One of the NFL’s best rivalries will be renewed on Sunday, as the 49ers head up to Seattle to take on the Seahawks. At 4-3, San Francisco has done an admirable job of maneuvering a long list of injuries, with Kyle Shanahan only furthering the notion he is one of the truly great head coaches in the league.
That being said, it’s Seahawks-49ers—it’s going to get weird.
What the 49ers do well
Brace yourself: A Shanahan-coached team runs the ball incredibly well. Despite losing Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman, San Francisco’s running game has continued to dominate, with Jeff Wilson Jr. and JaMycal Hasty leading the way a week ago. Second in rushing DVOA, the 49ers’ running game is absolutely lethal pre- and post-snap, as Shanahan forces defenders to make decisions before the snap before out-executing your scheme after the snap. As Ugo Amadi told me this summer, the pre-snap motion forces defenders to think and gives their offense a split-second advantage: “The 9ers, they love to do motion every snap, they motion just to see... it could be just to change your gap fit, or a man/zone indicator too.”
San Francisco’s rushing attack against Seattle’s run-stopping will be one of the best matchups on Sunday, with the Seahawks proving to be tough to run against so far this season as they’ve experimented with different fronts. Discipline and mobility will be of the highest importance, as Seattle must maintain gap integrity and be able to defend laterally in order to slow down the 49ers’ running game. Poona Ford, who has proven to be highly effective against outside zone, will be vital—so too will the rest of the Seahawks’ front.
Where the 49ers can be exploited
Though they have fared well for the most part without Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams, San Francisco’s cornerbacks will be the position Seattle hopes to exploit. While Sherman is the missing name everyone will look to, it’s Williams whose absence should be felt the most on Sunday—provided he remains on I.R., though he has been designated to return and has not yet been ruled out.
In Sherman’s absence, Jason Verrett has played marvelously and should be a legitimate Comeback Player of the Year candidate, emerging as a high-level starter again after years of awful injury luck. Verrett and Emmanuel Moseley have steadied the 49ers’ play on the outside in Sherman’s absence, but the slot will remain exploitable as long as Williams, one of the league’s best nickels, is out.
Should Williams stay on I.R. through Week 8, Tyler Lockett will get the chance to follow up on his marvelous 15-catch, 200-yard, three-touchdown day with a matchup against Jamar Taylor. In relief of Williams, Taylor has been dreadful, allowing over 15 yards per reception. A matchup against Lockett would be wildly one-sided, while even a return for Williams could prove tricky for the 49ers, with his mobility certain to be impacted coming off knee and hip injuries.
However, the middle of the field will still prove to be tricky to navigate, as San Francisco boasts the best linebacker in the NFL.
Who to know on the 49ers
By now, in his third season, Fred Warner should be a household name. The Defensive Player of the Year contender is a freak of nature, created in a lab specifically for the modern NFL—as comfortable carrying should-be mismatch tight ends down the field as he is sprinting across the field to lay a hit on a running back. In addition to high-level athleticism that enables him to match up with just about anyone, Warner’s intelligence has a similar impact to prime Earl Thomas’s, allowing him to take away several options within a single play with the simplest adjustments to his positioning.
Warner’s presence will force the Seahawks to get creative and scheme receivers open, whether it’s Lockett, DK Metcalf, or anyone else. If Warner is not obstructed, be it by a pick or putting him in conflict, he’ll be able to cause havoc and lessen the risks of having a player like Taylor matched up against Lockett. Warner is going to be a massive problem for Seattle for years to come and on Sunday, he’ll play a major role.
When Jimmy Garoppolo drops back, the Seahawks have to pressure
Jimmy Garoppolo, still, is entirely unconvincing as a starting quarterback. However, when given a clean pocket and time to sit back and find the open receiver, he can absolutely be successful, such is the friendliness of his play-caller. That being said, the gap between his success without pressure and his struggles when pressured is absolutely massive.
A year ago, Garoppolo’s DVOA under pressure was better than only Case Keenum, Joe Flacco, Mason Rudolph, Dwayne Haskins, and Kyle Allen. Without pressure, however, the 49ers’ quarterback was eighth in the NFL in DVOA. Whether a defense can get pressure on Garoppolo or not is the difference between facing a dreadful quarterback and one that is entirely capable of managing an offense.
Even if it means bringing extra rushers and putting the secondary in disadvantageous positions, the Seahawks simply must prioritize pressuring Garoppolo when he drops back to pass—to do otherwise would be to simply accept death by a thousand papercuts.
Why the Seahawks will win
While Seattle’s offense is certainly the best unit between the two teams, San Francisco’s far more balanced when considering both sides of the ball. Regardless of almost any positional or individual advantage either team possesses, it seems inevitable that Week 8 is going to come down to the death. When that happens, it’s the Seahawks who have the crucial advantage: Russell Wilson, as he has proven time and time again over the course of his nine seasons, is a difference-maker in those situations. With Wilson and a lethally efficient offense, Seattle can eke out a tight divisional game.