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The Seahawks (6-4) play at San Francisco on Sunday, looking to bounce back from a tough loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and are playing in a stadium in which they’ve never lost—the Seahawks are 3-0 in the Bay Area since the 49ers moved to Levi’s Stadium. The 49ers (1-9) have struggled this year, but are coming off their first win of the season, and will be well-rested coming off a bye.
If the Seahawks are going to win their eighth straight game against the 49ers, these are three key matchups that could make the difference Sunday:
1. The Seahawks pass rush vs. San Francisco’s O-line and rookie QB C.J. Beathard.
Heading into last week’s game the Seahawks had recorded 13 sacks in their previous three games, and they were hoping that pass rush would help limit the Falcons offense. Instead, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said “we weren’t able to get to the quarterback like we thought we would” following a loss in which Seattle had one sack and four quarterback hits. Now, it’s worth noting that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is the reigning league MVP for a number of reasons, not the least of which is his ability to get the ball out quickly, so there weren’t a ton of opportunities to get to him, but the Seahawks were still hoping for more pressure regardless.
Facing San Francisco, the Seahawks will hope to get the pass rush going again, and being able to do so would make a big difference facing rookie quarterback C.J. Beathard, who showed last week what he can do with some time to operate. In his first three starts, Beathard was sacked 14 times, and in those games he threw one touchdown and three interceptions while never posting a passer rating higher than 71.6. With left tackle Joe Staley back last week following a one-game absence, Beathard was not sacked once, and he passed for 288 yards and two scores while posting a 123.4 passer rating in San Francisco’s first win of the season.
“C.J. has gotten better each week,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on a conference call. “I thought he had his best game last week, and I thought the 10 guys around him had their best game too, which made it a little bit easier for him.”
2. 49ers running back Carlos Hyde vs. Seattle’s run defense.
Carlos Hyde enjoyed a big day when these two teams faced off earlier this season, gaining 124 yards on 15 carries, but the Seahawks have improved their run defense since a couple of early miscues.
After allowing Hyde to have a big day thanks in part to a 61-yard run, and after allowing DeMarco Murray to gain 115 yards the next week, the Seahawks have not allowed an opposing back to gain more than 54 yards in their past seven games. And during that span, the Seahawks are allowing just 3.2 yards per rush and 80 rushing yards per game, which ranks second and third, respectively, in the NFL during that span.
“At the beginning of the year, we were giving up 60-plus-yard runs, and that wasn’t like us,” defensive end Frank Clark said. “For as long as I’ve been here, and for as long as I’ve had knowledge of the Seattle Seahawks, this defense in Coach Carroll’s era, that’s not what I’ve grown comfortable seeing. So to see it happen to us early on in the year was kind of a shock, and it was immediately adjusted.”
Yet even if the Seahawks have cleaned things up, they know they’ll have their hands full with Hyde, who is not only San Francisco’s leading rusher, but who also has a team-high 42 catches for 274 yards.
“He runs really, really hard, he’s got great vision,” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “He sees the cutback, he cuts back really well. He’s starting to get more involved in the passing game, so he’s just a really good all-around player.”
The Seahawks feel like they’ve cleaned up the mistakes that led to big plays early this season, and the past two months of stingy run defense strongly suggest those issues are behind them, but facing Hyde again, the Seahawks will look to put those early-season struggles to rest for good.
“We gave up, what 125 yards to him last time?” Clark said. “He had a huge run on a play that looked like not the Seahawks defense we’re accustomed to, where we missed a lot of tackles. One thing we want to do, we pride ourselves on having a great run defense, and this time around we get a second opportunity to put that on display, and that’s what we’re going to do."
The 49ers, meanwhile, know that they’ll need a running game to help take pressure off of their rookie quarterback while facing a very good defense.
“You just have to understand that if they get you in a one dimensional game, they tee off on the quarterback, and they play such sound, good zone defenses that that is going to be extremely hard for a rookie and extremely hard for any other quarterback in this league,” Shanahan said.
3. A Seahawks run game looking to get on track vs. San Francisco’s 31st-ranked run defense.
While Seattle’s run defense has improved drastically since that Week 2 game against the 49ers, the Seahawks’ rushing attack is still trying to find its way. Russell Wilson is currently Seattle’s leading rusher, which in part speaks to how talented he is, but it also shows how much trouble the Seahawks have had settling on a running back thanks to injuries. Chris Carson, who rushed for 93 yards against the 49ers earlier this year, is on injured reserve, as is C.J. Prosise, while Eddie Lacy and Mike Davis have both dealt with groin injuries of late as well.
“We have just been inconsistent,” Carroll said of the run game. “We haven’t found our consistency and we have been trying. You’ve seen us, we have been experimenting to get the right guy on the field at the right time… Nobody has really found the consistency that we are looking for and connected to how we have been blocking up front and all that. It just hasn’t worked out the way we wanted. We are behind it right now, and we are still finding yards and Russell is doing a fantastic job of finding his yards, but it’s not exactly the way we anticipated and we want it to be. We would like to get those guys more productive and more on point."
Even though the Seahawks haven’t found the running game they want, and even though Wilson is having a good season throwing the ball, Carroll has no plans to give up on trying to get a better rush attack going. He still firmly believes in having a balanced offense, and will continue to strive to find that.
“We are trying to figure it out,” he said. “I still think it is going to happen. I still think that we are going to bust out.”
The 49ers, meanwhile, are giving up 133.5 rushing yards per game, which ranks second to last in the league, but that number can be a little misleading. Because San Francisco has struggled this season, opponents have run the ball a lot while playing from ahead. So while the raw numbers don’t look good, the 49ers are middle-of-the pack on a per-play basis, allowing 4.0 yards per carry while facing the most rushing attempts in the NFL. The 49ers also have first-round pick Reuben Foster, a play-making linebacker who has been very impressive of late, this time around after he missed the previous meeting with an injury, and are adding reinforcements on the defensive line, so this is hardly an easy “get right” game for Seattle’s running game.