Between the 2012 and 2014 seasons, the Seahawks and 49ers emerged as one of the best rivals in the NFL. During a couple year stretch, all of their contests against one another were slated as must-see prime time television and they sparred in one of the greatest NFL championship games in league history back in January 2014.
But the rivalry lost its sizzle starting after the 2014 season, as the 49ers declined to an 8-8 record and ousted coach Jim Harbaugh, who went back to college to take a coaching job with his alma mater Michigan. Things quickly went south by the bay, as San Francisco lost double digit games each of the past four seasons and dropped 10 straight games to Seattle.
Many of the faces that created the bad blood between the two franchises are long gone or have changed uniforms, including cornerback Richard Sherman. But for the first time in five years, even if Pete Carroll coaching against someone not named Harbaugh takes away some of the appeal, the rivalry may finally mean something again when the Seahawks travel to play an undefeated 49ers squad on Monday Night Football.
With an NFC West division title still up for grabs, who holds the edge in the first match of the season between two rising contenders? Here are five key questions to consider heading into one of the most-anticipated matchups of the 2019 season.
Can the Seahawks keep Russell Wilson clean against a vaunted 49ers pass rush?
Nothing may dictate the final outcome of this NFC West battle royale more than Seattle’s offensive line trying to protect Wilson against a San Francisco front line loaded with first round talent. With Duane Brown and D.J. Fluker returning from injuries, the unit did a nice job blocking against Tampa Bay’s blitz-happy defense a week ago, allowing Wilson to throw for 378 yards and find both Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf frequently. But as talented as some of the Buccaneers edge rushers are, they pale in comparison to what the 49ers will send out to the field on Monday.
“I think they’re the top group in the whole league and just their style of play, the way they’re coaching them,” Carroll said. “I think [Nick Bosa adding to those guys has been a big addition. Dee Ford has really fit in well on third down situations. They’re flying and they’re about as good as you can hope to be now. They’re really getting it done.”
At the tackle spots, Brown and Germain Ifedi will be tested by No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa and standout pass rushing specialist Dee Ford. Bosa has instantly become a star, recording an NFL-leading 11 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks, and 13 quarterback hits so far, while Ford has added 5.5 sacks. In the interior, starting center Joey Hunt as well as Fluker and Mike Iupati will have their hands full trying to block athletic defensive tackles DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, who have produced 9.5 sacks and 15 quarterback hits combined. If the line can’t buy enough time for Wilson to find receivers or move the pocket to extend plays, it could be a long night in Santa Clara.
How much, if any, of an impact will Josh Gordon make in his Seahawks debut?
General manager John Schneider and Carroll both have slammed the brakes a bit in regard to expectations for Gordon, who was claimed off waivers last Friday. He’s expected to practice for the first time on Thursday and has already been working diligently trying to learn a new playbook, so Gordon is gearing up to play on Monday night. But the real question is – will he be ready? And how much can he realistically be expected to play on such short notice when he hasn’t had many reps with Wilson?
With only a handful of practices under his belt, Gordon likely won’t see an extensive role right off the bat, as trying to learn a new offense in the middle of the season can be tricky. However, if he shows well on the practice field over the next few days, he could serve as a quality decoy to distract attention away from Lockett and Metcalf. And given his ability to win contested catches in the middle of the field and capabilities after the catch, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wilson did target him a few times in his Seahawk debut.
If he plays, how will Seattle attempt to cover star tight end George Kittle?
Kittle suffered a knee injury during last Thursday’s win over the Cardinals and despite returning to action, stood on the sidelines late in the game as the 49ers iced the clock and hasn’t practiced this week. He’ll likely be a game time decision and is listed as doubtful, but if he suits up, the Seahawks will have to deal with one of the biggest matchup nightmares in the NFL today. He’s too big for corners and safeties while possessing too much athleticism for linebackers to cover. After registering 1,377 receiving yards in 2018, the 26-year old tight end already has 46 receptions for 546 receiving yards halfway through this season.
Last year, Seattle actually had decent success limiting Kittle, though he was hamstrung by a few missed throws downfield by backup quarterback Nick Mullens. The Seahawks primarily covered him with backup safety Lano Hill, who recorded a pass defensed and drew a questionable pass interference while limiting him to three receptions for 51 yards in their Week 15 matchup. Look for defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to use a similar strategy this time around, though Hill may not be available to play as he recovers from an elbow injury.
Will the Seahawks be able to slow down a talented quartet of 49ers running backs?
With the exception of giving up 356 combined rushing yards to the Browns and Ravens in back-to-back weeks last month, the Seahawks have made strides defending the run compared to last season. They’ve held opponents to 88 or less rushing yards in five of their nine games, though they’ve also surrendered 12 rushing touchdowns and yielded 4.7 yards per carry, so it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for Carroll’s crew.
Starting with the defensive line and linebackers, maintaining gap integrity and discipline will be critical against Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which has a plethora of play makers in the backfield. Led by the triad of Matt Breida, Tevin Coleman, and Raheem Mostert, the 49ers have rushed for 1,369 rushing yards, scored 13 rushing touchdowns, and averaged 171 rushing yards per game, the second-best mark in the NFL. San Francisco will also welcome back standout fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has been out since Week 5 with an MCL injury. All four of those players are weapons as runners and receivers and if they get rolling, Seattle will open the flood gates for an explosive play action passing game.
“Offensively, Kyle [Shanahan] has always presented a bunch of problems and a bunch of challenges with a really clear philosophy and approach,” Carroll stated. “A real good sense for running the football, a real commitment to running the football. The play passes off that stuff really complements so well. Right now, the way there firing, they’re a very, very difficult team because they’re complete.”
Which team makes the fewest mistakes on special teams?
On the surface, this may not seem like a very big deal, but performance in the third phase of the game can turn victories into defeats and vice versa. That’s exactly what happened last time these two teams played in Santa Clara, as return specialist Richie James housed a kickoff for a touchdown and Seahawks kicker Sebastian Janikowski missed an extra point, creating an eight-point swing in the 49ers favor that eventually led to overtime. Robbie Gould connected on a game-winning field goal moments later, sending Seattle home with a loss.
Gould likely won’t play in this game, as he suffered a quad injury during practice this week and the 49ers signed Chase McLaughlin to replace him. But oddly, that may actually end up being a good thing, as Gould has only made 13 out of 20 field goals so far this year. Jason Myers, who missed two field goals and an extra point last weekend against the Buccaneers, has endured similar struggles in his first year with the Seahawks and needs to have a strong bounce back outing. Kick and punt coverage will also be vital, as James leads the NFL in punt return yardage and showed he can change a game in an instant last year.