Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area joined me to discuss the biggest storylines and keys to the game ahead of a Week 8 matchup between the Seahawks (5-1) and 49ers (4-3) in Week 8. Get to know more about both teams in this insiders' preview of this crucial NFC West contest.
The stakes are not as high -- at this stage, anyway -- as the last time the 49ers visited the Seahawks. But that does not diminish what this game means for both teams.
The first seven games have not gone anywhere near expectations for the 49ers, who are 4-3 in last place in the NFC West, but still very much in the thick of the NFC playoff race at the midpoint of the season.
As we can probably say at any time this season when one NFC West team plays another, this game is huge.
The 49ers have seemingly found an identity over the past two weeks. But there have been no constants for the 49ers this season.
Coach Kyle Shanahan and his staff have been challenged to construct game plan after game plan with a roster that changes dramatically one week to the next.
On the Seahawks side of things, we’ve seen the same script play itself out through six games: An explosive offense that is tasked with winning in a shootout each week because Seattle’s defense is such a liability.
In Week 7 against the Arizona Cardinals, the Seahawks failed to record a single quarterback hit against Kyler Murray. That’s a legitimate reason to hit the panic button, and that performance likely increased Seattle’s sense of urgency to make Wednesday's trade for Carlos Dunlap.
The Seahawks are somehow, impossibly on pace to record four less sacks (24) than they did last year (28).
Getting pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo seems vital for Seattle’s defense this Sunday. Is it too much of an oversimplification to say that Garoppolo thrives in a clean pocket, and his play diminishes greatly when under siege?
Kyle Shanahan strives for a balanced offense. He slowed down the Los Angeles Rams' pass rush two weeks ago with a game plan that leaned heavily on outside runs and pass plays designed to quickly get the ball out of Garoppolo's hand.
The 49ers are shorthanded at running back, and wide receiver Deebo Samuel will not be available. But the more time Garoppolo has to throw, the more of the playbook Shanahan will have to dial up. The 49ers will spread out the Seahawks and make them cover a lot of ground, including all 53 1/3 yards from sideline to sideline.
Ultimately, it's not important how far down the field George Kittle or Brandon Aiyuk catch passes. If they get the ball in space, they can turn short passes into big gains. That is the 49ers' formula for success.
On the subject of the pass rush, the 49ers' front four looks a lot different than a year ago due to all the injuries.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has to mix things up, but it seems to me that Russell Wilson can make six pass-rushers swing and miss on sack attempts as well as those on a standard four-man rush. The 49ers must find a balance of when to blitz and when to sit back with seven or, occasionally, eight defenders in coverage.
That is the magic of Russell Wilson. He can beat you on schedule or off, regardless of how many defenders you opt to rush on a given play. Every team that plays the Seahawks focuses on limiting Wilson’s production in the scramble drill with little to no success. The fact that Seattle is 5-1 despite having a defense that has allowed a record number of yards through six games is astounding. It speaks to how dialed in Wilson is as well as the play of those around him. That’s the biggest thing that sticks out about Seattle’s offense compared to last year: Wilson has far more help. Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf are one of the best receiving duos in the NFL. Greg Olsen, Will Dissly and Jacob Hollister, while seldom used in comparison to Lockett and Metcalf, serve as a trio of reliable targets at tight end. Chris Carson, although he may not play against the 49ers due to a mid-foot sprain, has also been a tremendous asset. The biggest surprise, though, has been the play of the offensive line. Duane Brown is playing like a Pro Bowler, Ethan Pocic has proven to be a late-bloomer at center and rookie third-round pick Damien Lewis has been a tremendous plug-and-play piece at right guard. We all know that Seattle’s superpower is its offense. What would you say is San Francisco’s greatest strength?
The 49ers have tight end George Kittle. He is the face of the 49ers right now.
It is unique that a tight end is the team's centerpiece. But Kittle is a unique individual.
I'm not sure there is another non-quarterback who makes a greater all-around impact on any offense. He is the 49ers' top pass-catcher. He is also a huge key to the team's running attack. Kittle seems to take more pride in throwing a block to enable a 49ers running back to reach the third level than turning a short crossing route into a 25-yard gain.
It also helps that Kyle Shanahan is pushing the buttons for that offense. Shanahan has an uncanny ability to find the vulnerabilities in any defense the 49ers face. He can design a game plan to highlight the strengths of his team while exposing the weaknesses of the opposition.
This week is unlike any other since the 49ers have been making their annual trek to Seattle. There is no need for the 49ers to crank crowd noise onto the practice field and work on their silent count to prepare for a road game against the Seahawks. In the past, one of the 49ers' main goals was to take the crowd out of the game. They were rarely successful.
Now, due to circumstances we all wish did not exist, one of the major storylines every time the 49ers travel to Seattle is not even a point of discussion.
An empty CenturyLink Field is certainly bizarre on gameday. But while the pageantry of Seahawks home games is sorely missing, I don’t think you can say a lack of fans has necessarily altered the outcome of Seattle’s three home games thus far.
It’s worth recalling that the Seahawks had a better road record (7-1) than home record (4-4) last season. That’s not to say the prideful 12s have no impact on the game. There’s a reason why it’s such a common storyline as you mentioned. But deafening crowd noise doesn’t magically fix a susceptible defense.
The far more important narrative ahead of this matchup has to do with the players that, like all fans, will be watching this one from home. For the Seahawks, defensive starters Bruce Irvin and Marquise Blair are already on season-ending Injured Reserve. Rasheem Green, Darrell Taylor and Rashaad Penny are guys who should play at some point this season, but have uncertain return dates.
Jamal Adams (groin) and Chris Carson (foot) are the most pressing injuries for this week. Adams will likely be given a questionable tag while Carson should be considered a longshot to play. Former 49ers second-round pick Carlos Hyde (hamstring) is also uncertain to play, as is Travis Homer (knee contusion). That means Seattle may have to get creative in its backfield with rookie DeeJay Dallas being the lone healthy running back on the roster. The Seahawks don’t have a running back on the practice squad they can elevate, either. What does the injury report look like for the 49ers?
I'll tell you how it looks, Joe. It looks crowded -- very, very crowded.
You know Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas are out for the season. Richard Sherman will not return until at least late-November. Dee Ford, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, Jordan Reed, Ronald Blair and their two top centers, Weston Richburg and Ben Garland, are out for a while. Deebo Samuel will be out for a couple of games.
We will see how the running back situation looks as the weeks progresses. It's possible Tevin Coleman returns to action. The 49ers hope nickelback K'Waun Williams is back, too. Their starting safeties, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, missed the game against the Patriots. They could be back.
This could be the first time that they get more players back than guys exiting the lineup.
Two weeks ago, the 49ers were 2-3 and their cause looked hopeless. But after victories over the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots, the 49ers again look dangerous. A lot of their reserves have stepped up. Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have designed roles for these fill-ins to make major contributions.
Shanahan plans to speak to his team repeatedly this week to expect the unexpected. He recognizes that weird things happen in Seahawks games. Everyone around the NFL recognizes that as just a fact of life. Shanahan wants his team to be prepared to deal with the high of highs and the low of lows -- all in the course of a three-plus-hour timeframe on Sunday in Seattle.
FANN My first reaction to that response is that it’s going to frustrate so many Seahawks fans. It’s remarkable San Francisco has been able to play high-level defense the last two weeks despite so many injuries. Talent wise, there’s no reason why that group should be outperforming the Seahawks defense so immensely. And yet, here we are. As for Shanahan’s message to his team, he isn’t wrong, which is why making predictions is a bit silly since we all know this thing is going to go down to the final two minutes, regardless of what happens over the course of the first 58. That said, let’s stick our necks out there and make our picks to wrap this thing up. I think the discrepancy between quarterbacks is big enough for me to lean Seahawks. I’ll take Seattle, 27-24. What say you, good sir? MAIOCCO When I sat down to make my predictions at the beginning of the season, I settled on one thing: The NFC West is difficult.
Breaking news, huh?
I thought the 49ers would split with the Seahawks and Cardinals and sweep the Rams. Nothing has happened in the first seven weeks of the season to change my mind.
Just like you, I have the Seahawks winning this one, 27-24. I'm sticking with the predicted score I posted on Sept. 10.
While we're at it, I'll also call my shot for Week 17. I have the 49ers settling the score at Levi's Stadium on Jan. 3.
This annual trip to Seattle is one of my favorites. But we’re hitting pause on traveling to road games this season. I’ll miss my Sunday morning walk to the stadium. I love seeing all the excitement that builds toward kickoff.
All the best to you, Joe.
Great minds think alike (or something like that). This was fun. I look forward to a great game on Sunday and then getting to circle back and do this all over again in 2021. Cheers, Matt!