The Seahawks' 2015 issues are legion and obvious—the two-time defending NFC champs have blown a host of fourth-quarter leads behind an impacted passing game, a horrid offensive line, a stop-and-start rushing attack, and a defense that had been playing in an uncharacteristically tentative fashion. Losing 24-7 and 20-7 leads to the Bengals and Panthers over the last two weeks had Pete Carroll's team doubting itself , and, at 2-4, left many wondering if this team would even make the playoffs again. A short week seemed like the best remedy for Seattle to regain its composure and identity after a rough patch, and that appears to be exactly what happened when the Seahawks traveled to Santa Clara to face the 49ers at Levi's Stadium.
Through its greatest moments, Carroll's teams have been defined by a dominant run game and a killer defense, and both aspects showed up in this 20-7 Thursday night win over San Francisco. Marshawn Lynch had his first 100-yard game of the season, busting through San Francisco's game defense for 122 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. Both Jimmy Graham and Tyler Lockett showed their abilities to be explosive additions in this offense —with his 43-yard reception in the second quarter, Lockett became the first rookie with a punt return, kick return and reception for touchdown in the same season since Green Bay's Randall Cobb in 2011. There were still issues, especially Russell Wilson's two ignominious interceptions, but Wilson did complete 18 of 24 passes for 235 yards, despite the fact that he was running for his life most of the night and was sacked five times. But it was Lynch's return to dominance that made the difference offensively.
“Without him, our offense can't function,” safety Earl Thomas said of Lynch after the game. “It starts with him. The play-action game starts with him. Even with Russell and the read-option, it starts with him.”
Richard Sherman put it more succinctly: “We go as he goes.”
Seattle's defense clamped down all the way through the game, putting all talk of a fourth-quarter collapse to rest. After a couple of games in which the 49ers had exhibited progress, the wheels came off against the Legion of Boom. Colin Kaepernick completed just 13 of 24 passes for 124 yards, and it was the first time in his NFL career that he didn't have a rushing attempt. The 49ers rushed for just 61 yards to Seattle's 176, and though there were opportunities created on defense, this San Francisco team looked every bit like the rebuilding unit many thought it would be before the season began.
“We really executed in all phases,” Wilson told CBS' Tracy Wolfson after the game. “Defense was phenomenal tonight. Offense really executed. We had those two bad plays, and that's on me, but other than that, we were really rolling. That's how we play. Special teams, too—we had some big plays there. We believe. That's what we said after the last game in the locker room after we broke it down. We said, ‘We gotta believe—there's no reason not to.’ Our goal is to go 1-0 every week—nothing changes."
Seattle is still in the hunt, while the 49ers are pretty much out of the playoff picture. Here are three takeways from tonight's game.
1. The Legion of Boom is back. Through the 2015 season, the Seahawks have been playing differently on defense. What was once an aggressive, intimidating, suffocating unit, now seemed to be full of players who were out of place in new schemes that didn't fit their talents. In this game, though, there was a lot more man coverage, with Seattle's cornerbacks pressing San Francisco's receivers, and throwing off the timing between Kaepernick and his receivers. And Seattle's defensive front absolutely poleaxed the 49ers' offensive line, taking Kaepernick down six times. Lineman Michael Bennett had 3.5 sacks all his own, and created constant pressure. There wasn't much Kaepernick could do—even when he had time, Seattle's coverage drops prevented him from attacking the easier reads he generally requires. This was a bravura performance from a defense that desperately needed a reset.
2. Seattle's offensive line is still a major liability. Wilson is now on pace to be sacked 71 times this season, which would put him third all time in a single campaign. Houston's David Carr holds the record with 76 sacks in the Texans' expansion year of 2002, and Philly's Randall Cunningham was taken down 72 times in 1986, his second year in the league. The Seahawks believe that they can convert defensive linemen to the offensive line, but the technique and communication crucial to the best blocking clearly isn't happening on the field. Right guard J.R. Sweezy had a fairly bad game, allowing pressures and killing one drive with a leg-whip penalty, but right guard Alvin Bailey, filling in for the injured Garry Gilliam, gets the booby prize. Bailey gave up three sacks and made 49ers linebacker Aaron Lynch look like an all-timer. Assistant head coach Tom Cable is on the hook for the construction of this line—Carroll has given him a lot of rope to create this thing, and right now, that rope looks more like a noose.
3. The 49ers need to go back to the drawing board. “That game tonight was not what we want, was not acceptable,” 49ers head coach Jim Tomsula said.
No kidding. After games against the Packers, Giants and Ravens where they went 1-2 but looked competitive in the losses, San Francisco appeared to be getting things on track with a solid front seven, a well-coached secondary, a pass-run system led by Kaepernick's talents and the dual-threat run game of Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush. But in this game, the 49ers looked exactly like the team many imagined they'd look like after losing most of their coaching staff and several key starters in the offseason. New offensive coordinator Geep Chryst's plan to keep Kaepernick in the pocket was a disaster, especially given the fact that Kaepernick runs more effectively against teams playing aggressive press coverage. The defense was good enough to compete, but the offensive structure was a mess from start to finish, and Tomsula seemed incapable of providing any resets. Not that many expected this team to be playoff contenders after all this roster churn, but this 49ers squad didn't look like they belonged on the same field—the same way they looked in earlier losses to the Steelers and Cardinals.
If Tomsula wants to be anything but a one-year wonder, he'd better figure something out soon.