Round 2, football fans. The 49ers head up to Seattle this week, where they’ll be facing a stadium full of coffee-wired Seahawks fans at CenturyLink Field, and some players on the other side who have feasted on our team in past years and hungry for more.
On New Year’s Day 2017, the 49ers built up an 11-point lead against Seattle by the 2nd quarter, in what proved to be Chip Kelly’s last game as head coach. It actually looked like we might pull an upset. But when the dust settled (or whatever settles in Seattle besides snow), the Niners had been outgained by 123 yards, had coughed up two turnovers, and allowed Colin Kaepernick to be sacked five times. Kyle Shanahan’s Falcons also lost to Seattle last year, but the game was much closer and the Falcons out-gained and outpossessed the Seahawks.
So what to expect this week, where the new coach is in charge of the old team? Let’s break it down.
Brian Hoyer had a 68.6 completion rate last week against Carolina — a fair-to-middling mark when he was throwing short passes — but there were other times where he was overthrowing receivers or just missing them completely. (Cue the wide left throw to Pierre Garcon that would have meant a 20-yard gain.) Add in the interception and fumble, and you have someone whose confidence has undoubtedly been shaken. Far from being a step up, Hoyer looked vaguely like Blaine Gabbert after 8 venti iced mochas.
This week, Hoyer has to intensify his focus on his receivers and get a tighter grip on the ball, because if Carolina was unforgiving of the man’s mistakes, Seattle will be downright cruel. What scares me is that Hoyer tends to start a season well and then regress as time passes…and this year, if “starting well” means the performance he gave at Levi’s on Sunday, the Seahawks game will not be pretty.
Brian Hoyer is facing a tough Seattle pass rush, who got to Packers QB Aaron Rodgers four times last week. Sheldon Richardson, who came to the Seahawks via a trade with the New York Jets, is especially fearsome. And Hoyer is not known as a mobile quarterback, which could mean that his passes will be hurried or knocked up behind the line of scrimmage.
Garcon will be a factor in the passing game again, and I expect he will get at least as many yards (81) as he got last week, with probably more targets. As for Marquise Goodwin, if he drops another ball that would have been an assured TD as he did last week, he will be on his way to the bench for an extended stay. If Goodwin can reel in the balls that come his way, I don’t think Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman would have a chance of catching the 49ers’ speedster.
Of course, I want to see George Kittle do more — his hamstring doesn’t seem to be holding him back and the rest he got before the Carolina game helped — but he isn’t an especially big man, and he couldn’t do all of the tight end work by himself anyway. I predict that Kittle, Logan Paulson and Garrett Celek will each see some action against the Seahawks, if only because Kyle Shanahan tends to be very creative about how he uses tight ends.
Any Niners receiver would have to deal with Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, the Seahawks safeties, who are masters of the Cover 3 defense — but this Seattle team is also a defensive unit with a new coach. They still need to determine their own identity, and our passing game can exploit that if we can execute.
The Hawks could be especially vulnerable at SAM linebacker, and it will be interesting to see if they run the 4-3 base package against 3 receiver sets as frequently as they did last week, with former 49er Michael Wilhoite expected to replace the injured Terance Garvin. That could be an area that the 49ers attack. Even if the Hawks play more nickel defense than they did last week, the nickel corner could also be a vulnerability that the 49ers look to exploit. Rookie receiver Trent Taylor could have a major role to play – exploiting the Seahawks’ weakness at SAM linebacker and nickel corner respectively as well as generally feasting on the underneath areas that this scheme can leave unprotected.
As has been said before in this space by my colleague Dillon Frazier, the running game continues to be a crapshoot for San Francisco. Carlos Hyde is still the primary guy: he carried the ball 9 times for 45 yards against Carolina, and did some nifty pass catching out of the backfield. Oddly enough, for all that has been said about the offensive line (more on that later), Hyde got most of his yards via dives into the line between the tackles. I am looking for him to increase his productivity in the same manner against the Seahawks.
Matt Breida needs to develop better downfield vision; he only got 11 yards last weekend, and that wasn’t all the fault of the men blocking for him. It frustrated me to watch Breida: we know the guy has incredible breakaway potential, but he just didn’t get a chance to break away. Raheem Mostert didn’t get a touch, and Kyle Jusczyck made one rush for no yards, so what we hoped would be a versatile and unpredictable ground game became a one-dimensional, stalled one. To be fair to the 49ers’ backs, once the team went down as far as they did, the running game ceased to be a part of the offense. Shanahan must be prepared to use the running game more this week.
In addition to varying the running game via play action passes (kudos to Dillon again for his analysis last week), it seems to me that Jusczyck has to become a bigger factor. Yes, he got a good PFF rating from the Carolina game, ostensibly for blocking, but is he being used as a lead blocker in all the right ways? Can we develop some off tackle runs that would deploy the Offensive Weapon in a truly destructive fashion? That would knock defensive lineman Frank Clark, the vaunted third year player with the quick step, on his ass?
Put that use of Juzczyck together with a dash of swapped halfbacks between Hyde, Mostert and Breida to throw the Seahawks off balance, and we might just have a winning run game on Sunday.
Taking a deep breath here. This is the single biggest reason, although not the only one, that the team hasn’t been successful in the last 17 regular season games. I could dwell on this group’s shortcomings until the polar ice caps melt, but the short and dirty is that we just don’t have the overwhelming strength at the O-line to make our offense a fearsome one.
The more complicated version of the story is that we have a lot of pieces that don’t fit into a cohesive puzzle. Trent Brown is a great pass blocker and is getting great PFF grades, but he has to keep developing endurance and settle down before snaps if he wants to avoid false start penalties. (I believe and hope he has learned his lesson on that second part.) Daniel Kilgore did well not to get injured, which is his wont, but he also was called for a holding penalty last week and he hasn’t stepped up to be the leader of the offensive line that a center is supposed to be. Joe Staley is doing the best he can, but this week will show us whether he wants to make the twilight years of his career count for something more than treadmill blocking.
Brandon Fusco hasn’t learned how to pass block or zone block, and he has a tendency to jump the gun on snaps. Garry Gilliam is a big, inept tackle who might be a swing body behind Brown if he is lucky. Zane Beadles would have trouble blocking a tree stump encased in concrete, and why we didn’t send him packing before this is a mystery to me. When you are comparing John Theus favorably to Zane Beadles…well, we know how bad the guy is, at least in this offense.
Erik Magnuson isn’t as strong as he ought to be for an offensive lineman, but he holds promise– partly because he made the roster in the first place, and partly because we have nothing to lose with this group. Laken Tomlinson might be the most interesting guy on the squad, because he is relatively young and a former first round draft pick. If he can learn Shanahan’s scheme in a hurry, he would be the pretext for letting Beadles move into a different position. (Like chief usher at Levi’s, for instance.)
Not that any of you need to be told this, fellow Faithful, but without a good offense, the best any team can achieve is a scoreless tie. Well, one game told us we don’t have the offense we need yet. The second game will tell us more about our ability, our potential and our future.
We are worth a damn sight more than 3 points in a game. So let’s prove it to the Chicken Hawks on Sunday.
Image credit to 49ers.com