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What to expect when the 49ers are on defense: Seattle will have trouble in the trenches

In a game that’s defined by matchups, the Niners have multiple advantages on this side of the ball

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Football is a game of matchups. Not many teams have gotten over on the 49ers on either side of the ball this season. The ones that did had Patrick Mahomes on the roster, caught a 50/50 ball down the field, or had Josh Jacobs/Darren Waller/Davante Adams.

We’ve seen the Niners face the Seahawks twice this season, with both games coming under different circumstances. First, Seattle briefly saw Trey Lance, then faced Jimmy Garoppolo for most of the game before Brock Purdy came to town in Week 15.

Both teams were close to full strength, albeit Jimmy had to enter the game on the fly, in Week 2. San Francisco had two interceptions, erased any idea of the Seahawks having an offense, and won by 20 points despite Garoppolo only throwing for 154 yards. The matchup in Seattle finished with a 21-13 score, but it was a two-possession game until 3:35 remaining.

Unsurprisingly, each game flipped on turnovers. Seattle elected to call a halfback pass in the red zone in Week 2. In the last game, Seahawks’ safety Quandre Diggs had a pass hit him in the numbers around mid-field, but he couldn’t hold on. Those two plays cost Seattle a chance at being competitive.

Will it be any different the third time? Today, we’ll focus on what we can expect when the 49ers are on defense.

Greedy Geno?

We have to start with the quarterback when talking about Seattle’s offense.

Geno Smith’s interception percentage of 1.9, the same number as Mahomes, would lead you to believe the Seahawks’ quarterback has taken care of the ball this season. But Smith has the third-highest turnover-worthy throw percentage in the NFL.

Against the Rams in Week 18, Geno was fortunate to avoid a pick-six. In Week 2, Talanoa Hufanga nearly intercepted Smith in the second quarter, and Geno had a dropped pick in the red zone that led to Seattle’s scoring.

Geno has come back down to earth during the past five games despite having a breakout season. According to Next Gen Stats, Smith earned a league-low passing score during the previous five games after being second through Weeks 1-13.

Smith has missed routine throws he made during the first half of the season, sometimes resulting in a disastrous turnover for Seattle. San Francisco’s pressure looks could lead to more of the same.

Looking for Lockett

But that doesn’t mean Smith and the Seahawks cannot threaten or hurt the 49ers' defense. The one matchup where Seattle has the advantage is down the field. Geno is all-world when it comes to accuracy down the field. He threw a perfect pass to Tyler Lockett last week that few quarterbacks would attempt, let alone complete.

Smith threw a league-high 13 touchdowns on deep passes this season. Twenty of his 30 touchdowns were targeting vertical routes, and 2s were over ten air yards, which was tied for the most since 2016.

Lockett and DK Metcalf make up one of the better wide receiver duos in the NFL. And we know the 49ers' weak point of their defense is defending the seams and outside the numbers. Lockett’s +7.4 “receptions over expected” outside of the numbers led the NFL, while Metcalf was sixth.

Charvarius Ward has the size, speed, and physicality to keep Metcalf out of the box score. Ward excels against linear athletes like Metcalf. In Week 15, Ward aligned across from Metcalf on 71 percent of his routes before he left the game. Mooney limited Metcalf to four receptions for 33 yards and forced three tight window throws on six targets.

Lockett was targeted 20 times in two games against the 49ers and had 175 receiving yards. He’s one of the most challenging receivers to slow down in the NFL. Deommodore Lenoir has a target on his back the minute he steps onto the field.

To his credit, Lenoir has been in position and played better than the numbers would suggest. For example, he allowed each of his three targets against Lockett to be caught for 39 yards and a first down, but one of those was 19 yards, which ignores the 30-40 other routes he wasn’t targeted.

It’s simple. Can Lenoir make a play on the ball and bring his man to the ground? Since Week 13, he’s allowed 65 percent of his targets to be completed for an average of 11.9 yards. The issue isn’t just making plays on the ball; it’s tackling. Only two cornerbacks have allowed more yards after the catch during that same stretch.

Lenoir is an excellent run defender and has proven to contest most throws under 20 yards, but he’ll be challenged down the field Sunday. The 49ers have the seventh-worst EPA per dropback this season on deep passes. That’s this defense’s Achilles heel.

Due to a few bad plays, some are making Talanoa Hufanga out to be an overrated player. I’m here to tell you that All-Pro earned his recognition. Hufanga is the exact type of player to force Geno into a turnover. Hufanga generated almost half as many pass breakups (9) as receptions allowed (23) on 40 targets.

He was second among all safeties in receptions over expected. Then, once you factor in Hufanga’s prowess for making plays around the line of scrimmage, it’s easy to see him looking more like an All-Pro than we’ve seen during the past month in the playoffs.

Trouble in the trenches

When Geno isn’t playing the 49ers, he’s among the league leaders in yards per attempt at 7.7. However, that number dips nearly two yards against the Niners as Smith averaged 5.9 yards per attempt in two games. Furthermore, his average passing distance plummets by 3.4 yards against San Francisco.

What do those numbers tell us? Seattle cannot block the 49ers' defensive line. As a result, the Seahawks are 30th in adjusted line yards and have the seventh-highest adjusted sack rate in the NFL.

The Seahawks recorded a season-low -12 rushing yards before contact during the first matchup. Samson Ebukam and Nick Bosa had six pressures in the second matchup, while Arik Armstead added four. Charles Omenihu added three quarterback hits in two games against Seattle this season.

Seattle drafted Charles Cross with the 9th overall pick in last year’s draft. Cross has star potential, but his play has faltered down the stretch. His worst game? You guessed it, Week 15, where Cross allowed his second-worst blown block percentage of the season to go along with a sack and a quarterback hit.

Rookie right tackle Abraham Lucas missed Week 17 but has also struggled since Week 12. Lucas has surrendered five sacks and five quarterback hits during that time, despite missing a game.

Unfortunately for the Seahawks, they are worse when running the ball. Since Week 10, the Seahawks' offense has the seventh-worst rushing EPA per play and success rate. They aren’t generating a push, and it’s making them one-dimensional.

The type of runs where Kenneth Walker could generate a big play, gap runs, rely on offensive linemen on the move. The 49ers are fast enough to beat you to the spot and smart enough not to fall for the misdirection. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw are incredible at pressing the line of scrimmage, leveraging their gaps, and triggering on the ball carrier once he has nowhere to run.

Seattle struggled when they stepped up in class

When you look at Seattle’s schedule, there are five games that stand out as “step up in class” games with a motivational factor. They played the best defenses in Weeks 1 and 2, against the Broncos and 49ers, Week 10 against the Bucs, the Niners again in Week 15, and a Week 17 matchup against the Jets.

On early downs through the first three quarters, the Seahawks were 30th in EPA per play (-.18) during the season's first two weeks. They were in the negatives again in Week 10 (-0.2). Somehow, it worsened in Week 15 (-.39) and led to the lowest offensive output of the week. Finally, they were slightly below average against the Jets (-.01) after getting the running game going and capitalizing on a poor outing from Mike White.

The 49ers' front-7 against the Seahawks offensive line is one of the bigger mismatches in the first round of the playoffs. San Francisco comes at you in waves. They’ve gotten contributions from every defensive lineman that’s dressed during the past month. There is an embarrassment of riches up front for the Niners. To say “they play with their hair on fire” is doing their aggressive style of play a disservice.

The 49ers are among, if not the best, tackling teams in the NFL. They do not make mistakes. And they are faster than you. When you are bigger, stronger, faster, and more sound than your opponent, you get the results we’ve seen from the Niners this year.

Points per drive? First. EPA per play? First. Success rate? Second. Adjusted line yards? Second. Takeaways per game? Second. Here’s what each of those categories means. You don’t score, consistently get big plays or move the ball, push their defensive line around, and usually turn the ball over.

Other than that, you’ll have the time of your life against DeMeco Ryans for four quarters.

How Seattle can score

The 49ers allowed the fewest rushing yards over expectation this season (-159) by more than 100 yards of what second place produced, per Next Gen Stats. They’ve been historically good against the run.

Walker is the big-play rookie at running back, with speed to burn. Walker has 17 carries this season over 15 yards, tied for third in the NFL, despite Walker having nearly 100 fewer carries than two of the players ahead of him.

Walker also has the second most carries in which he reaches at least 15 miles per hour. He can scoot, and the 49ers' speed defensively will be tested. Thankfully, their discipline will not. While Walker has a knack for the big gain, he has plenty of boom or bust to him. Sometimes, Walker tries to do too much and not take what is there.

From Week 8 on, Walker had the lowest rushing yards over expectation in the NFL, which highlights how he’s more of an all-or-nothing type of back. Still, big plays are how you beat a top-level defense, and Walker is an explosive play waiting to happen.

Lastly, the threat of the quarterback run. It’ll be rainy, and we know Ryans loves running pressure looks in front of man coverage on obvious passing downs. Smith only had one carry in Week 15, but it went for 18 yards. He rushed for 51 yards against the Rams last week, including a 25-yarder.

On the season, Geno has five games where he rushed for more than 25 yards. If we are to believe Seattle is playing with house money, then you’d expect them to rely on Geno’s legs more than they did in the previous two matchups.

Because if it isn’t via the big play or a quarterback scramble, where are the points coming from? The 49ers lead the NFL at defending short passes. They have too much speed at the second level for opposing offenses to get away with screen passes. That’s an area where Seattle struggles anyway, only gaining 2.9 yards on screen attempts.

Warner and Dre Greenlaw shrink the field with their athleticism. Greenlaw was fourth in the NFL among all linebackers in defensive stop rate. Warner’s range is comical. He’s allowed the lowest completion percentage and receptions over expected since he came into the league in 2018.

Add in the 49ers are a predominant zone team (33.5 percent of the time they run a variation of Cover 3, and 22 percent of the time they run a Cover 4 variant) against a quarterback that was sacked the second most this season against zone coverage, and the path to success and points aren’t easy to envision for Seattle.

A torrential downpour will not favor the team that struggles to run the ball and looks to throw it down the field. Saturday will be a race to 21. The matchup and style of play suggest the Seahawks will be fortunate to reach 13.