The Seattle Seahawks will begin the final month of the regular season with their first matchup against the 49ers in 2018. Originally set for Sunday Night Football, Seattle and San Francisco were flexed out following Jimmy Garoppolo’s injury and the Seahawks stumbling out of the gate. Instead, Sunday afternoon will see Seattle continue their push for a wildcard spot in a meaningless game for the 2-9 49ers.
Though San Francisco again finds themselves jostling for draft position rather than a playoff spot, Week 13 means an incredible amount to at least one man—Seahawks legend Richard Sherman will make his return to CenturyLink Field.
Offensive and Defensive Primers
Though 2018 hasn’t gone as planned for the 49ers, head coach and playcaller Kyle Shanahan remains one of the league’s brightest minds. Similar to fellow NFC West head coach Sean McVay, Shanahan’s strength is in his ability to manufacture drives from the sideline through superior playcalling. Both got their starts in Tampa Bay, working under coach-turned-commentator-turned-joke Jon Gruden.
At its core, Shanahan’s offense is a West Coast system with a zone blocking scheme. However, dating back to his time as offensive coordinator in Washington, Shanahan’s utilized spread concepts and pistol/shotgun formations extremely well. Through play-action, bootlegs and rollouts, Shanahan provides his quarterback with time and space to set their feet, and make the correct throw.
Working in unison with Shanahan’s affinity for moving the pocket is the way he stretches defenses horizontally. His offenses regularly produce explosive plays—regardless of who is under center—and most come through deep crossers, rather than vertical routes. During Shanahan’s time as the Falcons’ offensive coordinator, Julio Jones made house calls off crossing routes a weekly ritual:
On defense, former Seattle assistant Robert Saleh is in his second year as coordinator. Saleh, like the Seahawks assistants who went elsewhere before him, brought Pete Carroll’s cover-3 heavy system with him. As a result, San Francisco has targeted long, physical cornerbacks, of course highlighted by the signing of Sherman. However, as the defense has failed to improve, Saleh has shown some flexibility in his scheme over the course of 2018, mixing up his coverages and depending on four-man rushes less.
Numbers that Matter
5.6: Seattle has struggled defending the opposing team’s lead back this year (more on that later). They’re currently the 20th ranked run defense in DVOA, and Christian McCaffrey repeatedly gashed them in Week 12. Not helping matters is the way the Seahawks’ run defense has performed on first downs.
Through 12 weeks, Seattle is the league’s worst run defense on first downs, allowing 5.6 yards per carry. The Seahawks’ affinity for early down carries puts themselves in poor positions, and ironically, their opponent’s are continuously putting themselves in manageable positions by running successfully early.
Luckily for Seattle is that their opponents in Week 13, the 49ers, have not run particularly well on early downs. San Francisco’s first down success rate when running is 20th in the league, at 47%. Sunday will see a fascinating matchup between a run defense that can’t stop teams on first down, and an offense that isn’t particularly strong on first downs.
48: Tyler Lockett’s excellent season is the worst kept secret, and it’s becoming more widely known as his insane pace continues. Lockett remains on track to be the first receiver to catch 12+ touchdowns on fewer than 80 targets, and has established himself as one of the league’s premier positive outcomes. Six of Lockett’s touchdowns have come on passes of 15+ yards, which is tied with Antonio Brown for the league lead. Additionally, Lockett’s caught 10-of-14 deep targets, second to the impossibly great Michael Thomas.
On the other side you have a 49ers defense that has failed to take the next step in 2018, currently sitting at 23rd in DVOA, after finishing 2017 in 26th. However—a nod to Saleh’s roots in Carroll’s system—they have prevented explosive plays consistently this season. The 48 explosive plays they have allowed is tied for seventh least in the entire league, and that’s with free safety Adrian Colbert on injured reserve for the last five weeks (and he was having a dreadful sophomore season prior to that).
Lockett’s big-play efficiency will be tested against one of the league’s best defenses at protecting over the top, in the best matchup to watch on Sunday.
105.7: The Seahawks’ proficiency in the red zone stalled a bit in Week 12, as Seattle had to settle for field goals inside the red zone twice (plus Sebastian Janikowski’s game-winning field goal, which came from the Panthers’ 12-yard line). Despite last week’s bump in the road, the Seahawks remain a great red zone offense, sitting 10th in the league with 66.67% of their red zone trips resulting in touchdowns. Russell Wilson’s aversion to turnovers is a big part of this (as is a revived running game), and Wilson is the seventh ranked passer inside the opposition 20, with a passer rating of 105.7.
Seattle will attempt to get rolling again inside the 20 against a San Francisco defense which ranks 18th in the league in red zone defense. Through 12 weeks, opposing offenses have converted 59.52% of red zone trips into touchdowns against the 49ers. In the Seahawks’ last game at CenturyLink Field, they went 3/3 on red zone trips in a massive win against the Packers, and will have a great chance to get back on track in their return home.
4: Before San Francisco was dealt the crushing blow of losing Garoppolo for the season, they lost their lead tailback, Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL. McKinnon was supposed to form a versatile, dynamic two-headed monster with the SPARQ’d up Matt Breida. Instead, the lead role was given to Breida, with Alfred Morris added for insurance.
Breida, though not necessarily fulfilling the role of a traditional back, has been electrifying this season. The sophomore is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 8.8 yards per catch, posting five touchdowns along the way. 26 of Breida’s 127 carries have gone for 10+ yards, the highest rate (20.5%) among backs with 100 or more carries in 2018. Now, Breida finds himself in a great matchup, as lead tailbacks have continued to cause Seattle problems all year long.
McCaffrey’s 237-yard day last week was the fourth straight game the Seahawks have allowed 100+ scrimmage yards to an opposing back, and the eighth time overall. Breida is one of the few playmakers the 49ers have remaining on their active roster, and he’ll present Seattle with a difficult mismatch on Sunday.
Matchups to Watch
George Kittle versus Seattle’s defense: The Seahawks have barely been tested by tight ends in 2018. The most threatening one they have had to defend is Jared Cook, who has put together a respectable season with the Raiders. They held him to two catches for 10 yards. Greg Olsen has been slowed all year long, and didn’t represent a real threat last week. George Kittle, however, is different.
If Travis Kelce, Evan Engram, David Njoku, O.J. Howard and the like represent the new model of tight ends, Kittle represents the future of traditional players at the position. Like Rob Gronkowski, Kittle is every bit as dominant of a blocker as he is a pass catcher. He’s an utter freak as an athlete, and takes pride in burying opponents.
George Kittle's weekly fantastic block: pic.twitter.com/9MvEwGwVmn— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 10, 2018
With K.J. Wright still out with a knee injury, it will be interesting to see how Seattle defends San Francisco's best pass catcher. Last week, Delano Hill played a considerable amount of snaps as the third safety, and covered Olsen downfield on several occasions. In other instances, with the Seahawks in base near the goal line, it was Barkevious Mingo covering Olsen. Whoever ends up drawing the assignment will have an incredibly difficult task.
Kittle was largely expected to breakout in 2018, with the 49ers finally getting some stability at quarterback. While the stability didn’t come, Kittle’s breakout has in a huge way. Among tight ends, Kittle currently ranks third in receptions (56), third in yards (823) and tied for sixth in touchdowns (three). Of tight ends with 30+ receptions, Kittle’s first down percentage of 69.6% is behind just Howard. San Francisco's leap on offense didn’t come, and as a result, the offense has been funneled through Kittle. The 49ers are third in the league in both percentage of catches (27.78) and yards (31.82) to go to their tight ends.
Breida’s big play ability has been a tremendous asset to San Francisco in 2018, but if Seattle can contain Kittle, they could put the game away with ease.
Doug Baldwin versus Richard Sherman: I doubt these two will be across from one another often on Sunday, but even if it’s just one time, it should receive all of your focus. Their friendship is well documented, and was summarized wonderfully by The Athletic’s Jayson Jenks on Thursday. Sherman is having a classically great season, and Baldwin said Thursday it’s the best he has felt since OTAs.
Both players spoke to the media on Thursday, and the other unsurprisingly came up. Baldwin expressed disappointment in the way Sherman’s time with the Seahawks ended, while Sherman said “it’ll be fun” to cover his longtime teammate.
During an NFL Film Session with Brian Baldinger this summer, Baldwin was asked what it will be like to face Sherman outside of practice for the first time ever. His answer was wonderful and authentic:
The most memorable part of Doug Baldwin's Film Session came at the very end, as Baldwin talks about what it's going to be like lining up across from Richard Sherman: pic.twitter.com/AcEeGKbreP— Alistair Corp (@AlistairCorp) August 15, 2018
The past couple seasons have seen several pillars of the Super Bowl winning Seahawks depart and return in different colors. Seeing Marshawn Lynch run against Seattle’s defense was bizarre. But without a doubt, watching Baldwin run a route while covered by Sherman will be the most surreal moment yet.
Opponent to Know
Fred Warner, LB: Just 12 weeks into the 2018 regular season, we can say for certain this past spring’s draft delivered us two bona fide stars at linebacker. Darius Leonard of the Colts and the Cowboys’ Leighton Vander Esch are tackling everything in sight en route to Defensive Rookie of the Year awards in their respective conferences.
Overshadowed by his rookie counterparts is Fred Warner, who after cooling off following a flashy start, has quietly been one of the 49ers’ most consistent players. At 6-foot-3 and 236 pounds, Warner possessed the athleticism and size the Seahawks like in a linebacker, and may have been a target had he fallen to the draft’s third day.
Instead, Warner ended up in San Francisco, and all he has done is start every game while making the calls for Saleh’s defense. Warner, like his fellow rookies, has all the makings of a modern linebacker and that has shined in recent weeks. Over the last five weeks, Warner’s allowed just 95 yards and has had the highest incompletion percentage among linebackers. On the season, the rookie’s run-stop percentage of 10.7 is third in the league.
A complete, modern linebacker who has taken the reins of the 49ers’ defense, will be flying all over the field for San Francisco on Sunday. Whether it’s meeting Chris Carson at the line of scrimmage, or tracking J.D. McKissic out of the backfield, Warner will be up to whatever Seattle’s versatile backfield tests him with.
The Seahawks have posted two epic wins in back-to-back weeks to put themselves in great position for a wildcard spot. Now, Seattle has to take care of business in their three games remaining against lifeless opposition, beginning with the 49ers on Sunday.