The Seattle Seahawks (3-8) have just one win over an NFC team, and it’s none other than hated division rivals the San Francisco 49ers (6-5). Seattle’s 28-21 road win in Week 4 improved their record to 2-2, but the season has been in the sewer ever since then. As for the 49ers, they also went to 2-2 with that loss and eventually 2-4, but they have been on a hot streak and find themselves 6-5 and in prime position to make the playoffs as a wild card.
Since the NFC West’s realignment in 2002, the 49ers have finished ahead of the Seahawks in the standings just six times: 2002, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2019. In four of those six years the Seahawks missed the playoffs and it looks like we’ll make it five out of seven barring something drastic. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?
At the moment, the Seahawks are 3.5-point home underdogs to the 49ers according to DraftKings Sportsbook. So what’s changed the 49ers’ season, and how can the moribund Seahawks offense find ways to exploit the San Francisco defense? I asked Tyler Austin from Niners Nation the hard-hitting questions in this week’s game preview.
1.) The 49ers have been on a serious surge since their 2-4 start. What has been the single biggest factor in this midseason turnaround?
Why yes, the 49ers have been surging as of late, and let me tell you, it’s been quite a thrill. The disappointment of that 2-4 start has been all but erased, and even the utter disgust I felt after the humiliating home loss to the Colt McCoy Cardinals, which is the season’s true rock bottom, has nearly left me, too. The reason those losses stung so badly is that deep down fans knew this version of the team existed all along, and it seemed so close, yet so far.
As for answering your question, the turnaround has really been spurred on by a bunch of little things all going right at the right time. To keep things short, I’d start by mentioning how they’ve cleaned up the defense’s sloppiness and penchant for deep pass interference penalties. They were plagued by these during their slide, and, while not all is perfect in the secondary, play there has certainly leveled off to acceptable levels.
A big reason for that improvement, and the recent streak, has been a relative return to health in many key areas. First, the team’s starting safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, rejoined the lineup against the Rams and Jaguars, respectively, and their impact was immediate. They have helped smooth out a secondary unit that’s also down Jason Verrett for the year, and has been relying on Josh Norman, who was signed off the street right before the season began.
On the offensive side of the ball, Jimmy Garoppolo and George Kittle both have regained full health after their calf strains, and Elijah Mitchell has battled through numerous injuries to finally take hold of the starting running back role. Mitchell’s value cannot be overstated, as the rest of the running back room has been similarly hurt or underperforming, he’s become a workhorse in an offense and league that no longer has workhorses.
Lastly, and I’ll say most importantly, Kyle Shanahan took a good, long look in the mirror and got himself out of his playcalling slump. When asked about what’s changed as the Niners began winning again, the coach gave a startlingly honest and self-critical answer. He couldn’t handle the two QB system that he had envisioned and implemented for himself this season. As much as it might have messed with the opposing team to have to prepare and defend players at the same position with completely different skill sets, it seems to have messed with Shanahan’s rhythm even more. He couldn’t settle into drives, read defensive tendencies, and exploit their weaknesses like he used to, and something had to give. So, don’t expect any Trey Lance in this one, unless it gets really out of hand.
2.) Deebo Samuel is unlikely to play this weekend with a groin injury so that’s a big blow to the offense, but before his injury he suddenly became almost the team’s primary backup running back. Deebo is an insanely versatile player but what prompted his increased rushing attempts in recent weeks?
Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel have always loved to use Deebo in ways that confound defenses all the way back to his rookie season. He’s just such a uniquely gifted athlete, how could you not? There’s no other player built like a power running back that can reach 22 mph on the GPS analytics system, while plucking balls out of the air in between traffic or on deep passes? He’s truly one of one.
As he’s rounded into full form in his third season, I think that on some level this was always the plan for Deebo. Shanahan is obsessed with the idea of positionless offensive football as a way to better create mismatches, and this is the natural evolution of that idea. When the Niners lined up in the gun against the Vikings with Elijah Mitchell and Deebo Samuel flanking Garoppolo on either side, I can only imagine the terror in the heart of the defenders as they wait to see if one of those two players, who each had tremendous games, was about to receive the ball, and how.
His usage rates in the run game certainly grew as the year went on, and that could probably be chalked up to the mother of invention, necessity. Between the relentless injuries to the running back room and a lack of spark from anyone not named Deebo, it became a case of Occam’s Razor. The simplest solution proved to be get the ball in the hands of your best player no matter how, when, or what, and it worked out well.
3.) Brandon Aiyuk has had an uneven start to his 49ers career, but he has really come on strong as of late with 23 catches for 336 yards and 2 touchdowns. What’s changed for him in terms of his role in the offense?
We may never truly grasp the cause behind the Great 2021 Doghousing of Aiyuk, but there are some breadcrumbs and tea leaves for us to read. Before his resurgence, Aiyuk and Shanahan sat down to clear the air and talk about expectations. Shanahan, as a former wide receiver himself, is notably a tough grader in all aspects of the position, and had some concrete suggestions for his player.
Apparently, the GPS tracking device in Aiyuk’s shoulder pads betrayed a lack of effort in practice, which doesn’t seem uncommon for second year players who think they’ve got the league all figured out. It appears this was the root of Shanahan’s frustration with his budding star, and once the message became clear things changed.
Aiyuk also refocused himself as a run blocker, and the difference has been night and day. From the Chicago game on it seems Aiyuk has at least one big, physical block downfield. This past Sunday it culminated in a penalty on Harrison Smith, who didn’t appreciate the manhandling of his teammate Patrick Peterson, and knocked off Aiyuk’s helmet.
His engagement at every level has paid massive dividends so far for the offense, and they will have to this weekend with Deebo Samuel out with a groin strain.
4.) Nick Bosa is having a phenomenal season with 11 sacks already. I’m not ready to think about what the 49ers pass rush will do to the Seahawks OL (again). What are some of the potential weaknesses the Seahawks offense could exploit this Sunday?
If you’re looking for weaknesses in the 49ers defense, look no further than the end opposite of Nick Bosa. While the stud DE has dominated, it’s been near impossible to find a running mate for him on the other edge, which leads to near constant double teams for the man with double digit sacks.
On the inside, the 49ers have been without their biggest and best run defender in Javon Kinlaw, and it’s been a challenge replicating his production. In the Wide-9 scheme, the middle of the line is more susceptible to big, open running lanes, especially without a space-eating DT, and this team has been no exception.
If the Seattle running game can take advantage of the middle of the field, they probably love what they see at the second level. That is, no Fred Warner, who’ll be out for a week or so with a hamstring pull. The Niners will be featuring their SAM LB as the MIKE, and don’t get me wrong Azeez Al-Shaair has played phenomenally, but given the choice you always want Warner out there.
In the secondary, I would bet Russell Wilson wouldn’t mind picking on Josh Norman in the deep game, if only to just try to draw a pass interference call. The vet has not looked his best in coverage this year, and could be an easily exploitable target.
So, simply, run it up the gut and take some shots downfield. Uh oh.
5.) Morale has to be high with a 6-5 record and the NFC wild card race being far less daunting than the AFC. Do you think this team can make a late-season surge into being a darkhorse Super Bowl contender? Not only is this team in a wild card spot but now they have a real chance at finishing as runner-up over the Rams.
The NFC does feel particularly wide open at the moment, depending on each week’s installment of Green Bay General Hospital, and there isn’t a truly dominant defense to be found. This stretch has been incredibly encouraging from the Niners, and it’s easy to put together the pieces to see them becoming a legitimate darkhorse contender.
They have shown what this offense operating at full capacity can do to just about any opponent in the league, and done just enough on defense to get by. To see it all come together, as we all hoped it could/would, has been an incredibly exciting development. But there’s certainly still a nagging feeling that this all might not be sustainable enough to get over the hump.
First, the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to talking about the 49ers has to be injuries. Can they remain at a healthy enough level to keep this type of production up on offense? Will the defense crumble with just one more piece removed like they did against the Cardinals? It feels like a tightrope walk every week, as to who could go out, and what kind of massive repercussions that’ll send throughout the team.
The other giant factor in both this current win streak and a Super Bowl run will be the play of Jimmy Garoppolo. The quarterback has been his consistently inconsistent self, even while finishing near the top of PFF rankings and efficiency boards for the past month and change. It should be no surprise that he’s looked his best when he gets to hand the ball off almost 40 times, and deliver some well-schemed strikes on third down or in the red zone.
He’s been dynamite in those areas this year, and it’s certainly not impossible that he can keep it up for the duration of the season and postseason, but as history has shown, he’s not exactly the guy you want to rely on to make plays to win you games. Trying to win the Super Bowl with that type of quarterback is never easy, but not impossible. So, I’m ready to see how far this wild ride takes us, and enjoy it while I can.
Thanks to Tyler for answering my questions. You can read my responses to his questions in the link below!