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DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and the value of intimidation

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

Early in the third quarter the San Francisco 49ers defense began hitting itself. DK Metcalf held Robert Saleh’s right arm and Tyler Lockett his left, and though both pleaded with the venerable young defensive coordinator to stop hitting himself, it was no use. He slugged and slugged away. Nine short jabs later and the Seattle Seahawks had driven 63 yards and scored a touchdown. Why did Saleh insist on brutalizing his own face with his own fists? Why, Robert, why?

Intimidation.

Saleh became so concerned about stopping Seattle’s deep passing attack, that he opened enough space underneath to treat DeeJay Dallas to a day at football fantasy camp.

Dallas received four of the team’s possible nine touches on the drive. Travis Homer subbed in for a run. Russell Wilson rushed twice, once intentionally. Metcalf and Lockett combined for one reception.

It was a drive unlike any drive Seattle has run all season: damn slow and successful. Not pretty by any stretch, but mercilessly efficient in a way mostly alien to the Seahawks during Wilson’s tenure.

First let’s look at the run Wilson meant to run, before looking at three other plays in which Metcalf and Lockett dominated the 49ers defense just by being scary.

The Transcendental Fullback

The drive started with a 21-yard rush by Wilson. This was the team’s lone chunk play. Unlike in seasons past, the run was not some high-wire act equally thrilling and scary. It was downright easy. The reason? Metcalf was able to play lead blocker without having to land a block.

San Francisco only made the tiniest mistake.

Arik Armstead gets greedy and works an inside move on Brandon Shell. That’s a no-no against a scrambling quarterback. Wilson breaks containment right and is off.

Metcalf’s sluggo route will never appear on a teaching tape. His break into the “go” portion of the route isn’t nearly crisp enough, and he doesn’t achieve any meaningful separation. But the fear he instills running deep, the speed he quickly achieves running straight ahead, is enough for safety Jimmie Ward to flip his hips and run with his back toward Wilson. Wilson turns the corner with nearly 40 yards of open field ahead of him.

Rooks gotta eat too

Dallas didn’t look too hot our there, did he? His long run of the game didn’t benefit from good run blocking, either. This is busted.

Damien Lewis is in the process of tripping. That leaves Fred Warner unblocked. Warner’s in the primary hole. Two 49ers are sitting on the cutback lane. 49ers are shaded offensive left in the left guard seam and off left tackle. Which means every available rushing lane is accounted for. Running off left tackle has the added obstacle of Azeez Al-Shaair unblocked. But Al-Shaair is an undrafted free agent pressed into duty because of Kwon Alexander’s injury. A cut outside would pit depth versus depth.

What we don’t see above is how much space Metcalf and Lockett have created through intimidation.

Dallas only needs to break one tackle before running free.

On a Sunday when whether Wilson would pass first and pass often was never in doubt, this was about as good as it got for the run game.

One block busts a beautiful screen pass

Mostly Jordan Simmons was admirably anonymous on Sunday. His limitations in space are plenty evident here.

Here’s our pre-snap look after Will Dissly motions from left to right. Seattle has San Francisco in a bind. The Seahawks use of two tights ends and a back forces the 49ers into base personnel. But Jacob Hollister is a move tight end, as much receiver as tight end. I’m dithering, for the purpose of this post, consider how Metcalf has stacked coverage on the left.

Metcalf and to a lesser extent Dallas exert almost as much gravity, if you will, as Lockett, Hollister and Dissly. A great receiver can be said to “tilt the field.” That’s what we see here. A player so dangerous that the whole formation cheats toward him. Not like a youth soccer game, in which every player runs directly to the ball, but a standard cover 2 look that is slightly warped left at all three levels.

Just by moving to his left, Metcalf pulls the corner and safety wide.

A line desperate to generate pass rush against an elite passing attack takes the bait and flies through the gaps. Simmons, Ethan Pocic and Lewis streak in front of Dallas. It’s practice levels of easy. Only, Simmons overshoots outside linebacker Dre Greenlaw. He’s left attempting to correct his footwork and square up when he should be blocking. Simmons doesn’t even land a pop, really, and Greenlaw ends a really promising-looking screen after a minimal gain.

DeeJay saves my fantasy team

This one’s easy.

Metcalf draws deep and shallow coverage into the right corner of the end zone. That creates a void in coverage shallow and to the right. Al-Shaair, covering Dallas, probably does not know this. He has his own problems.

Dallas has him beat to the outside. Wilson has Armstead beat to the outside. If Shaair stays with Dallas, Wilson has an easy path to the end zone. If he closes on Wilson, which he does, Dallas is wide open.

Touchdown. Seahawks go up 20-7. On the ensuing kickoff Cody Barton will force a fumble effectively winning the game.

Seattle added 18.54 points passing against San Francisco. For the season they’ve averaged 13.40 EPA passing. The 15 passes targeting Metcalf, including three incomplete passes, added 15.24 points. That is MVP level play. Because of how deadly Metcalf has become, and the specific nature of his ability, he contributed every snap he played, targeted or not.

This past Sunday I got to relax my stubbornness. Yes I want Seattle to run the ball more. No I did not want them to run the ball more against the 49ers. It would have been a foolish consistency, and while I do not think it would have cost Seattle the game, who knows. Maybe Jimmy Garoppolo would have been pulled earlier if the game were close. I wasn’t at all tired of hearing how he couldn’t play well because of his injury. Not at all, a quarterback must be untouched and without fatigue or injury. Otherwise no mistake he makes is at all his fault.

Running the ball allows an offense to create mismatches through deception. But running the ball can be costly. Preferable always is to create mismatches through superior talent. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf create mismatches for the rest of the offense through superior talent. They’re scary, and so intimidating is the possibility that they might beat you deep, or increasingly in Metcalf’s case, that he might house any reception no matter where received, that defensive coordinators have taken to self-flagellation. Facing a pair of knockout punch receivers, they’d rather hit themselves.