accommodate their skillsets. With the documented use of the 9ers’ wider alignments up front, I expect Seattle to try to work inside more often nonetheless, but implement more pin-and-fold and trap concepts so that Hunt isn’t left with trying to get the nose tackle moving on his own merits.
Ultimately, I expect Seattle’s offense to come out with a commitment to the run game and see if they can’t get gain hard-earned yardage while bending San Francisco’s defense enough to get their explosives in the air running eventually.
How Dre Greenlaw reacts to the different play-action routes will be imperative for the success of the defense. Fred Warner has been sensational at taking away routes this season, as was Kwon Alexander. This will be new territory for Greenlaw. Watch Greenlaw’s eye discipline throughout the game to see if he’s being caught out of place.
Griffin forgot to mention one of if not the best player on the defense this season, Arik Armstead. The addition of the Wide-9 has allowed Armstead to play defensive end from a defensive tackle spot. Look at the spacing on this play:
Arik Armstead has finally found his home...an edge rusher that doesn't attack the edge. pic.twitter.com/DDdpur76AB— Thomas Frank J. Carr (@ThomasFrankCarr) November 6, 2019
When teams spread the ball out, they’re playing right into the hands of the 49ers. Seattle is doing San Francisco a favor every time they come out in 11 personnel. The way the Niners slant and twist upfront has caused all types of chaos for offenses this year. The defense beats you on first and second down, which puts the offense in third and long, and you don’t stand much of a chance then.
We’ve gotten this far without mentioning the Seahawks running game, which tells you how well Wilson has played this season. Arizona had much success on gap/power schemes against the Niners last Thursday night. The Cardinals ran five gap/power runs for 56 yards. They also ran 13 screens/draw plays/zone reads against the 49ers for 117 yards. Another screen was called back that gained 16 yards. Especially with losing their center, the Seahawks are worse upfront than Arizona. D.J. Jones had a great game last week, and, in general, San Francisco has stopped the run this year by one of their 11 good players making a play. It’s that simple. Their players are better than the opposition, and whether it’s DeForest Buckner slanting, or Armstead tossing his man out of the way, or Nick Bosa knifing in from the edge, the defensive line always comes up with a play.
Tackling Carson could be troublesome. The 49ers were sloppy against Arizona, missing a staggering 17 tackles that game. That could be due to a short week, but there will be no excuses Monday night. No running back has broken more tackles than Carson this season. Football Outsiders has him with nine more broken tackles than Dalvin Cook, who is in second place. Carson has 11 fewer touches than the Vikings runner. Carson runs tough, and it will take a team effort to bring him down.
You don’t find too many matchups like this in a season. The most efficient passing offense in the NFL meets a pass defense that is as stingy as it gets. The Seahawks will have success on the ground and likely hit a big play or two through the air. There hasn’t been a team that could block San Francisco for four quarters, and that team sure isn’t Seattle. The 49ers are going to bend, but they can’t break. The Seahawks are the fourth-best team in the red zone. The 49ers are first. Seattle’s kicker has struggled this season. Jason Myers is 3 for eight on field goals beyond 40 yards this season.
Win on early downs, keep Seattle out of the red zone, sack Wilson three or more times, and win the game. The Seahawks have a good offense; there is no denying that. The 49ers have a great defense. As always, it’s a matchup game. Seattle thrives on big plays, which is something San Francisco doesn’t allow. The defensive line should have its way up front. Wrapping up Carson and Wilson will be a must. If they do that, the home team should not only win but cover the six points. They’re the better team.