When the 49ers and the Seahawks meet for the first time this season, a long-running streak will come to an end. Either for the first time in the Carroll/Wilson era, the pair will lose three straight games, or for the first time in the Shanahan/Garoppolo era, the duo will lose back-to-back games. Needless to say, beyond just staying in the NFC West race, a lot is at stake this Sunday for both teams.
Right now, these teams have played like they deserve to be looking up at the top of the division and need to turn things on in a hurry if they want to change that. Each has big issues, the cornerback position being one they share that the other will try their best to exploit.
Can the 49ers’ struggling run game come alive against a D allowing 100+ yards per game on average? Can the Seahawks’ pass-happy offense pick apart a shoddy secondary filled with rookies and free agents off the street? There’s only one way to find out, and that’s tuning in at kickoff.
But, before that, I asked Mookie Alexander of Fieldgulls about what we can expect to see from Seattle, and he came back to us with some thoughtful answers. If you’re curious, you can read my responses to his questions here.
1.) Obviously, this season hasn’t started how the Seahawks would’ve wanted, going 1-2, after having been up, at least, two scores in each game. If you had to pin the blame on something for those losses; a positional group, a coach, a player, a combination of those, what would it be?
Most of the blame falls on the defense. It’s atrocious, and the only “good” showing they’ve produced was against a Colts team that is pretty much toast already. Subtracting kneel-downs, the Seahawks’ last 20 defensive possessions have resulted in 13 scores (6 touchdowns, seven field goals) and only four punts. They were abysmal in the 2nd half against the Titans and the entire game against the Vikings. They may have only allowed nine 2nd half points vs. Minnesota, but all of those drives took an eternity, and it felt like every 3rd down was being converted until they got into the red zone.
The offense has to take some responsibility for their struggles to score in the 2nd half. They’ve only mustered two 2nd half touchdowns through three games, and one was on one of the worst busted coverages ever by the Titans secondary. As of now, this is a boom or bust unit — if it’s not a score, it’s a punt. And when the scoring dries up, they end up not sustaining any drives for more than five plays.
But my main focus is on the defense. Ken Norton Jr has deserved every bit of criticism for the poor start to the season. They look clueless, matching up their assignments, and perhaps the worst part beyond how bad the pass coverage has been is that the run defense has broken in consecutive games. Derrick Henry is Derrick Henry, so you live with that, but Alexander Mattison’s two career 100-yard rushing performances have both come against the Seahawks. Norton looks outmatched schematically, and it looks very much like last season’s surge was exactly what we feared: a mirage based off of playing a lot of bad quarterbacks. I acknowledge this roster is not as good as the Legion of Boom days, but Norton isn’t getting the best out of them, and I am convinced he needs to be gone. Whether Carroll will fire his buddy midseason remains to be seen, but I doubt it.
2.) With Russell Wilson at 32 years old, have you observed a drop-off in his mobility? Obviously, he’s most dangerous while extending plays in the pocket to uncork a moonball, but has evading the rush and scrambling downfield become less a part of his game? (Inquiring minds, all 49er fans, want to know.)
Oh, this has been a topic of mine for a while. I think Wilson is already in physical decline. His arm is still outstanding, but the legs are not much of a weapon like they used to be. I have to think years of getting beaten up plus being a little bit heavier than his early days have played a role. 49ers fans know all too well what a magician Wilson has been at extending plays and turning would-be sacks into amazing plays, but I think that’s taken a back seat. His days as a designed runner are all but done — last year, he had just seven designed runs, and one of them was a sneak — and for good reason... dude is just not very fast anymore. Teams don’t respect any read-option stuff when he’s involved.
That’s why it’s a great thing he’s become a more disciplined pocket passer because now he’s thriving without having to rely on so much off-script stuff. He’s still one of the best QBs because of his pure passing ability, but it’s different from when he was one of the best because he was such a dual-threat. This isn’t to say Wilson is immobile, but when you look at most of the starters in the league, I’d say Wilson is now closer to league average than he is the top of the league.
Now with all of that said, Wilson can still extend plays, and he’s still lethal when throwing outside of the pocket. He’s not completely incapable of avoiding oncoming pass rushers, but when he does scramble to run, it is almost out of reluctance, and he needs to have the red sea part or for Seattle to be in desperation mode for him to activate that part of his game. For the most part, throughout his career, he’s kept his eyes downfield to throw first and then run later in scramble situations. Now it’s heavily tilted towards throwing (or throwing away). The mobility is still there, but it’s nowhere near what it used to be. In other words, that 2012 play where he kept avoiding Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith and scrambling for the world’s longest 6-yard run? That Wilson is gone.
3.) How would you characterize DK Metcalf’s further development this season? We all can see he’s an unbelievable physical specimen, but has he become more refined at the receiver position? Do you think he’s seen a big enough share of the targets to this point?
Metcalf has had somewhat of an odd start to the season. He had no targets in the 1st half against the Colts but then sprung to life in the 2nd half and finished with four catches for 60 yards and a touchdown. Against the Titans, he had six catches but just 53 yards, and his depth of target was incredibly short given his strengths as a deep and intermediate threat. Against the Vikings, he looked more like the Metcalf we’re used to seeing with six catches for 107 yards and a touchdown, and Shane Waldron did a good job getting him out in space where he’s always a threat. The quiet 2nd half really was down to the offense barely being on the field while the defense spent hours out there.
He’s shown himself to be a better route runner than he’s given credit for, and I love that he hasn’t had any issues with drops, but he’s really gotta cut out the penalties and be better at contested catches. Too often, when a DB makes a good challenge, he will not bring the ball down. Between that and timing his jumps on high passes down the field, those are the two biggest things he has to improve on. But otherwise he’s been as good as advertised and then some, and I expect that he’ll really ramp up his productivity in the weeks to come. He strikes me as someone who always strives to be better, and I can see him continuing his upward progression this season, even if his start hasn’t been red-hot compared to that of Tyler Lockett.
4.) Do you get the sense there’s a growing animosity between Russell Wilson and Pete Carroll? The two have sniped at each other in the past, even as recently as a couple weeks ago when Carroll said in an interview that he wishes Wilson had thrown a check down in overtime instead of going for a deep shot. Do you see their conflicting views on how the offense should run coming to a head anytime soon, and if so, how would that play out?
Animosity? No. Healthy uh... disagreements? I suppose so. Wilson has become the main voice of the team now that the whole Legion of Boom is gone, and his overall public stature has grown considerably. It’s only logical for him, the franchise quarterback with a gigantic contract, to want more say in how the offense operates. I think a lot of the offseason drama heading into this year was overblown, but I definitely believe Carroll and Wilson have philosophical differences on what the offense should look like. Carroll obliged and did the “Let Russ Cook” offense, and the team was pass-first by choice. It ended with them passing less often (and given the diminishing efficiency against better defenses, I don’t see this as egregious) and firing Brian Schottenheimer.
Shane Waldron getting the OC job came with Wilson’s input, and frankly, I see it as satisfying both Carroll’s want of more running game involvement and Russell getting someone who’s been an assistant to Sean McVay, who’s considered one of the bright and modern offensive minds in the NFL right now. In theory, he should maximize Wilson’s strengths through heavy play-action use and going more uptempo from time to time. It’s too early to make an assessment of Waldron as OC, considering they’ve barely run any plays, but the hard stalling out of non-scoring drives is concerning.
The problem I see for Carroll is he’s really never been someone who particularly likes to have so much of the team’s success pinned on its quarterback. That “balance” he wants is having great offense, great defense, and great special teams, but they haven’t had all three of those things in six years. So now that there’s an imbalance and the team has to rely more on Wilson, whom I believe embraces that challenge, it’s going against what Pete wants. That Carroll still trusts his terrible defenses to get stops over his quarterback to get a couple of yards on 4th down tells you all you need to know.
I think it’d take a very poor year --- so under .500 and comfortably last in the division with a fully healthy Wilson — for there to be a major shake-up between Carroll and Wilson. But you get the sense that this is not a relationship that is destined to last much longer. If you gave Seahawks fans the choice between Pete or Wilson, they’d take Russ in an overwhelming majority... whether that’s what we will actually get remains to be seen. 2021 was billed as such an important season, and it’s been a stumble out of the blocks.
5.) To echo your final question, the NFC West looks to be an absolute gauntlet this season. Where do you see the Seahawks' chances of winning the division given their start? Do you think they can bounce back, and make a run for it, or does a wild card berth feel more likely?
Wild card was my preseason prediction, and it really looks like with the way the Rams are playing, this is going to be the Seahawks’ ceiling for the regular season. There’s still a lot of football left, but I said this before the season started in our staff predictions:
“This cornerback situation is terrifying, and it may be the team’s undoing when it comes to being championship contenders [...] the defense is going to be picked on often if they cannot generate a consistent pass rush, at which point it’s open season on the outside.”
That’s exactly what we’re seeing right now, and unlike last year, the defense isn’t generating turnovers to set up short fields for the offense. The offense also isn’t scoring at prolific rates to turn those close games into wins. I believe they’ll get out of this current funk, but this really just is not a great team. They’ll be good enough to make the playoffs, but beyond that, I’m not optimistic that they have a spirited postseason run in them.