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Seahawks-49ers preview: A closer look at the “new” San Fran

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Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 0-1 Seattle Seahawks come home this week, welcoming their NFC West “rival” San Francisco 49ers in both team’s first divisional game of 2017. Neither has found the end zone yet this season, but Sunday will afford the Seahawks a terrific opportunity to get on track. The 49ers under new head coach Kyle Shanahan aren’t expected to compete for a few seasons still, but a season of competitive, well-coached football would be massive for a franchise that’s lacked direction for four seasons.

San Francisco played a tougher, more spirited game than their three points against the Carolina Panthers would suggest. I expect the 49ers to again get out-classed over the course of four quarters in Seattle, but not without battling along the way. Time for the debrief:

Last week the 49ers looked like…

A well-coached football team. San Francisco has been the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL for the better part of four years, but - Jed York willing - the new regime seems capable of being a breath of fresh air for the team. New general manager John Lynch is tasked with establishing and maintaining a culture that’s largely been missing in recent years, while Shanahan coaches up a football team still low on above-average talent.

Against the Panthers, the 49ers offense already began to resemble a Shanahan-offense; blending quick screens and jet sweeps to get the ball in playmakers’ hands in space, easy completions and staying aggressive. The numbers weren’t good - 18-percent on third down, 13 total first downs, 217 total yards - but against the right opponent (read: weak) this offense is capable of scoring a lot of points. Shanahan can be criticized for going away from Carlos Hyde while he looked like their best player, but a positive start overall.

In this game, Seattle should…

Have Richard Sherman shadow Pierre Garcon. Sherman leaving his side of the field to shadow a receiver is generally saved for matchups against the game’s elite - A.J. Green, Antonio Brown - but by shadowing Garcon on Sunday, the San Francisco’s passing game could be rendered useless. Targeted more on Sunday than the rest of the 49ers’ wide receivers combined, Garcon is crucial to their passing game and the only bona fide starting receiver on their roster. Although Sherman’s missed two days of practice this week, every indication is that he’ll play.

If Sherman was to remain on his side of the field, I could certainly see Shanahan taking a page from Green Bay’s game plan in recent matchups and avoiding him completely, allowing the veteran Garcon to work against rookie Shaquill Griffin all game long (assuming Griffin plays). Despite Griffin’s promise and tenacity on the outside, Garcon lining up across from him is an utter mismatch. By allowing Sherman to negate Garcon, it would make containing Marquise Goodwin, who is always a threat to beat you deep, that much easier.

A critical factor for the 49ers will be…

To get to Russell Wilson with a young and talented pass rush. Aaron Lynch should return for San Francisco this week, joining Arik Armstead, Solomon Thomas and DeForest Buckner as disruptive players along the defensive line. Even in a blowout scenario for Seattle, the 49ers pass rush could certainly get to and affect Wilson regularly. Buckner was PFF’s top-rated interior pass rusher in week one, while there were several instances on Sunday of Armstead using his vine-like arms to strike the tackle’s chest first and bull rushing him back. Against Rees Odhiambo, that’s going to result in him being pushed right back into Wilson’s lap.

A critical factor for the Seahawks will be…

To play with pace on offense. It’s something Wilson highlighted in his post-game press conference on Sunday, saying:

“I think we've always moved really well when going up-tempo. That's something we've been trying to focus on all offseason and i think that's something that's advantageous to us. It tires down the defense, it makes it tough for their calls and all that. I think in the past five, six years, five years, we've been able to execute in those two-minute drives very, very well, at half, end of game.”

While I don’t expect Seattle to completely change their identity around this idea, on Sunday against San Francisco it could be incredibly effective. As of now - especially with stud rookie Reuben Foster out injured - the strength and only above-average part of the 49ers’ defense is the line, specifically the pass rush. By playing with pace, the Seahawks can tire out Armstead, Buckner, Thomas and Lynch while taking advantage of substitutions and picking on a weak secondary. There were several instances against Carolina where a Panthers receiver would be running free at the third level, and by playing with pace, Seattle could take advantage of similar breakdowns in coverage.

Players who stood out for the 49ers last week…

With just one game down there’s not much tape to pull from, but three players stood out: George Kittle, Carlos Hyde and Reuben Foster. Kittle, a rookie tight end, looks like he’ll be a wonderfully versatile and dangerous piece for Shanahan moving forward. Lining up in the backfield, out wide and in-line, he caught five of six targets and played 95-percent of snaps.

Going from a possible camp casualty in the early summer to the team’s best offensive weapon, Hyde looked like he was back at his best on Sunday. He was hitting lanes with great speed and physicality, but ended with just nine carries. That figure needs to double on Sunday, and San Francisco would be smart to lean on their lone blue-chip player on offense the rest of this season.

Foster, another rookie, kept up his special play from preseason before leaving with an injury. A high ankle sprain will keep him out this week, but he’s absolutely worth mentioning for this season’s second matchup between the two teams, and for years to come.

A reason for optimism…

The talent gap between these two teams is large enough that the Seahawks should be able to accomplish two crucial things this week on offense:

  • Get the ground game going. Give either Chris Carson or Thomas Rawls a chance to get on a roll (15 carries +) and give the offense something to build off of.
  • Experiment with and establish a template of playing with pace on offense to offset offensive line issues. Against oppositions on deck such as the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Giants, up-tempo will allow Seattle to get into a rhythm and succeed outside the usual style and pace of their offense.

This is a new pre-game column I’m trying out for 2017, focusing on the week’s opponent and their season so far. They’ll become more in-depth as the season goes along. Any suggestions or things you would like to see highlighted in the future are greatly appreciated, either in the comments or on Twitter.