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49ers vs. Seahawks Roster Preview: A Bitter Thanksgiving Affair

Another chapter in the historic rivalry will be written - in scarlet and gold - on Thursday night.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Short week. Thursday night. In Seattle. Thanksgiving. Nothing new, buckle up for another high-stakes, rivalry game in enemy territory.

SF O SKILL (QB/WR) VS. SEA SECONDARY

Advantage: SF

In the two meetings between these teams that Brock Purdy started last season, the 49ers quarterback threw for 549 yards, five touchdowns, and zero interceptions on 62.5% completion and 9.8 yards per attempt. The Seahawks are dealing with some injuries on the back-end of a league-average secondary that the 49ers can take advantage of.

The Seahawks did add cornerback Devon Witherspoon with their first pick in the 2023 NFL draft, and it has paid dividends. Witherspoon is the sixth-highest graded corner in the league in PFF grade (min. 100 snaps). Seattle plays zone coverage at the third-highest rate, and Witherspoon fits that scheme perfectly.

He’s very instinctual and showcases the awareness, decision-making, and change of direction to diagnose route concepts, shadow and pass off receivers as the play develops. Not to mention, he will absolutely lay the wood.

Witherspoon splits time (almost 50/50) between nickel and corner. When he lines up in the slot, Riq Woolen (LPP - shoulder) and Tre Brown (LPP - foot) have handled the outside duties. They’re solid in coverage and tied for the team lead in interceptions. Purdy’s first outing in Seattle he barely challenged the Seahawks cornerbacks.

But in the wild card matchup, with an active Deebo Samuel, the Niners star receiving duo combined for nine catches, 206 yards, and one touchdown on 14 targets. Safe to say, Shanahan knows how to attack Pete Carroll’s zone-heavy looks and Purdy has the experience and knowledge to carve them up like a turkey.

SF O COMBO (RB/TE) vs SEA 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

Seattle utilizes three safeties as much as any other team in the league and deploys their trio of defensive backs in various ways. Quandre Diggs has made the pro bowl the last three seasons and has 15 interceptions since the start of 2020, the 5th-highest mark in that span.

But he’s experiencing a bit of a down-year, and his age (9th season) could be catching up to him. He’s allowing the highest completion percentage, highest passer rating, and missing tackles at the highest rate over his last four seasons.

With Diggs as the deep free safety, we will see plenty of Julian Love and prized trade acquisition, Jamal Adams, as his running mates. Both players spend most of their snaps in the box or as a slot defender. Adams missed their last game with knee pain and there’s some question about his availability for Thursday.

Even if Adams does play, there are plenty of mismatches to be had against this combo group in the passing game. Adams, Love, and the Seahawks starting linebackers, Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, are all allowing over 75% of passes completed as the primary defender in coverage.

Wagner is still one of the better run defenders in the league, but his days as a dominant cover linebacker are behind him. Brooks has been a liability dropping back against the pass since getting drafted in the first round, but to his credit, has not given up a touchdown yet this season. Kittle and McCaffrey have great odds of changing that.

SF O LINE vs. SEA D LINE

Advantage: SF

Although I have my concerns about the Niners offensive line (mostly in pass protection - see below), the Seattle defensive line isn’t as worrisome as other opponents San Francisco has or will have faced. Even with injuries to Aaron Banks and Spencer Burford, the 49ers group up front can still get a push against this week’s opponent.

ESPN analytics actually measures the Seahawks unit as top ten in both pass rush and run stop win rates. It isn’t that Seattle doesn’t have any good players, they just aren’t up to the level of mismatch nightmares San Francisco has already seen - they don’t have a Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons, TJ Watt, etc.

And the proof that this defense is susceptible against the run is available - only six teams have given up more rushing touchdowns than Seattle in 2023.

In their three contests last year, Seattle brought down San Francisco’s quarterbacks only three total times. Second year pro Boye Mafe claimed one of those (on Jimmy G in week two) and has developed into a good edge rusher, ranking 7th in pass rush win rate. His seven sacks and 34 pressures lead the team.

But there hasn’t been much of an impact from the opposite edge spot, where former second rounders Darrell Taylor and Uchenna Nwosu have combined for five sacks. Neither player has cracked 65.0 PFF pass rush grade in 2023.

The Seahawks front office made it clear from their trade for Leonard Williams that they are discontent with the production of the interior defensive line group. Free agent signee Dre’Mont Jones and Jarran Reed have always been decent starters but not game-changers.

And Williams isn’t playing at the same pro-bowl caliber level he was a few years ago in New York. It’s been a down year for the interior Niners offensive line, and there is some injury concern on a short week. But I think there is enough history to suggest the San Francisco offense continues to chug along.

SEA O LINE vs. SF D LINE

Advantage: SF

In the two games after the bye week, San Francisco’s defensive line has been lights out. They had 9 combined sacks in those contests. Their season total is about middle of the road in the NFL, but there are plenty of positive signs that they will finish the year closer to the top ten with their recent production.

San Francisco still owns PFF’s highest team pass rush grade and ESPN rates their 50% pass rush win rate as 5th best in the league. We are entering “can’t compete” territory in this matchup tier.

Seattle’s offensive line has been solid despite constant injury concerns. Last year’s rookie tackle tandem of Charles Cross (toe) and Abraham Lucas (knee) got hurt in the season opener, but are in line to start for this week’s matchup.

Cross has been back since Week 6, but this will be Lucas’ first action since their week 1 loss to the Rams. Taken with their first pick in 2022, Cross (Mississippi State) has developed into a formidable pass protector for the quarterback’s blindside.

On the inside, Evan Brown is the new center and has been the most reliable starter this season, but even he has missed a pair of games. Left guard Damien Lewis has the second most snaps played in the group.

The right guard position has been more of a swinging door, with starter Phil Haynes, who has missed time with a calf injury, and rookie backup Anthony Bradford (knee, ankle) basically splitting time between their health issues. This should be an excellent week for the San Francisco front four to dominate against a banged up unit.

SEA O COMBO vs. SF 2ND LEVEL DEFENDERS

Advantage: SF

Seattle passes the ball at the sixth-highest rate in the league, just over 60 percent of their offensive calls resulting in dropbacks. But only five teams target their tight ends less and seven teams target their running backs less than the Seahawks. The passing game goes through their receivers, but they do have some talented combo players.

https://rbsdm.com/stats/pass_freq/

Tight End Noah Fant is a former first-rounder who is second on the team in yards per catch and big play catches (over 20+ yard receptions). In the three games with San Francisco last year he only managed 10 total targets, one of which went for a 10-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter of the December Thursday night contest.

There will be plenty of two-and-three tight end sets from Seattle featuring Colby Parkinson and Will Dissly, neither posing much of a threat to the Niners linebackers or safeties.

Despite running less than in years past, Seattle has shown they can move the ball efficiently on the ground at times. Starting RB Kenneth Walker III is dealing with an oblique injury, however, and his status for the game is uncertain. Walker is 11th in the league in rushing yards. Behind him is rookie Zach Charbonnet (UCLA) who has converted almost 50% of his carries into first downs.

SEA O SKILL vs. SF SECONDARY

Advantage: SF

Two injuries loom large over this matchup. The first is the loss of Talanoa Hufanga for the 49ers. Hufanga isn’t putting up the stats he did in his all-pro 2022 season, but his impact (and now loss) is felt in every game. He seems to always be in the right spot for a tipped pass or forced turnover. Ji’Ayir Brown came up with his first takeaway as a pro in Hufanga’s absence last week and there are plenty of expectations now resting upon Brown’s shoulders to help a surging secondary.

The second is Seattle Quarterback Geno Smith, who left the Rams game with an elbow injury to his throwing arm. All signs point to Smith strapping it up on Thanksgiving, but with a short week to rest, there has to be some concerns with soreness that could affect the Seahawks passing game. Smith has shown some regression after ranking fourth in the league with 30 touchdown passes a year ago. His completion percentage and yards per attempt have dropped as well.

San Francisco has to be confident they can win this matchup even without Hufanga. Last year Smith had only three touchdowns and two interceptions in his three contests with the Niners. This year, it feels like Seattle’s vertical passing game has been less successful, even with the addition of rookie first-rounder Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

The trio of Smith-Njigba, Tyler Lockett, and DK Metcalf (also questionable with a toe injury) is still a challenge for defenses. Metcalf especially had a big Wild Card game a year ago, hauling in 10 catches for 136 yards and 2 touchdowns. But the Niners have seemingly figured out the adjustments to their secondary woes, and should match up well in conjunction with the pass rush.

It feels like this game could be close - it almost always is in this divisional rivalry. But the various health concerns on Seattle’s roster could make the difference on Thanksgiving Day. The 49ers hold plenty of advantages, and a win this week would make clinching the NFC West much easier.