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Seahawks vs. 49ers: A closer look

The latest prediction for the Seahawks’ next game.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

An Apology

Oh forgive me 12th man for I have sinned! I underestimated the Seahawks' defense, depth, and the effect the 12th man has on this team. I won't make the same mistakes again (unless I do) and I henceforth give readers permission to say the following (or some similar iteration): "You're pulling a Saints game!"

If I may explain - I did what other analysts do - I tried to find the unexpected result. Generally, if a consensus of analysts, fans, and data point to one outcome, they turn out to be correct (specifics notwithstanding). However, every now and again, a team has an unexpected result. If an analyst can find that unexpected result, then it'll put them one step ahead of the competition.

I figured that if the Hawks' were going to lose, the Saints were a good guess. Unfortunately, after I came to that conclusion, I found evidence to favor the conclusion and built a narrative around it. That order of operations is completely backwards. The evidence should lead into the conclusion, not the other way around.

I don't feel bad about picking the Saints, I just feel bad about the method. I'll try not to fall prey to the siren's song again.

A Retrospect

At this point, the Seahawks just seem unfair. The Seahawks had so many swats this game that they make Shaq playing in a 6-foot-and-under tournament seem par for the course. The NFL should investigate if the Seahawks replaced the arm of Drew Brees with an angry ferret because I'm not sure which one would have done better.

On offense, the Seahawks looked downright Manning-esque. In their effort to stop Marshawn Lynch and the running game (which sort of worked), they forgot that Wilson is actually a really good quarterback. It was a curious decision by the Saints coaches, but one that vaults Wilson into the MVP discussion for realsies. Manning will likely win the award, but that's only because the award is now the annual "QB with the best stats award."

In all, this game was another instance of Seahawks obliteration.

This next section allows readers to assess how well my predictions have played out. As always, this post will rely heavily on stats (all stats through week 13), mostly from football outsiders. You can read more here.

On to the recap!

Where my predictions were right!

  • Neither Mark Ingram nor Pierre Thomas would be effective rushing.
  • Darren Sproles would not run the ball very much, or well.
  • Pierre Thomas would not have success catching the ball.
  • Doug Baldwin would find success and ~70 yards.
  • Golden Tate would struggle.
  • Russell Wilson would have an efficient day passing and around 50 yards rushing.

Where my predictions were wrong.

  • Marques Colston would have a nice game. (~60 yards and a TD).
  • Kenny Stills would have an impact, but be limited.
  • Robert Meachem would be limited.
  • Sproles would hurt the Hawks' with his pass catching (~60 yards receiving).
  • Jimmy Graham would have a great (if average for him) day.
  • Brees would have a typical Brees day (300 yards and 3-4 TDs).
  • Marshawn Lynch would have 120 yards rushing and a couple of TDs.
  • Percy Harvin would have ~70 yards.

Somewhere in between.

  • Lance more would have an above average day (~30 yards).
  • The final score would be 38-34.

At a Glance

The Seahawks have now clinched a playoff berth. Pete Carroll would probably - and already does - remind people to focus on the next step (which is the division), but that won't stop me from day dreaming of an NFC championship game in Seattle.

With a win over the 49ers, the Seahawks would stay right on schedule by winning the division and realistically clinch the NFC (though, there would still be mathematical possibilities). Of course, the 49ers are going to try and stop the Hawks' from running away with the division (and the conference). Coming to the 49ers aid in stopping the Seahawks is Michael Crabtree, an elite receiver and a possibly improved Colin Kaepernick (we'll get to that later).

49ers/Seahawks games are always fun. The games have evolved into what is probably the premier rivalry in the NFL, right now, and the games are always entertaining. Keep things classy Hawks' fans, but don't forget to have some fun.

The San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers Offense

There is none.

The San Francisco 49ers Defense

Just kidding.On the surface, the offense of the 49ers is similar to the Seahawks. The difference is just that the Seahawks offense is comparably more efficient in almost every area. The 49ers inefficiency represents a significant decrease from their offense last year. The offense has gone from 5th to 14th in offensive DVOA

While the 49ers have been noticeably less efficient in many areas this season compared to last, the largest decrease in efficiency has been seen in the running game. Last year, the 49ers offense was one of the best rushing offenses in the NFL. Frank Gore ran for 1,200 yards on 4.7 yards per carry, Kaepernick ran for 415 yards on 6.6 yards per carry, and their rushing game was ranked 3rd in the NFL in rushing DVOA.This year, Gore has 821 yards, but on a significantly lower 4.0 yards per carry, and Kaepernick has rushed for 376 yards on 5.4 yards per carry. Consequently, their rushing offense has fallen in the ranks to 15th in rushing DVOA.

Whenever there's a large decrease in DVOA, you can never find one single reason. Generally, there are many potential culprits: the 49ers offensive line has gone from 1st to 30th in adjusted offensive line yards, Frank Gore may be slowing down, Kendall Hunter has been less efficient, LaMichael James hasn't lived up to his hype, the read option - while still effective- has lost some luster, there have been offensive line injuries (Mike Iupati, Joe Staley) and Kaepernick isn't running with the same efficiency. I haven't watched the 49ers overly much this season, so I can't say with much authority, but it's also possible that with Kaepernick's struggles, opponents have keyed in on the 49ers rush offense.

I don't know if anyone can say how much of one factor has led to the decline in the run game, but I would suggest that Kaepernick's decrease in productivity is the largest factor, but again, that's more speculation than anything else.

Speaking of Kaepernick, his stats are actually very interesting. Compared to last year, Kaepernick is attempting more passes (from 17 a game to 25), throwing for more yards (138 yards a game to 191), and throwing for more TDs (0.77 a game to 1.25). Why is it then, that Kaepernick has been derided so much this season?

For starters, Kaepernick hasn't been as efficient. The numbers I gave before are more like raw totals, and as Hawks' fans should know, efficiency is generally a better measure than simple totals. As far as efficiency measures are concerned, one of the best is the simple, yards per attempt. Last year, Kaepernick averaged an elite 8.32 yards per attempt. This season, he's simply above average at 7.63 yards per attempt. More sophisticated measures of QB play also cast Kaepernick in a poor light. His efficiency stats in DVOA, passer rating, and QBR have all declined. (From 25.8% to 9.4%, 98.3 to 72.2, and 72.2 to 66.9, respectively)

I'm no Greg Cosell, so I'm not going to talk about any regression in Kaepernick's play. What I will point out however, is what the 49ers lost on offense. From last year to this year, the 49ers have inadequately replaced Mario Manningham (by injury), Randy Moss, and Delanie Walker. Those names may not inspire much fear, but combined, those pass catchers finished with about 1,200 yards. Vernon Davis has improved his output, and Anquan Boldin has played well, but those contributions don't account for the role players lost in the off-season (not to mention Crabtree).

Despite what I've written above, the passing offense has actually remained steady in passing DVOA - ranking 5th - between last year and the present. Of course, ranks aren't everything, and their DVOA has decreased. The passing offenses around them have also decreased allowing them to keep that number five spot. In general, I feel comfortable saying the 49ers passing offense - and offense in general - has diminished over the past year.

The San Francisco 49ers Defense

The 49ers defense has seen a decline from last year's heights when they ranked 3rd in defensive DVOA. They now rank 6th and their defensive drop is a little bit more complicated than their drop on offense. The biggest factor in their play has likely been roster shuffling.

Aldon Smith was the most public and perhaps most impactful, but there were other absences as well. Nnamdi Asomugha is another big name who has since been released for his subpar play. Ray McDonald has missed quite a bit of time, and the secondary has had to deal with injuries and roster shuffling.

With all these roster moves, the 49ers were ranked as low as 14th in defensive DVOA. They've since climbed back up with good performances against good competition like the Saints. Their rankings and now sit at 6th, with their pass defense ranked at 6th in defensive passing DVOA and their rush defense ranked 13th.

I would have thought that with the absences of Aldon Smith, the loss of Chris Culliver, and the need to replace a pro-bowl safety, the 49ers pass defense would suffer some sort of setback. However, the 49ers defense has held steady between this year and last. There are a few reasons the pass defense has remained so consistent: Eric Reid has played well, the corners have played well, Donte Hitner has continued his solid play, and Ahmad Brooks has been having a career year.

The year Brooks has been having has aided the 49ers pass rush immensely, and now Aldon Smith is back. Smith's absence and return reminds me a bit of Von Miller - a man he was racing to the single season sack record.

Of course neither player broke the record, but Von Miller was expected to have an immediate impact when he returned from suspension. Miller didn't have an immediate impact, but the Broncos' defense has been playing better recently, and Miller is a likely reason. Similarly, Aldon Smith has started slow, but I would expect him to start contributing soon. Consequently, that pass defense could be primed for improvement.

An area I don't see improving in the 49ers defense is their run defense. As of now, their run defense is ranked 13th in rush defense DVOA - a bit above average. Aside from a pre-Zac Stacy Rams, the 49ers run defense has allowed almost every opponent to rush effectively. Opponents average 4.0 yards per carry against this team. Simply put, there should be opportunities for Marshawn Lynch in this game. Unless, of course, they sell out to stop the run like the Saints (I doubt that'll happen, again).

Why is the running game performing like this? I would point to the defensive line as the prime factor. As I noted above, Ray McDonald has missed quite a few games. Additionally, Glenn Dorsey, while fine, hasn't held up against the run as well as his predecessor. It also looks like Justin Smith might finally be slowing down. He's still good, but not at the same level as previous seasons. Interestingly, none of the starting lineman on the 49ers defense eclipse 300 pounds despite the defense being a 3-4. The Seahawks could probably field a heavier line without the edge rusher.

Overall, the 9ers defense has been very good this season. Their only blemish has been inconsistency, but that's been caused mostly by injury (at least that's what I think). The Hawks' should be in for a long day.

The Seattle Seahawks

As always, Kenneth's article about the Hawks' is a must read. However, to overview, the Seahawks are now the best team in the NFL according to overall DVOA. Taking measurements after glorious games is often a bit suspect, but for kicks, the Seahawks have amassed a 40.7% DVOA. The second place team, Denver, has 32.1%. That 8% difference is pretty significant, and the Seahawks are ranked within the top 10 teams of all time (in terms of DVOA).

Fans shouldn't get too excited about being a top 10 team quite yet. After all, the Hawks' could be very good next week, but anything short of a blow-out would likely lower their DVOA. As I hinted at before, the game against the Saints might represent an improbable level of efficiency. It's not that they can't repeat that level of execution, but I wouldn't count on that level of play characterizing their next few games.

As for the other elements, the Seahawks rank 5th in total offense DVOA. Of the components, the Seahawks rank 4th in passing offense DVOA and 8th in rushing offense DVOA. The rushing defense represents the biggest decrease, and that's a result of not playing well against the Saints. Fans should recall that the Saints held one of the least effective rush defenses. The Saints might have sold out to stop the run, but the Hawks' should have done better. Seattle is likely better than 8th, but they might not be among the top 3.

On defense, the Hawks' remain 1st in total DVOA and have increased their pass defense DVOA rating immensely. Seattle was already 1st in pass defense last week, but now the margin between Seattle and Cincinnati - the 2nd ranked team - is enormous. Once again, this ranking is after the Saints game, so we might expect it to come down a bit, but the Seahawks pass defense has been tremendous.

The only semi-weakness of the team remains the rush defense. Currently, the Seahawks rank 11th in rush defense DVOA. I said it last week, but moving up after those two horrendous rushing games has been difficult. I thought before, those terrible games might have been due to an undisclosed injury. However, it seems the weakness was simply poor execution - which the Hawks' fixed. I think the 11th ranked rush defense is probably too low, though not by a whole lot.

The Matchups

The 49ers' Offense vs the Seahawks' Defense

In the last meeting between the two division rivals, the Seahawks held the 49ers to 227 total yards. Kaepernick's passing was awful that game, throwing for just 127 yards and three picks. I generally think passer rating is better, but both his passer rating and QBR gave Kaepernick low ratings: 20.1, and 14.0 respectively. It was parts hilarious and fun as a Seahawks fan, but is that kind of performance up for a repeat this week?

The kind of domination the Seahawks displayed against the 49ers passing game is certainly a possibility again this week, but circumstances have changed since the last meeting. Michael Crabtree is returning, and his absence has been the main defense of Kaepernick's struggles this season. He had a 60 yard catch last week, but it's difficult to say that he's back to 100% considering how much time he's missed.

9er fans should be excited about Crabtree's return for sure. When he's back to normal, he should certainly open up the offense for other targets. Further, a hurt Crabtree might be more effective than Kyle Williams, Bruce Miller, or some of the other receivers the 49ers have trotted out this season. Unfortunately, I doubt Crabtree's impact is going to be felt against the Hawks' if he's not 100%. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks' stick with the strategy they used last time when they blanketed Boldin with Richard Sherman.

If the Seahawks blanket Boldin again, then the success for the pass catchers is going to land on Vernon Davis and Crabtree. We've already noted how Crabtree is not likely 100%. Given his injury, I think I have enough faith in Byron Maxwell to contain him on the edge. I would expect around 40 yards for Crabtree. Similarly, I would expect 30 or 40 yards for Boldin.

As for Davis, his projection is a bit harder. Davis was injured in both of the previous two games, so I can't use those as benchmarks. For what it's worth, he's averaged about 30 yards a game since 2011 against the Hawks'. Having his counterparts receive much of the attention should open up some opportunities, somewhat. If I had to guess I would say Davis rounds out at about average - 30 yards.

With the other receivers rounding out a few catches, Kaepernick should look at about 120 yards passing. Remarkably, that's only a little bit below his average, but it's pretty hard to hold an opponent to a worse performance than that. As for Kaepernick's rushing total, I'm not so sure. On the one hand, Kaepernick ran for 87 yards the last time these teams played but that's much higher than his average - about 60 yards more. Therefore, it's unlikely that he'll see a repeat performance of that magnitude. On the other hand, part of the reason Kaepernick was able to run so effectively was the Hawks' coverage on his receivers. Seeing his receivers covered must have compelled him to run, and I've already predicted more tight coverage on his receivers. With those two factors in mind, I think I'll split the middle and say he'll end up with around 50 yards on the ground, and a touchdown somewhere between the rush and pass.

In the last game, Kaepernick's production was the overwhelming majority of the 49ers run game. If he doesn't produce as well as his last game, then Gore and Hunter are going to have to pick up the slack. Unfortunately for the 49ers, Gore and Hunter combined to average less than one yard per carry in the last game.

First let's give credit where credit is due - that effort is incredible. Next, we should recognize that holding a rushing attack (save the QB) below a yard per carry is probably an unrealistic expectation. Further, the Seahawks run defense looks to be slightly worse on the road. Further, further, Gore has been up and down against the Seahawks. So with all those facts in mind, I think it's reasonable to expect Gore to have somewhere around 50 yards rushing and something like 3 yards per carry while Hunter has significantly less.

In all, I have the 49ers offense producing below their usual average.

The Seahawks' Offense vs the 49ers' Defense

Seahawks fans should look fondly on their last game against the 49ers. However, those same fans shouldn't forget how the Hawks' won. In that game, the Hawks' picked off Kaepernick three times and recovered two fumbles. That one game accounted for 40% of all Kaepernick's turnovers, and gave the Seahawks excellent field position for a good portion of the game.

I feel confident predicting that the Seahawks should not have such great field position. Kaepernick may turn the ball over once or twice, but probably not four times, and the 9ers punt coverage is actually very good. Because good field position generally leads to easy field goals, we can expect the Seahawks to kick a few less balls through the uprights.

Of course, implicit in the assumption of fewer field goals is the assumption that the offense will play at a similar level to the last game. In that last game, Russell threw for 142 yards and Marshawn Lynch ran for 98 (the hawks finished with 176 yards rushing). Will the Hawks' offense perform similarly? I tend to think so.

Think about it. The biggest difference between the offense now and then may be the absence of Sidney Rice. I actually think that the offense has played better without him, but I think the recent offensive surge has been more due to the offensive line's return to health. Thing is, the offensive line was healthy back then too. Therefore, it seems likely the output would remain similar.

The 8th ranked rushing offense by DVOA going against the 13th ranked defense should yield a good amount of yards. I'm not sure the Seahawks will rush for 176 again, but I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks' perform around average - in the neighborhood of 130 yards. In this game, I'm thinking that Lynch is going to run for about the same amount (about 100 yards) but this time he's going to increase his per carry rate (up from 3.3 yards per carry).

With Marshawn Lynch running well, and Russell not having to carry the load (literally), I think Wilson will have a better day passing than he did in the previous game. The 49ers have a pretty good defense, so I wouldn't expect Russell to repeat his Saints' game, but I think 220 yards is reasonable. If there's any weakness of the 49ers pass defense, it's the tendency to allow a deep pass or two.

Normally, Aldon Smith's pressure makes completing deep passes difficult, but I'm not convinced he's returned to full form. Given the 49ers decrease in pressure, I could see the Hawks completing a few ‘explosive' plays, and Baldwin is the likely target. For the receivers, I think Baldwin will have a nice game ~70 yards, and Kearse will actually be the second leading receiver with around 50 yards. A combination of Golden Tate, Zach Miller, and Percy Harvin (let's hope!) should fill out the rest of the receiving yards.

X Factors

Michael Crabtree. I'm thinking that he's not going to be healthy enough to be a major factor. I could be wrong, and if he does then the 49ers offense could open up quite a bit.

The 49ers offensive line. Both Mike Iupati and Joe Staley have been injured this season and both could miss the game on Sunday. My policy with questionable injuries is usually to assume good play and I'll do that again here. However if I'm wrong, no amount of Crabtree or Davis is going to help the 49ers offense.

Percy Harvin. As always, he can really change the game for the Seahawks, even if he's limited in his snap count. For my part, I'll consider his impact against the Vikings as a likely starting point, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him miss the game either.

The Narrative

I think this game is going to play similarly to the last game between the Seahawks and 49ers. The biggest difference however, is that the Seahawks aren't going to run into so many extremes. They likely won't run for as many yards, they won't receive as many turnovers, but they should still pass for more yards and perform more efficiently. Aside from the turnovers costing some points, I think the game will play similarly, but end up being closer.

Prediction: Seahawks win 23-13

Recap Stats

This section is dedicated to me owning up to my predictions. The predictions are graded on a 10 point scale where 1 is completely wrong and 10 is completely right. As always, if anyone submits their own grades of my predictions I'll include them in the average. Further, if YOU, the reader, include predictions in this format, I'll include them as "The Field."

Where my predictions were right!

  • Neither Mark Ingram nor Pierre Thomas would be effective rushing. - 8.5 - I don't think I predicted the amount of futility they displayed, but I was accurate here.
  • Darren Sproles would not run the ball very much, or well. - 9 - This prediction was pretty easy, but I was off on the passing game (see below).
  • Pierre Thomas would not have success catching the ball. - 8.5 - He was tied with the second most receptions, but he didn't do much with them.
  • Doug Baldwin would find success and ~70 yards. - 8 - The Hawks most consistent pass catcher. I hope he stays a Seahawks for a while.
  • Golden Tate would struggle. - 6.5 - He ended up with fine stats, but he wasn't particularly meaningful in this game. It would be nice to see more quick screens for him, but I'm not the coach.
  • Russell Wilson would have an efficient day passing and around 50 yards rushing. - 7 - This prediction would be higher, but I undercut his passing stats thinking Marshawn would run more.

Where my predictions were wrong.

  • Marques Colston would have a nice game. (~60 yards and a TD). - 3 - He tied for second most catches, but he had no threatening impact.
  • Kenny Stills would have an impact, but be limited. - 2 - He was certainly limited, but he had no impact.
  • Robert Meachem would be limited. - 2 - See Kenny Stills.
  • Sproles would hurt the Hawks' with his pass catching (~60 yards receiving). - 1 - This prediction was like a Brandon Weeden pass: about 50 yards off.
  • Jimmy Graham would have a great (if average for him) day. - 4 - The only bright spot in a dark, moldy cave.
  • Brees would have a typical Brees day (300 yards and 3-4 TDs). - 1 - If you didn't notice, this prediction was wrong.
  • Marshawn Lynch would have 120 yards rushing and a couple of TDs. - 3 - He was serviceable, but not what I expected.
  • Percy Harvin would have ~70 yards. - 1 - I wrote this during the bye, when he was assumed healthy. Oops.

Somewhere in between.

  • Lance more would have an above average day (~30 yards). - 4.5 - I was wrong, but not by much. I predicted no impact, and he had none.
  • The final score would be 38-34. - 5 - I got one half of the score right.

This Week's Average: 4.625

Total Average: 5.437...

Final Note: I was pretty busy last week with family, there seemed to be a mini flame war going on (that I didn't want to read), and the comment section was much larger than normal (maybe I should predict Seahawks losses all the time!). I didn't see any corrections on my ratings for the Vikings game, so I didn't include any. If you'd like to point me to any corrections, I'll include them retroactively. Thanks again for reading guys.