Behind Enemy Lines: Analyzing Seahawks Week 10 Matchup with 49er Maven
Still very much alive in the NFC West race, the Seahawks will have a chance to make up ground facing the division-leading, undefeated 49ers at Levis Stadium on Monday Night Football.
Heading into the first of two much-anticipated games between the rivals, I teamed up with Jose Sanchez of 49er Maven to break down some of the biggest questions for each team, including a matchup pitting MVP front runner Russell Wilson against one of the NFL’s elite defenses.
Jose Sanchez (JS): Russell Wilson has been playing out of this world and is the clear cut favorite for MVP this season. He has 22 touchdowns and only one interception. What is he doing differently that has him playing so phenomenal for the Seahawks?
Corbin Smith (CS): I believe the presence of offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has made a world of difference for Wilson. As evidenced on film each week, his pocket awareness and mechanics have improved substantially since Schottenheimer arrived last season. While he'll still extend plays with his legs when needed and remains a nightmare for defenses when he rolls out to his right or left, he's now more likely to move up in the pocket and isn't making the same ill-fated decisions trying to spin away from pass rushers 20 yards in the backfield. Sometimes he could make magic out of those types of plays, but more times than not, they ended ugly for the Seahawks.
Mechanically, he's doing a better job loading up as he hits the end of his drop and shifting weight to his left leg as he follows through on throws, which explains his career-best 68 percent completion rate as well as effectiveness throwing the deep ball. It also doesn’t hurt having Tyler Lockett and surging rookie DK Metcalf as his primary weapons on the outside.
Jimmy Garoppolo has been playing some of his best football in recent weeks, including throwing four touchdowns against the Cardinals last Thursday. What strides have you seen him make over the past several weeks compared to when he struggled a bit early in the year?
JS: It’s really just been knocking off the rust and settling in. Garoppolo was out of football for practically a year with a torn ACL, so it’s only natural that he had hiccups. Now we are all seeing the strides he’s taken and his comfortability in the offense. We saw this from him during his five starts in 2017. He’s been more than capable of carrying the load of the offense, but that just isn’t how Kyle Shanahan operates. He attacks with variety, which makes it easy on Garoppolo. The fact that he barely had a breakout game in Week 9 just gives credence to how balanced this offense has been.
The defense of the 49ers is one of, if not the best in the league. However, their weak spot defending the run was exposed a bit by the Cardinals last week. Do you see Monday night as a heavy volume day for Chris Carson? Or will a victory need to ride on Russell Wilson’s shoulders?
CS: Wilson will need to win the game with his arm and he's going to take some shots downfield to Lockett, Metcalf, and potentially Josh Gordon, but unlike last weekend, this is not a game where the Seahawks can ask him to throw the ball 45-plus times and expect to leave Levis Stadium with a victory. With the 49ers boasting arguably the most talented defensive line in football and an opportunistic secondary, that would be a recipe for disaster and set up the MVP front runner for potential injury.
In order to slow down that vaunted pass rush headlined by Nick Bosa and DeForest Buckner, Seattle must lean on its powerful offensive line early and give Carson and Rashaad Penny plenty of touches. Mix in the passing game on early downs to keep Robert Saleh's defense on its heels and don't be afraid to bring back the read option either. Possessing the football and winning the field position battle could be very important in this contest, especially considering Seattle's defensive inconsistencies that have plagued the team at times this year.
When it comes to slowing down Seattle's rushing attack, how much do you think San Francisco will miss Kwon Alexander? How concerned should the 49ers be about their depleted linebacker group moving forward?
JS: Well the 49ers defense wasn’t really good against the run with Kwon Alexander. It only makes sense since they utilize a wide-9 scheme. This makes it easy for offensive lineman to open lanes, so in terms of missing Alexander, it won’t be felt defending the run. Rather, it’ll be felt in coverage. Alexander was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the second-best coverage linebacker based off of passer rating. The next man up is rookie Dre Greenlaw, who actually has the skill set to fill in nicely. Greenlaw is fast both downhill and laterally, so he could prove capable in coverage. If anything, he could be an upgrade against the run. I don’t think the linebacker position is a significant worry just because Alexander is out.
Acquiring Jadeveon Clowney felt like it was a great move for the Seahawks, but he has struggled mightily this season notching sacks. In fact, the Seahawks pass rush has been nonexistent this season. What has been the reason for Clowney’s slow start and the struggles of the rest of Seattle's pass rushers?
CS: Statistics only tell part of the story with Clowney, who has been a great pickup for the Seahawks despite his lack of sacks. He's been much more disruptive than numbers would indicate, especially when it comes to blowing up run plays, and he's done much of his damage while battling through constant double teams. He had four quarterback hits against the Falcons two weeks ago and has four tackles for loss in the past five games, so he's not really the problem.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks haven't gotten much of anything from Ziggy Ansah, who they signed to a one-year deal in May. He has a single sack and three quarterback hits in five games, with his most notable play coming in the form of a forced fumble against the Browns. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed has also been pretty quiet in three games since coming back from suspension and the team lacks an explosive edge rusher to compliment Clowney and Ansah.
San Francisco should be getting starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey back from injury this week. How much will getting both players back in the lineup bolster the 49ers offense? And how has the team been able to withstand their absences over the past several weeks?
JS: Getting back those two guys will be a sweet boost to the offensive line. You would think that losing both starting offensive tackles would have been this team’s undoing. Much to my surprise, it didn’t. All credit to the system of Kyle Shanahan who was able to adjust and adapt so well to the situation. Not many coaches can overcome losing both starting tackles. The 49ers scouts also deserve credit who saw the capable talent in backups Daniel Brunskill and Justin Skule. The offensive line really didn’t hit any snags with these two filling in.
The 49ers offense has been rolling due to the excellent execution of Kyle Shanahan’s genius play-calling. Their offensive line has done a wondrous job protecting Garoppolo despite injuries. How can the Seahawks defense ensure that Garoppolo doesn’t carve them up? And do you think they’re capable of keeping the running game in check?
CS: As coined by Carroll, Seattle has been playing "rope-a-dope" defense much of this season, allowing opponents to complete short passes with hopes of eliminating explosive downfield pass plays. That strategy has paid off sometimes in the red zone, but opponents have been piling up impressive passing yardage totals against the Seahawks. Just two weeks ago, 38-year old quarterback Matt Schaub threw for 460 yards, with most of that damage coming in the second half when the Falcons trimmed a 24-point halftime deficit to seven points. To prevent Garoppolo from finding similar success, major schematic adjustments need to be made to force him to hold onto the ball a bit longer, including playing a bit more press coverage.
With that said, when it's all said and done, the 49ers quartet of running backs concern me more than Garoppolo going into this matchup. The Seahawks are in the middle of the pack stopping the run, but they had trouble slowing down the Browns and Ravens in consecutive weeks last week, giving up big runs to Nick Chubb and Lamar Jackson. Shanahan does an outstanding job of mixing up run schemes each week and rotating his backs accordingly, making this a very tough assignment for Carroll's up-and-down defense. Seattle has enough talent to get the job done, but it won't be easy and if San Francisco finds traction on the ground early, it could be a long night for the visitors.
Listed as doubtful for Monday's game with a knee injury, how much would losing George Kittle impact San Francisco's game plan? What kind of adjustments in the run and pass game do you expect Shanahan and the coaching staff to make if he's unable to go?
JS: It’ll be a blow to the offense if Kittle is inactive, however it isn’t as dramatic as most would think. This offense was built so that it wouldn’t be reliant on one specific player. The 49ers will be able to soften the blow of Kittle’s loss with backup Ross Dwelley, who stepped up against the Cardinals last week. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk will also be available for the first time since Week 3, which is huge. He can easily be another player to fill the void left by Kittle. There are just too many versatile pieces on this offense that allows Shanahan to be so methodical with his game planning.
The Seahawks and 49ers rivalry has been pretty much dead since 2014. Considering both teams are relevant simultaneously for the first time in five years, do you think the rivalry will be rekindled again?
CS: Can I say yes and no at the same time? Even though both teams have at least seven wins already this year, I'm not sure if we'll ever see the rivalry between Seattle and San Francisco reach the heights of 2012 to 2014 again and veterans such as linebacker K.J. Wright would agree with that assessment. Removing the Pete Carroll versus Jim Harbaugh element automatically takes things down a notch and without players like Kam Chancellor, Navorro Bowman, Doug Baldwin, and Patrick Willis suiting up, it just won't have the same feel to it.
However, I do see a few parallels when comparing this season to that previous era. Philosophically, Kyle Shanahan coordinates a similar offense to Harbaugh built around a physical rushing attack and play action passing game. On the flip side, Carroll is still calling the shots for the Seahawks and he's going to be emphasizing the ground game as well. Though his defense has underachieved most of this year, it's not out of the question a light switch could be turned on over the final two months and the unit will suddenly start playing like a top-10 group. The talent is certainly there if everyone plays to their potential.
And it's not as if there still isn't bad blood between these two teams. Yes, most of the players who starred for each team in the 2013 NFC Championship game are either out of the league or on different teams. But former Seahawks All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman now being one of the 49ers key stars adds a new wrinkle to the equation that didn't exist five or six years ago and that on its own could be enough to vault this matchup back into the discussion as one of the NFL's best rivalries.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Do you see this upcoming matchup having the potential to reignite this rivalry to its former glory?
JS: Most definitely. These two teams are finally good at the same time. It isn’t going to be quite the same since there was a history with Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll dating back when they coached college football in the Pac 12 conference. However, the fire is reignited in this rivalry. The Seahawks and 49ers have the strongest hate towards one another out of any of the matchups in the NFC West. What better way to pick this rivalry back up than on prime time in front of a national audience with so much at stake.