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Breakdown Corner: A Niner primer

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(From the guy formerly known as ptfe.)

In spite of despondent rumblings of doom from their fan base, the 4-5 Seahawks are still in contention for a playoff spot. And though they will need some help to make it there, almost any hope Seattle has of reaching the post-season in 2015 starts with winning the rest of the way. That winning streak will need to start this week, when Seattle hosts the 49ers in the teams' second showdown of 2015.

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Most of us know a good amount about San Francisco already, but descriptions usually involve a combination of rubbish and flame. "Dumpster fire", "smoldering garbage pile", "flaming trash heap", and "burned-out beater" are personal favorites. Whatever you want to call it, let's take a moment to examine what is (or was) in that torched wastebasket.

In last place in the NFC West, San Francisco (3-6) is also last in the league total offensive yards, averaging just 286.2 per game. That's not last by some tiny margin, either -- that's 23 yards per game fewer than 31st-place St. Louis and 35 yards per game fewer than 30th-ranked Tennessee. That's fewer total yards than five teams have just through the air.

Not surprisingly, San Fran is also dead last in points per game with 14. Just for some scale on how bad this is, five other teams average under 20 ppg, and all of those tally 18.4 or more. The dropoff is a cliff: half the league is at 22.8 or fewer points per game -- which is to say, San Francisco is as offensively terrible (in both possible readings of that phrase) compared to tied-for-30th Dallas and St. Louis as those two teams are to tied-for-17th Washington and Denver.

Advanced stats echo this sentiment, as the 49ers are last in DVOA -- ranked 30th in the league on both offense and defense. (Just for good measure, San Francisco's special teams is a not-good 26th.) It isn't a team that's basking in a joyous success this year, especially on offense.

Jim Tomsula's formula seems to be simplicity, and it's a formula he likely won't get to reconsider next season. The Niners pass out of the shotgun or single-back sets exclusively; about 10% of the time they flash the I-formation, their dead giveaway to a pending run. They rarely run from a 3-wide set and rush about 2/3 of the time when they show 2 tight ends.

San Francisco's strongest element is its running game. Here's a look at pass and run success (minimum 33% of yards needed on 1st down, 66% of yards needed on 2nd down, 100% of yards needed on 3rd or 4th down) by quarter:

Pass

Rush

Q

Succ.

Att.

Pct.

Succ.

Att.

Pct.

1

19

63

30.1

34

67

50.7

2

37

85

43.5

28

63

44.4

3

22

64

34.4

18

53

34.0

4

37

85

43.5

25

55

45.5


Statistically, while the 49ers average just 3.9 yards per carry, they aren't relying on huge runs to bolster that number. Instead, they pick up a few yards at a time on the ground and rarely gain enough to sustain drives.

One complaint this season has been that Colin Kaepernick hasn't been using his legs the way he did in the past. But prior to benching, the highly-touted read-option quarterback was on pace (45 rushes, 256 yards, 1 TD) to come close to his 2013 totals (92-524-4, with 2 of those scores coming at the expense of Jacksonville). So let's look at the success rates of Kaepernick's running:

Q1 - 9/11
Q2 - 9/14
Q3 - 6/9
Q4 - 2/7

Yikes. Without Kaepernick, the team is 12/44 (27.3%) in run success in the 3rd quarter and improves only in the 4th quarter. This suggests that the Gabbert Limited Mobility Experience will now feature an even more meager ground game.

In addition, the team's rushing was led by Carlos Hyde, whose 114-470-3 line (4.1 ypc) looks acceptable (if uninspiring) for the workhorse back; unfortunately for San Fran, he also hasn't played since an injury in Week 7 and probably won't be back for this one. He's been replaced by a committee of Shaun Draughn (18-68-0) and Kendall Gaskins (12-26-0). That's not encouraging at all.

Meanwhile, the passing game seems to be regressing to the Alex Smith days. The Colin Kaepernick/Blaine Gabbert combo has combined to complete 59.1% of passes for 6.7 yards per attempt -- neither of these is spectacularly bad -- but is successful on just 38.7% of its passes and suffers sacks on about 9% of dropbacks (28 total this season). The team is building up stats by throwing short of the sticks. Even under Gabbert during last week's win over the Falcons, the 49ers were only successful on 10 of 26 throws, so benching Kaepernick is not making their problem go away.

Against both the run and pass, Seattle's stout defense should easily disrupt the visitors, especially now that it has a week of tape on Blaine Gabbert. Don't expect San Francisco to put up many points unless the Seahawks suddenly lose their way for some extended period or start turning the ball over like crazy.

As a result, the game will most likely hinge on whether the hosts can put up an offensive performance worth a dozen points or more. The Seahawks seemed to have little trouble with that in the first meeting between these teams, a 20-3 drubbing down South that looked a lot worse than the score would indicate.

In that contest, the 49ers posted 5 sacks -- that's 5 of their 16 on the year. With the Seattle offensive line apparently becoming a little less terrible, it's doubtful San Francisco will get that kind of pressure again.

The 49ers regularly let mediocre offenses pass roughshod over them. The rather dismal Falcons posted 285 yards in an ugly 17-16 loss, while the Ravens laid down 343 air yards in their 25-20 loss. In a tough game against the Giants, San Francisco allowed 441 passing yards. And in the first battle with Seattle, Russell Wilson notched 212 passing yards -- not great, but still decent.

This is really due to an unfortunate combination of mediocre-to-bad cornerback play, inexperienced safeties, a general failure to get push up front, and a strange set of blitz packages that leave large sections of the field exposed. The Steelers and Cardinals were the most aggressive to exploit the resultant single-coverage mismatches and quickly generate a downfield presence, but even the Seahawks chucked a 43-yarder against that high-risk strategy. San Francisco has had trouble containing big plays all year, and we shouldn't expect a change when they show up at CenturyLink this weekend.

Their one positive has been defending long passes to tight ends. Tight ends have found success on mid-range receptions, though, including a 49-yarder to Jared Cook that was really just a massively failed tackle 30 yards earlier. Seattle should look to work the ball to Jimmy Graham and Luke Willson 10-20 yards upfield.

About the only place the 49ers have seen some success on defense is against the run. In the team's 3 wins, it allowed 71, 77, and 17 yards on the ground; it's given up more than 160 ground yards in 3 of its 6 losses, but held opponents to just 84 yards in 2 of those 6 -- one of which was accompanied by a Pittsburgh passing clinic. Since a strong running game eats significant clock, it can incapacitate a low-functioning offense like San Francisco's, and another 176-yard performance by the Seahawks should be sufficient to the task.

For the game to play out in Seattle's favor, a strong first half should put the visitors down painlessly. Expect a pretty slow 1st quarter that leans heavily on the Marshawn Lynch-Thomas Rawls combination. It should also be a good day for the Seahawks' tight ends to settle behind the linebackers, as well as an opportunity for Russ to fire off a few 1st and 2nd down long balls. On the other side, Seattle should have no problems containing the rush and should be able to neutralize the passing game by applying sustained up-front pressure that forces quick passes to let its opponent fail naturally.