The San Francisco 49ers are coming out of their bye week to play host to a Seattle Seahawks team that has been decimated by injuries in recent weeks. With a depleted secondary, this would seem to be an excellent opportunity for the 49ers to have a breakout offensive performance. In recent years, the 49ers have struggled mightily in this rivalry series, with the last 49ers’ victory against Seattle coming back in the 2013 season. Will the 49ers (1-9) be able to slay their demon in the Seahawks (6-4) at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday? Let’s take a look at the matchups.
Passing offense: 49ers’ lame duck starter C.J. Beathard was able to earn himself another start this week by having a breakout performance against the hapless New York Giants back in week 10. He completed 19 of 25 passes for 288 yards and a pair of throwing touchdowns. He added another on the ground in the 31-21 victory. It was easily the most impressive start of his career and made the decision to keep Jimmy Garoppolo on the sidelines more palatable (at least for one more week).
With Richard Sherman already gone for the season with his achilles injury, the Seahawks were dealt another one-two punch to the gut when it was announced that cornerback Shaquill Griffin and All-World safety Kam Chancellor would be inactive for Sunday’s game. This leaves the Seahawks woefully thin in the secondary. While usually this would lead to big shots down the field, look for Kyle Shanahan to try and get his playmakers the ball in space. The 49ers should use plenty of quick screens and slants to get into the open field where they can take advantage of the backups filling in for Seattle. The reason for the quick passing is the 49ers’ woeful interior line.
Beathard has been hounded and harassed all season and with the holes in Seattle’s secondary, look for Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richards to dial up blitzes all game long. The teeth of this Seahawks defense remains in the front 7, and that becomes even more crucial for them as they try and cover for their missing players on the back end. The ‘Hawks have a stable of pass rushers and behind them is the extremely versatile duo of Bobby Wagner and KJ Wright. They both excel in the passing game as both cover players and blitzers. The 49ers’ interior offensive line in particular will find itself tasked with quickly deciphering who to block whilst CJ Beathard will have quickly establish what coverages the Seahawks are playing and likely be forced to tthrow the ball outside the numbers to target the Seahawks’ backup cornerbacks – an area where he has struggled this season.
With Trent Brown potentially also out, the 49ers’ offensive line is further weakened. Beathard, who has one of the worst passer ratings in the NFL under pressure per PFF, will have to make his throws under duress for the 49ers to have success in the passing game. It would also help if Beathard’s receivers held up their end of the bargain, as George Kittle and Marquise Goodwin in particular have had some big drops this year.
Running and Offensive Line: Another area of importance in this game is going to be the effectiveness of the run game. In order for the 49ers to protect Beathard and set up an effective passing game, they need to establish Carlos Hyde early. An area to exploit will be the edge because Seattle will almost certainly look to expose the interior of the 49ers offensive line. If the 49ers can run an effective outside zone early, look for Shanahan to mix in some boot action to help get Beathard away from the Seattle attack.
As always, Michael Bennett is a major source of disruption that must be accounted for, but look more for Sheldon Richardson to be a constant presence in the 49ers backfield. With Kilgore, Tomlinson, and the rest of the interior line doing their best matador impersonations this season, it’s more important than ever to roll the offense away from the obvious points of attack. If the 49ers can establish the ground game early, they set themselves up to be able to take advantage of the thin secondary for the Seahawks.
Defensive Line: With the addition of Duane Brown, the Seahawks have finally done something to plug the leaks that have plagued their offensive line for years. That being said, they’re still a below average unit and the 49ers’ defense should be able to generate some pressure, especially on the right side of the line. Seattle still has essentially no running game as quarterback Russell Wilson leads the team in rushing yards. That makes defending the pass and getting pressure on Wilson all the more critical.
Perhaps most critically for the 49ers, is for the defensive ends to not over pursue on Wilson. Keeping contain and forcing him to manoeuvre inside the pocket is essential. Wilson is at his most dangerous when he can scramble away and buy time with his feet until the coverage breaks down. Countless times over the last few years, Wilson has pulled a rabbit out of his hat against this 49ers defense by breaking contain and getting chunk plays. If Buckner, Thomas and the rest of the line can collapse outside in on Wilson, it will go a long way towards limiting those back breaking improvisational plays.
The returning Aaron Lynch could have a big game coming back from injury, but he will have to remain disciplined and stick to his job. A good performance in here could help to shape the narrative of his NFL career going forward.
Linebackers: Reuben Foster made it through a week without getting nicked up against the Giants, and coming off the bye week is probably the healthiest he’s been all season. Foster’s range will be critical for the quick hitting underneath routes and QB scrambles that Seattle is known for. The loss of Ray Ray Armstrong means that the 49ers are going into the game with 4 linebackers. Brock Coyle and Eli Harold look to get the start next to Foster. The key for this group will be sure tackling and making sure to get a bump on Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson when they go over the middle. Limiting the free releases in the middle of the field will slow down the Seattle attack. Furthermore, the linebackers will have to be wary of J.D Mckissic, the former Arkansas Razorback who has shone as a pass catcher this season.
Harold will also be tasked with setting a good edge at SAM linebacker, an area where he has been inconsistent but if he has success here, will help to force the Seahawks to be one dimensional.
Defensive Backs: The injury to safety Adrian Colbert hurts as it is the latest in a string of injuries to 49ers safeties. The team was already without the services of both Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward (both with broken arms) so the 49ers come into the game just as thin in the secondary as Seattle. Eric Reid will start at the strong safety position with Dexter McCoil, Leon Hall and Antoine Exum competing to start at the other safety position. Reid in particular will have to try to contain Jimmy Graham, whose combination of size and speed will make him a crucial outlet option for Wilson.
At the corner position, Ahkello Witherspoon faces a tough test against the Seattle offense. Witherspoon and the rest of the secondary have to make sure to not let their guard down as Wilson can get free and beat them when their coverage breaks down. Keeping the WR in front of them will go a long way into preventing deep passing plays. Unfortunately, with the team being so thin in the defensive backfield, it seems almost inevitable that Tyler Lockett or Paul Richardson break loose for a huge play.
Bottom Line: With the 49ers essentially playing for draft position and the Seahawks still in the playoff hunt, this game has the chance to become ugly. Both teams have been hit hard by the injury bug, but the Seahawks are still the vastly more talented team. The 49ers fight hard despite their record and their effort alone will keep the game respectable, but the injuries and lack of talent will prove to be too much for this 49ers team. The offense will struggle to score points as Beathard will be under pressure all game long and the 49ers will have the unenviable task of having to corral Russell Wilson. Look for this to be the swan song of the C.J. Beathard era in San Francisco, with Jimmy Garoppolo making his 49ers debut next week against the Chicago Bears.
Final Score: Seattle Seahawks 27 – San Francisco 49ers 16