“They were working on the stairs … I do know that.”
Last week the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars and San Francisco 49ers all won games. This was the first time that happened all season because it was the first game the Browns won at all. But it was only the second win by the 49ers—and both wins came over the Los Angeles Rams, who were the first team in 2016 to fire their coach. Maybe interim coach John Fassel should have been fired also, for losing to San Francisco a second time.
Thanks to Jacksonville, the 49ers are still in line for the second pick in the draft—and they might be able to do something with it. Of San Francisco’s 11 selections in 2016, the 49ers have gotten play from eight of them and decent rookie production from Rashard Robinson (started five games at cornerback), Ronald Blair (defensive line rotation), John Theus (now starting in relief at tackle) and Aaron Burbridge (third wide receiver after injuries to Torrey Smith and Quinton Patton). More importantly, both of S.F.’s first-round picks, center Joshua Garnett and 3-4 end DeForest Buckner became significant contributors.
Buckner in particular has developed since the last time the Seattle Seahawks faced the 49ers, when San Francisco was only able to generate pressure with blitzes. Buckner leads the team in sacks on what has become a decent defense at getting to the quarterback—the Niners are 28th in defensive DVOA overall and against the pass but have the 15th-best adjusted sack rate, slightly ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.
San Francisco’s defense may even be underrated now. Even after losing its whole starting linebacker corps to injury, the 49ers have lately held four of the past seven opponents between 20-30 points—which is an improvement for a team that only did so twice in its first eight games and is the worst scoring defense in the league. They were basically a shutdown unit against Los Angeles last Saturday—which, yes, again, Rams, but San Francisco was able to get to Jared Goff regularly and limited Todd Gurley to his lowest non-Seahawks, non-Cardinals yards per carry average of 2016.
Los Angeles has a bad offensive line and Gurley hasn’t broken 100 yards all season, but is Seattle offering anything better in the running game at this point?
After missing the second half against Arizona with a sore shoulder, there was some concern Thomas Rawls might miss week 17 to restore himself for the playoffs, but Rawls has been practicing fully all week and looks ready to go unless the team wants to get exceedingly careful (considering their running back luck maybe they should; Seattle may need to win this game but ought to be able with Alex Collins). Either way, Rawls hasn’t been getting much help from his blockers.
A few weeks ago I was sure Rawls was a lock to take over Christine Michael, Sr.’s rushing lead, but that looks impossible now—even if Rawls is healthy and supremely successful against the 49ers front that permitted Michael 100 yards in the first half in week 3, that same success will likely breed a quick hook for the fragile young star just as it did for his predecessor in that game. Rawls sits currently 134 yards behind Michael for that team lead, but he also hasn’t caught up to Michael’s advanced stats after poor efficiency against the Rams and Cardinals: With 100 rushes Rawls now qualifies for Football Outsiders’ stat leaderboard but he’s only got 10 DYAR and a negative-6.2 percent DVOA on the season.
Michael’s yearlong DVOA is almost exactly average (0.2 percent) and he has totaled 57 DYAR on just 45 more carries than Rawls. Robert Turbin, for what it’s worth, has outperformed both of them for the Indianapolis Colts—72 DYAR and 23.9 percent DVOA, although on a 43-carry sample (and to be fair, Spencer Ware is right in the middle of Rawls and Michael, Sr., in both metrics, so it’s not like the Seahawks have been just leaking premier running backs).
For the sake of complete comparisons, Zac Brooks, Seattle’s seventh-round pick, is on the Denver Broncos’ practice squad but was let go already twice from the Seahawks this season, including just a week after C.J. Prosise’s latest injury. However, DuJuan Harris, the runner who filled in between Rawls’s injury in 2015 and Seattle’s late acquisition of Michael that year, did gain 142 total yards on 15 touches for San Francisco against the New Orleans Saints in week 9—he hasn’t gained that many yards in all games combined since then, but that was also the last game Carlos Hyde missed, and Hyde tore his MCL last week.
Anyway, the 49er defense was stout against Los Angeles. They gave up three touchdowns but two of those Rams scores came after San Francisco’s offense turned the ball over inside L.A.’s red zone. The good news is the Seahawks get to play that 49er offense too.
Just like on defense, San Francisco is a depleted offensive team. In addition to the receiver woes, Hyde is out as mentioned and left tackle Joe Staley is also hurt, having missed three straight games with a hamstring pull—so consider that if you were one of those disappointed Seattle didn’t pay a premium to pick up Staley at the trade deadline. Still, the 49ers offense actually seemed to accelerate after Hyde went out Saturday, as Colin Kaepernick took control in the fourth quarter against the Rams. Kaepernick can still be Kaepernick in certain moments.
He scored this waterfall of a touchdown from 13 yards out and then added the game-winning two-point conversion with another scramble into the right side of the end zone later in the fourth quarter. But Kaepernick’s deep passing accuracy still suffers, which is just the area where Seattle has had trouble covering for Earl Thomas’s absence. The 49ers average 8.5 yards per play on passes thrown more than 15 yards in the air, with just a 33 percent completion rate, both in the bottom third of the league.
Meanwhile, we know Russell Wilson got his offensive line high-end television sets last week, which was probably a safe choice. Turns out Philadelphia Eagles rookie Carson Wentz bought his linemen shotguns. Does that mean Kaepernick orders custom pistols for the San Francisco line? (With all the ailing running backs, maybe Wilson’s gifts were empty sets.)
Speaking of formations, Kaepernick actually hasn’t been running out of the pistol as much in Chip Kelly’s offense. A number of times last week San Francisco featured a double-tailback look they had never used before, that appeared to be a variation of a shotgun pro set, the wishbone and the split-T—an archaic formation invented by former Pre-Flight Seahawks coach Jim Faurot.
It worked to some effect, but may have just been a matchup scheme to try against Los Angeles. Still, expect Kelly to be further experimental in devising ways to get the most out of a backfield of Kaepernick, Harris and Shaun Draughn. Seattle, on the other hand, won’t want to get too weird unless the game seems in jeopardy, which means we’ll see plenty of punting on New Year’s Day. The Seahawks have spoken plenty about finding adjustments to get the offense in shape for the playoffs, but they probably don’t intend to put too many of those developments on film.
They’ll keep it safe. You stay safe too, pilgrim. See you in the playoffs.