For the second time in three weeks, the Seattle Seahawks will take on their old rival at the top of the NFC West, the San Francisco 49ers. Despite a win in Week 14, the 49ers remain in the driver’s seat for the first pick in the draft. The Seahawks, meanwhile, picked up another huge victory on Monday night, essentially cementing their place as the conference’s fifth seed.
This week’s pre-game column will be a bit shorter, as the game comes on the heels of the first matchup between these two teams. You can find a full primer on San Francisco’s offense and defense here, and we’ll jump straight into the numbers that matter.
Numbers that Matter
8: In the primer on Kyle Shanahan’s offense linked above, I wrote extensively about the way in which he manufactures separation for his receivers and makes it easy on his quarterbacks. It’s not a coincidence Matt Schaub and Matt Ryan had their best seasons with Shanahan as coordinator; he is one of the game’s premier minds.
With the 49ers on their third starting quarterback in 2018, Shanahan is again working his magic, making Nick Mullens a serviceable quarterback. Though he hasn’t thrown enough passes to qualify, Mullens’ completion percentage would be 25th in the league; his ANY/A is a much more respectable 11th. At the very least, he’s moving the ball for San Francisco—since Mullens stepped into the lineup, the 49ers are fifth in yardage, up from 25th—and that goes back to Shanahan’s offense.
Per Next Gen Stats, Mullens is throwing into tight windows the least among all quarterbacks this year, with just 8% of his passes going into coverage of one yard or less. A former UDFA with a weak arm and shoddy accuracy is helping the 49ers sustain drives by making quick reads and delivering strikes to receivers who have been schemed open. Pete Carroll’s bend-don’t-break philosophy will come into play in the Bay.
45: Despite San Francisco’s increase in volume on offense since Mullens took over, they haven’t been able to increase their scoring output. With Jimmy Garoppolo and then C.J. Beathard under center, the 49ers averaged 2.25 touchdowns per game; with Mullens, it drops slightly to 2.2.
Shanahan and Mullens have San Francisco moving the ball well, getting into advantageous positions on the field, however, they’ve been unable to finish drives. Their red zone offense is 31st in the league, scoring touchdowns on just 45% of trips inside their opponent’s 20. In goal-to-go situations, it’s slightly better, at 54.5%—still good for 31st in the league.
Similar to the first matchup between Seattle and the 49ers, Mullens should rack up yardage and move the ball between the 20s, but San Francisco should continue to stall in the shadow of the goalposts. The Seahawks have maintained Carroll’s core tenet to bend-and-not-break with what is largely a new defense this season, with the ninth ranked defense in both red zone and goal-to-go situations. As long as the offense avoids another dreadful showing like in Week 14, a couple touchdown drives should be enough to top an offense that will be stacking field goals.
Matchups to Watch
Seahawks defense versus George Kittle: The way the 49ers deploy their second year star at tight end is so versatile, it’s impossible to narrow down to a 1-on-1 matchup. In Week 13, Kittle saw snaps out wide across from Tre Flowers, bunched to the right across from Austin Calitro, in the slot across from Tedric Thompson, and in-line against Bobby Wagner. Delano Hill played nearly half the defense’s snaps to help combat Kittle’s ridiculous combination of size and athleticism after the catch.
Though it won’t be as simple as leaning on McDougald, Thompson or Hill to win their matchup against Kittle, slowing him down will go a long way towards completely shutting down San Francisco’s offense. Kittle has 1103 receiving yards on the season and the next closest skill position player on the team (Dante Pettis) has just 363. The 49ers’ passing game goes as Kittle goes—tight ends have accounted for 33.05% of their passing yards (second in the NFL) and 27.44% of their receptions (fourth).
The situation for Seattle’s defense remains unchanged from two weeks ago. If they can contain Kittle and take away San Francisco’s only game changing talent on offense, the score could get out of hand in a hurry.
Jordan Simmons versus DeForest Buckner: Simmons, a complete unknown entering 2018, has started two career games and performed excellently in tough circumstances. Plugging in at right guard, Simmons has helped the Seahawks to their two 200+ yard rushing performances on the season, against the Rams in L.A. and at home to the Vikings last week. Simmons has passed the test in his two previous starts against the likes of Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, Linval Joseph and Sheldon Richardson, but he’ll again have his hands full in start number three.
Though the 49ers’ defense failed to take the step forward expected of them in 2018, Buckner is continuing in his development as a game wrecking force inside. Buckner’s career high nine sacks on the season ranks second among defensive tackles, behind cheat code Aaron Donald. (He also has the second most tackles for loss among DTs, again behind Donald.)
Buckner represents a fascinating challenge for the heavy handed Simmons. Following Simmons’ first start, Carroll cited his size and strength as a reason for playing him over former second round selection Ethan Pocic. That reasoning makes perfect sense—Simmons’ body type is closer to D.J. Fluker’s than Pocic, and he is a much better fit for what Mike Solari wants to do up front. That strength matches up well against the incredibly powerful Suh and the immovable Joseph. However, it will be his technical ability and movement tested against Buckner.
In obvious passing situations, San Francisco likes to deploy Buckner head over the center, allowing him to split the guard and center with a tremendous first step before powering through the gap with his go go gadget arms.
Simmons, a powerful run blocker who’s at his best moving forward, will need to work flawlessly in unison with Justin Britt to not allow Buckner to flush Russell Wilson out of the pocket, or worse, have a clean shot on him.
Fluker, seen as an obvious extension candidate just a few weeks ago, may be getting Wally Pipped by Simmons. If the sophomore guard can prove his versatility as a blocker this week and win his matchup against Buckner, it’s hard to envision Fluker getting back into the lineup, never mind getting an extension after the season.
Opponent to Know
Jeff Wilson, RB: Forced into a larger role in Week 13 after Matt Breida exited with an injury in Seattle, Wilson has impressed as the 49ers’ lead back. In a relief role against the Seahawks, Wilson posted 134 yards from scrimmage. He followed that up with a 96-yard game against the Broncos in the lead role.
Wilson is a no-nonsense, north-south runner who hits the hole with great burst and vision. Expect Wilson and Wagner to have a number of collisions at the second level—though Wilson won’t get the better of Wagner, like he did with Tedric Thompson.
Seattle has been unable to stop lead backs in 2018, allowing 100+ scrimmage yards on nine separate occasions. Assuming tenethe Seahawks aim their focus on Kittle, it’ll fall on Wilson to help move the offense into field goal range.
A win in San Francisco would see Seattle clinch a playoff spot and set up a wildcard weekend trip to Dallas to take on the Cowboys. Against an offense lacking difference makers, and a defense which has disappointing throughout 2018, the Seahawks should do so with ease.