The 49ers' defense during their winning streak has been nothing short of spectacular. Their greatness has spoiled us, and it feels like some are taking what’s happening for granted.
Let’s preview the best matchup in the game and arguably this week in the NFL: The Seahawks' offense against the 49ers' defense.
Teams are cognizant of the 49ers' ferocious pass rush. Defensive line coach Kris Kocurek has turned Charles Omenihu into a borderline star, and nobody is talking about it. Here’s a look at the win percentage leaders among all edge rushers in the NFL who have played at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, per PFF:
1) Myles Garrett - Browns - 25.8%
2) Nick Bosa - 49ers - 23.3%
3) Za’Darius Smith - Vikings - 22.7%
4) Micah Parsons - Cowboys -22%
5) Charles Omenihu - 49ers - 21.5%
On Bosa’s near sack of Tom Brady last week, it was Omenihu who got to the quarterback first. I’m not saying Omenihu is the next Bosa. Nobody is. But he’s been one of the most consistent pass rushers in the league, which will come in handy against a Seattle offense that starts two rookie offensive tackles.
The 49ers welcomed Arik Armstead back to the lineup in Week 13 against the Dolphins. He only played 21 snaps after missing the previous two months but saw that number rise to 51 snaps against Tampa Bay last week.
The 49ers have primarily used Armstead as a designated pass rusher since his return, as 58 of his 72 snaps have been as a pass rusher. Armstead has two quarterback hits and four other pressures since coming back:
The Niners come at you in waves with pass rushers, and they are all athletes. But Armstead is the glue guy that makes it all work. Against a potent Seahawks passing attack, the defensive line must continue to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage.
This has to be an area where the 49ers control the game. Since Week 10, Seattle’s rookie tackles Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas have surrendered the eighth and 18th most pressures among all tackles. In addition, Lucas has given up the most quarterback hits, including a pair of sacks during that stretch.
For the remainder of the season, we should rely on trending metrics as opposed to season-long metrics. It wipes away the stinker that was the 49ers' Week 3 offense or the second-half massacre in Week 7 defensively.
The point is that these teams aren’t the same stylistically or personnel-wise as they were in October. Since Week 10, the 49ers' defense has been first in expected points added per play allowed, second in success rate, and first in dropback EPA and success rate. Their defensive DVOA during the same stretch is 17 percentage points better than second place.
DeMeco Ryans has opposing offenses in a chokehold. They are first in pass defense DVOA (schedule-adjusted efficiency) by more than double the second-place team and fourth in rushing DVOA.
You won’t confuse Arizona, Tampa Bay, or New Orleans for a high-octane offense, but each of those teams has weapons. And Justin Herbert is one of the better quarterbacks in the NFL, while Miami is a track team with two top-10 receivers. San Francisco shut both opponents down.
Give it up for Geno
After Patrick Mahomes and Herbert, this will be the best quarterback the 49ers have faced this season. While it may seem like the early season Geno Smith magic has worn off, the Seahawks are ninth in DVOA since Week 10 through the air.
No quarterback has a higher success rate since Week 10 than Geno Smith, who is also fifth in the NFL in completion percentage over expectation during that stretch. And it’s not as if the Seahawks are checking the ball down. Smith averages 8.4 air yards attempt, which dwarfs Jimmy Garoppolo (6.0) and Brock Purdy (5.6).
Now, Seattle’s rushing attack is non-existent, so Smith hasn’t had much of a choice to do the heavy lifting. But he has and should get credit.According to Sports Info Solutions this season, onlyy four quarterbacks have earned more passing pointn than Geno, who is also fourth in on-target percentage at an incredible 80.5 percent.
Smith has thrown at least two touchdown passes in 11 out of 13 games. The two games he didn’t came against a familiar foe, the 49ers, and the Cardinals. He’s thrown three touchdown passes three times all season, including in each of the past two games.
Where Seattle can hurt the 49ers
Not many teams are equipped to move the ball on the 49ers' defense, let alone score. The recipe seems to be play-action shots or hope that there is a miscommunication on the back end.
Despite the Niners' dominance, they’ve given up a big play a couple of times a game and have been fortunate it hasn’t been more. The 49ers' defense has allowed a 30-yard reception in ten games this year. They also allowed a 27-yarder in another.
On the season, Seattle is third in explosive passing play percentage, while San Francisco is 17th. I talk about the gift and curse of Talanoa Hufanga’s recognition at the 7:28 mark below:
Hufanga said he needed to be “lactose intolerant” and not take the cheese from the offense after allowing a long touchdown against the Dolphins. During the play above, Hufanga recognizes what the Bucs want to do but realizes it too late, and that’s how you get Mike Evans running wide-open down the field.
If there’s not a coverage bust, you better hope for a precise, pinpoint throw like this one:
As a defense, you can live with those throws, as they are not sustainable. There’s a reason the 49ers are number one in the NFL in points per drive.
But if there is a team equipped to challenge the 49ers' defense down the field, it’s Seattle. Geno is one of the best seam throwers in the NFL. We’ve seen opposing offenses attempt to isolate Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson 1-on-1 in coverage.
Tyler Lockett has a reception of over 20 yards in all but three games. DK Metcalf is a walking big play. But you know which Seattle receiver I think can give the Niners issues? Don’t laugh, but Marquise Goodwin. He had six targets for 95 yards last week. Speed is the ultimate equalizer, and Goodwin can still run. However, his big-play ability is concerning.
Stick to the script
The easy answer to stopping the Seahawks' passing game is to pressure Smith. There isn’t a quarterback in the league that you’d qualify as “good” under pressure. Since Week 10, Smith is completing 48 percent of his passes under pressure with three interceptions on 46 dropbacks and has been sacked ten times. That’s the recipe.
The 49ers have the matchup advantage in the trenches and speed at the second level to cover ground in the passing game. This season, Geno has struggled against two specific coverages: Cover 3 and Cover 0.
Total dropback EPA by coverage ID (via TruMedia/PFF) pic.twitter.com/WRiVFbcfrG— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) December 15, 2022
The 49ers are a quarters (Cover 4) team, but they play Cover 3 at the next highest rate, according to Sports Info Solutions:
C0: 3 passing attempts, 0.14 EPA/play
C1: 70 attempts, 0.10 EPA/play
C2: 73 attempts, -0.31 EPA/play
C3: 92 attempts, -0.02 EPA/play
C4: 110 attempts, -0.37 EPA/play(2nd in NFL)
C6: 26 attempts, 0.12 EPA/play
Look at all of those negative numbers. No matter how you slice it, the 49ers beat the you-know-what out of their opponent no matter which coverage they play. Ryans has relied heavily on Cover 1 to blitz on third downs. We’ll see if that turns into Cover 0 tonight, but I doubt he will deviate, given the success he’s had all season.
Stick to the script, win upfront, don’t have any miscommunications, and win the game.