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Enter the 49ers: Seahawks will find time if San Francisco can’t pressure Russell Wilson

The 49ers defensive front provides a respite for Seattle, while Tom Cable treats his running back like a pop star

San Francisco 49ers v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

“…Incubating at the corner of promise and too late…”

The flower culture in San Francisco started with agriculture. One reason jobless hippies, the “gentle people with flowers in their hair”, were able to acquire so many blossoms and share them freely was that the flowers used to be produced by landowning immigrant farmers on dozens of acres right in the city. This made for fresh access at a time before refrigerated transportation and cargo jets flying cut flowers from Asia and South America, and before the first Bay Bridge when S.F. was an isolated peninsula cut off from the rural areas of the East Bay and Central Valley. So the original flower children would show up before dawn at the wholesale flower market downtown, buy dozens for a few nickels and hand them out on the streets, hoping these many-colored reproductive ornaments could communicate a spirit of psychedelia and free love in contrast to the rigors and repression of mid-century American mainstream. That’s how Allen Ginsberg came to develop Flower Power as the slogan for his vision of nonviolent resistance in the tract How to Make a March/Spectacle.

When the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers meet Sunday for their three-hour demonstration of peaceful unity/gridiron spectacle, there may or may not be flowers but there will probably be some power running. Only not likely as much as we saw during peak Harbaugh when these games were defined by their locomotive ferocity and ’60s-style lead-blocking fullbacks.

The Seahawks cut Will Tukuafu again on Tuesday, bringing the fullback count on Seattle’s roster down to zero. As ESPN’s Sheil Kapadia pointed out earlier this week, zero is also the number of yards the Seahawks offense has been able to net with a fullback on the field in two games in 2016. Seattle is averaging just 3.2 yards per rush attempt so far, compared to 4.5 last year. But if you remove those fullback packages from the calculation suddenly the rate is back over four yards again. Kapadia suggests the differential may be because lining up with a fullback, especially in double-tight end sets, invites the linebackers inside and further clogs the middle whereas three- and four-wide receiver sets spread the defense and make it easier for the Seahawks’ disadvantaged offensive line to create lanes. The roster configuration as of this writing possibly signals the team agrees.

Seattle’s remaining blockers still have to perform better to win their matchups but the job might be easier against the 49ers than it was facing the roughhousing tackle talents on the Los Angeles Rams and Miami Dolphins. The Seahawks rank 28th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards and they’ve been stuffed 30 percent of the time at or behind the line of scrimmage.

Establishing the running game can only increase the options for Russell Wilson, who was pressured on 40 percent of his dropbacks last week. Part of the antidote will be, again, “San Francisco”. With Aaron Lynch still suspended, the 49ers have not been able to get after quarterbacks much. San Francisco only has three sacks on the year—and sacks aren’t everything: Los Angeles ranks lower than the Niners in adjusted sack rate after getting to Wilson just twice Sunday, but leads the NFL in total QB hits and hurries—while Arik Armstead is the only 49er with more than one recorded hurry.

Barring a significant improvement, the one area where this defensive line might have an edge is with its height: They might be the tallest position group in football. Russell Wilson has proven over four-plus years that his 5-foot-10 frame is not a hindrance to him playing excellent quarterback, but the one thing he’s not expert at is tossing short throws directly over the heads of oncoming defenders; he usually relies on his bootlegs and improvised scampers to make lanes for himself, but his gingerly movement did not allow him to find the soft spot behind the line in Los Angeles’s defense last week. Armstead and DeForest Buckner both stand 6-foot-7. Quinton Dial is 6-foot-6. Together they might create a high obstacle even if they don’t penetrate as well as against Wilson. Then again as Cam Newton said, according to Fox’s Chris Myers in the broadcast Sunday, “We’re not playing basketball.”

And unlike the Rams, who repeatedly harassed Wilson with only four rushers and therefore were able to contain Seattle’s middle passing game by keeping more players in coverage, San Francisco’s only pressure has come when it blitzed. They even got a fumble out of one, in a roundabout way, against the Carolina Panthers. San Francisco barely touch Newton all day, and on a third and two early in the fourth quarter, linebacker Gerald Hodges blitzed the A gap but Carolina center Ryan Kalil easily picked him up. The Panthers had set a max protect and still had surplus blockers with seven against five, but that gave S.F. a numbers advantage downfield.

(It was one of the few examples of sound 49ers coverage; Carolina had lots of success deep passing, with a 78-yard touchdown to Greg Olsen and another 52-yard gain to Ted Ginn contributing to 213 of Newton’s yards coming in the “deep” area—not even including one long pass when Ginn was wide open that Newton just missed and a 42-yard touchdown called back on review because Ginn took a step out of bounds.)

Still, with the pass rush canceled out, Newton is able to hold the ball an unconscionable eight seconds (!), bouncing on his toes from where he receives the shotgun snap at the 29 yard line all the way back to the 17 (!) before he starts zigzagging all over the field like a World War I doughboy running from horse-mounted machinegun fire for another four or six seconds until, finally, Hodges does catch him just before the line of scrimmage and knocks the ball loose. It counted as the only 49ers sack of the game.

I bet if Russell Wilson ever slept long enough to reach REM stages he would dream of getting to stand in a pocket that long. Aaron Donald and the Rams would of course be electric sheep.

Eli Harold recovered the fumble and San Francisco turned it into a field goal. Then Ginn failed to catch the bouncing kickoff and Blaine Gabbert punched in a one-yard touchdown, otherwise the 49ers would have lost by 30. S.F. has now scored 28 and 27 in two weeks after scoring that many only once in 2015, but its only points against the Panthers came off short fields after Carolina turnovers until the final touchdown.

Speaking of that 75-yard touchdown, Gabbert was not accurate throwing the ball. The former Jaguars first-round pick went 17 for 36, which is less than 50 percent, yes, but it’s worse than that. Even when he had throws lined up he often sailed them or put them into the ground. In this case it was a laser of a pass that went right to Vance McDonald’s hands, but when I reviewed the replay it looked like Gabbert’s intention might have actually been trying to reach Quinton Patton crossing in the area on a post-corner combination. As with the opener against Los Angeles, the 49ers’ only consistent success came in the read-option running game.

Part of the knock on Chip Kelly in Philadelphia was the way his speed-tempo offense didn’t save enough rest for the Eagles’ defense. He appears to have adapted his no huddle by getting Gabbert and the offense to the line quickly to eliminate defensive substitutions, while still taking the full play clock by reading or pretending to read signs from the sideline. Does it actually help San Francisco’s own defense? The Panthers didn’t punt at all in the second half, so it’s not like even the several takeaways augured stiff resistance.

But back to the Seahawks’ running attack, because no matter the other advantages against San Fran, that concerns me most. Thomas Rawls had his breakout in this game last year, posting 209 yards, for 7 yards a carry on 30 rushes. He had already dumped 169 on the Bengals earlier in the season but that was observed as a reserve flash, mostly owed to one outlying cut and sprint, while Marshawn Lynch took a temporary DNP. In Seattle against the 49ers, however, after it was clear Lynch would have to miss significant time, was when we discovered Rawls could be more than a super sub.

C.J. Prosise was back at full practice for the first time Thursday since injuring his wrist early in his NFL debut, but Rawls did not practice Wednesday or Thursday. It’s not totally clear what’s hurting him this time. Coach Pete Carroll said Monday the pain that kept him from returning in the second half in L.A. had nothing to do with his combo-fracture recovery, but has been inconsistent on whether the damage is just a contusion (bruise) or a strained muscle. He’s supposedly expected to play still, but either way the return of Prosise offers much-needed depth if Rawls is limited.

Meanwhile, Tom Cable says Rawls is trying too hard, which seems a little silly. It’s the kind of critique you hear about Taylor Swift. I understand if needs to calm down, slow down, read the blocking. Supposedly a similar conversation once took place in 2011 that elevated Lynch into a near-Hall of Fame runner. But come on, Cable. Last year Rawls averaged three full yards before contact. The second play of the game there were four defensive linemen in his face as he received the snap.

Okay, again, maybe Cabe’z is right. Maybe if Rawls acts like when you’re walking on the street and a big group of guys comes running at you and you have to kind of be nonchalant and stay still and hope they’re actually running past you. Then you can go on your way. But if you challenge them, naturally you’ll get beat up. Maybe that’s what Cable thinks.

And I can see how, on that one carry, Rawls added to the loss by trying to twist out of the tackle before being wrangled for minus-nine yards. One way or the other, somebody’s got to tighten up their game.