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Seahawks-49ers: 3 key matchups to watch in Week 10

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NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since Thanksgiving in 2014, the Seahawks and 49ers are set to face each other in a truly meaningful game for both sides. Then, the 49ers were a withering powerhouse winding down Jim Harbaugh’s tenure; now, San Francisco is a similarly defensively stout, run-heavy attack team. Seattle, meanwhile, is jarringly different: Their defense can’t get pressure, nor slow down a passer even at the level of Matt Schaub, but they are guided by an MVP-caliber quarterback in Russell Wilson.

One of the best rivalries of the decade will be reestablished in prime-time on Monday night, and these will be the matchups to watch.

Bradley McDougald vs George Kittle

The 49ers’ trade for Emmanuel Sanders was perhaps the most impactful, and valuable, deal that any contender made ahead of the deadline. Dante Pettis has failed to build upon a promising end to 2018, while Deebo Samuel is just a gadget player at this stage, and so receiver help was desperately needed. Sanders stepped right into the lineup in Week 8 and has produced a welcome 11 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns in two appearances. He’ll be an issue for the Seahawks to defend out of the slot. However, for as revitalizing as Sanders will be for San Francisco’s passing attack, everything through the air will still revolve around Kittle.

The third-year tight end is on pace for a career high in catches, and is yet to drop a pass in 2019. Kittle is capable of threatening every level of the field, and after the catch he is borderline unstoppable. Though Kyle Shanahan expressed uncertainty surrounding Kittle’s status for Monday, he has proven to be supremely durable throughout his career, having missed just one game. It was this matchup in 2018 that saw Pete Carroll and Seattle’s defense begin to experiment with three-safety looks in a big nickel, as Lano Hill drew into the lineup. With Quandre Diggs set to make his debut, it’s possible the Seahawks return to that strategy; however, to start, it will likely be Marquise Blair at free safety, and McDougald at strong.

The last time Seattle faced a high-end receiver at tight end, Austin Hooper enjoyed a steady day with six catches for 65 yards and a touchdown. With the Seahawks playing two high safeties with regularity against the Falcons, Hooper was too often given a free release and an easy reception, as Blair—playing strong safety in Atlanta—was forced to crash down and stop Hooper after the catch.

That cannot be the case against the 49ers: Kittle is one of the best players after the catch across positions, and will thrive if given space (for the season, San Francisco is fourth in percentage of receiving yards after the catch).

The improved range and speed Blair gives Seattle at free safety should enable the Seahawks to rotate McDougald down closer to the line, playing across from Kittle and keeping tight in coverage. Not only should that slow him down after the catch, but it should serve to stop the easy completions tight ends have enjoyed against Seattle. Containing Kittle will go a long way towards the Seahawks surviving against the 11th ranked passing offense in DVOA.

Seahawks’ offensive line vs Nick Bosa

Of course, this particular matchup could be viewed as one front against the other, with the 49ers boasting a full rotation of impact players on the defensive line: Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead—who’s enjoying a breakout season—Dee Ford, Ronald Blair and Solomon Thomas. As a team, the 49ers are disrupting (defined as a hurry, pressure or sack) the opposing quarterback on 34 percent of passing plays. Against an offensive line in Seattle which ranks 27th in pass block win rate and 20th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, they’re going to create havoc and get to Russell Wilson.

However, it’s Bosa who can truly wreck an opposing team’s gameplan, lining up on the right and left side, as well as inside as the 3-tech. For as many spots as he lines up at, he has that many tools in his bag to beat you with: He’s a technician with his hands, possesses a mean bull-rush, and has the athleticism to bend the edge with ease. Bosa paces San Francisco with 38 pressures, seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss, as well as ranking fourth in Pro Football Focus’ pass rush win rate—the focus has to be on not allowing Bosa to takeover the game.

The rookie pass rusher has been the best player on the field on multiple occasions this season, including in blowout victories against the Panthers and Browns. Not only is he a surefire Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, he should be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. Whether it’s chipping Bosa with a tight end or running back when he’s on the edge, or committing Joey Hunt to slide and help either guard with him when he’s lined up inside, the Seahawks need to be sure to give Bosa the attention he requires, and not allow him to dominate as he has.

Tyler Lockett vs K’Waun Williams

While all the attention will be focused towards Richard Sherman playing against his former team, the best battle will be taking place inside, between one of the league’s best slot receivers and best nickelbacks. Lockett, fresh off one of the best statistical games of his career, leads the league in receiving yards from the slot, with 604 of his 767 yards coming when he’s been lined up inside.

Opposite Lockett in San Francisco will be Williams, who, along with Justin Coleman and Nickell Robey-Coleman, is playing as good as any defender in the slot this season. In 2019, opposing quarterbacks have a passer rating of 49.6 when targeting Williams, and he is allowing just 6.4 yards per completion. Sherman will eliminate whoever finds themselves on the right side, be it David Moore, Jaron Brown or Josh Gordon; DK Metcalf will have the opportunity for explosive plays on the left; but Lockett against Williams will dictate who wins between Seattle’s receivers and the 49ers’ secondary.

In what was Brian Schottenheimer’s best called game of the season against the Buccaneers, Lockett and others benefited from well drawn up plays getting them free and into space repeatedly. Lockett himself was the benefactor of no fewer than three rub routes, as others bought him separation and he wheeled away from helpless defenders. Against the second ranked defense in DVOA, and one of the best slot corners in the NFL, Schottenheimer is going to need another well called game in order for Lockett and his fellow playmakers to thrive.

Though both face daunting schedules over the rest of the season, whichever team comes out on top in Week 10 is likely to have the advantage in a tight divisional race, with the 8-0 49ers and 7-2 Seahawks to play at CenturyLink Field later in the year. As long as Seattle can withstand the strength of the 49ers’ team in their defensive line, they’ll have a strong chance at giving San Francisco their first loss of the season.