The Seahawks travel to the Bay Area this weekend for a matchup of the NFC West's top two teams on Monday Night Football. At 8-0, the 49ers are the NFL's last remaining undefeated team, while the 7-2 Seahawks are off to their best start since 2013. If the Seahawks are going to improve to 5-0 on the road this season and close the gap in the NFC West, these are three key matchups that could make the difference in Monday's game:
1. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks passing game vs. Richard Sherman and an elite 49ers pass defense.
Russell Wilson has been phenomenal this season, throwing a league-high 22 touchdown passes against a league-low one interception, giving him an NFL-leading 118.2 passer rating. His pass catchers have stepped up in big ways too, especially Tyler Lockett, who is on pace for one of the best receiving seasons in franchise history, and rookie DK Metcalf, who leads all rookies in receiving yards. In other words, there's no denying that Wilson, Lockett and the rest of Seattle's passing game are a huge part of Seattle's success nine games into this season.
As 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan noted on a conference call with Seattle-area media, the challenge Wilson presents is "even stronger (this season), which is hard to say because he has always been that good. He can do anything he wants. A play is never a bad play with him in there even if everyone is covered. That's usually when the play starts. So he's playing at a very high level and he's doing it very consistently."
Repeating that passing game success on Monday night, however, will be no easy task for Wilson and company. The 49ers are undefeated this season in no small part due to a defense that ranks first in passing yards allowed (138.1 yards per game), second in opponent passer rating (65.7) and fourth in interceptions (10). Leading the way in San Francisco's secondary, both in terms of veteran leadership and on-field production, is former Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who two years removed from a ruptured Achilles tendon, is back to playing at a Pro Bowl level, and who has three interceptions already this year.
"Sherm's doing great," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Sticking over on his left side over there where he feels really comfortable. He continues to demonstrate a great awareness of the game and making his choices and decisions. He's got three picks already. He has not being beaten much at all. He's really doing a nice job."
And on related note to San Francisco's pass defense…
2. San Francisco's pass-rush vs. Seattle's pass protection.
The 49ers' pass defense has been good in part because of players in the secondary, but another reason teams are struggling against San Francisco's defense is a pass rush that has accumulated 30 sacks in eight games, tied for the third most in the NFL.
Leading the way is rookie Nick Bosa, the No. 2 overall pick, who has seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits to go along with an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. And Bosa is hardly the only threat when it comes to San Francisco's pass rush, which has five former first-round picks in its defensive line rotation: Bosa, Arik Armstead (5.5 sacks), Dee Ford (5.5), DeForest Buckner (4) and Solomon Thomas (2).
"It's a really good group," Carroll said. "I think they're the top group in the whole league. Their style of play, the way they're coaching them, Nick Bosa adding to those guys has been a big addition. Dee Ford has really fit in well on the third-down situations. They're flying. They're about as good as you can hope to be now. They're getting it done."
Seattle's offensive linemen know the 49ers will present a tough challenge, but they feel like they're up to the task. While there have been a few games the line would like to have back in terms of pass protection, that unit has improved in that area overall, allowing 22 sacks through nine games, and only 10 in the past five games. Wilson is currently on pace to be sacked 39 times this season, which would be a considerable improvement from 51 sacks last year despite attempting an average of six more pass attempts per game, and would be the lowest total of his career since 2012 when he was sacked 33 times while averaging eight fewer pass attempts per game than he is now.
"We know we can shore up things a little bit more, and we have to this week in order to be more successful," left tackle Duane Brown said. "But we're all confident in our individual abilities, we're confident in each other as a group. We know the challenge that San Francisco brings, and we'll be ready for it."
3. The 49ers running game vs. Seattle's run defense.
The 49ers have a good young quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo as well as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the NFL in George Kittle, but as dangerous as San Francisco's passing game can be, the bigger threat might be a rushing game that ranks second in the league with 171.1 rushing yards per game. Kittle's status for Monday remains uncertain due to knee and ankle injuries, which could make the running game all the more important to the 49ers.
In eight games, the 49ers have had more than 230 rushing yards three times, and they have three different backs with more than 300 rushing yards, led by Matt Breida's 524.
The 49ers are also expecting to get back from injury a pair of Pro Bowlers in left tackle Joe Staley, who has been out since Week 2 with broken fibula, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has missed the past four games with a knee injury, additions that should only help the running game and the offense as a whole.
Seattle's run defense, meanwhile, has had mixed results this season, shutting down the run some weeks while being susceptible to the run in other games, leading to a run defense that ranks near the middle of the league (13th, 102.7 yards per game). The word of the week for the defense has been discipline, and the Seahawks know they'll need to be on top of their game if they're going to slow down San Francisco's explosive running game.
"They just have so many different things that they do because of the weapons that they have," linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "They have a great fullback that they can utilize in the run game and pass game. They have a screen and a pass play off of every run. They're one of those teams that do a really good job of hiding, they don't really have tendencies but, it makes you have to read your keys and have to be disciplined. You could watch something one week, and the next they won't run it the next week. They run something specifically that you either struggled with, or a way to flood the zones. They're going to find one or two plays to implement into their offense that is going to challenge your knowledge, challenge your discipline, and we've got to be ready for it."