With the Seahawks coming off of a disappointing Week 2 loss at Los Angeles, head coach Pete Carroll opened his Wednesday press conference joking he was going to operate in "short little one-liners" such as, "We want to bounce back. We need to get right." There was also some seriousness in those comments for Carroll, however, seeing as his team has been held to just 15 points in its first two games. The good news for the Seahawks is that despite that number and last week's loss, their defense has played very well thus far, and at 1-1, they have the same record as every other team in the NFC West and trail only two teams in the entire NFC.
If the Seahawks are going to improve to 2-1 by beating San Francisco at CenturyLink Field on Sunday, if they're going to take advantage of what Carroll called, "a huge opportunity for us," these are three key matchups that could make a difference.
1. Seattle's rushing offense vs. San Francisco's run defense.
The Seahawks offense has struggled to get on track early for a number of reasons, all of which the team believes are correctable, but one of the things coaches have pointed to most this week is the inability to establish the type of running game Seattle is used to having.
Through two games, the Seahawk are averaging 89.5 rushing yards per game, a far cry from the type of numbers they have put up in recent years as Carroll, offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell and offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable have built one of the league's best rushing attacks.
"It give us balance, that's the most important thing," Cable said of the run game. "We've really missed that. In the preseason, we had some good rhythm that way, but in the first two games we really haven't. It has been very hit or miss. We didn't do it at all in the first half last week. It came out a little bit there in the third, early fourth, but we need consistency, because it sets up the big (pass), the play action and all those things."
San Francisco, meanwhile, did not do well in run defense last week, though the 176 yards they allowed were to Carolina, one of the league's best rushing teams. If the Seahawks can get the run going, particularly early in the game, that can help improve the 9-for-29 third-down conversion rate that has hurt the offense's ability to stay on the field, while also opening things up for the passing game. And against a 49ers defense that has forced six turnovers in two games, being one-dimensional would hardly be ideal for Seattle.
"It sets the tone offensively," said center Justin Britt. "We want to be physical, we want to do what we do, and that's run the ball, beat on our opponents… It just opens up the whole offense."
2. A fast-starting Seahawks pass rush vs. San Francisco's offensive line.
Through two games, the Seahawks have eight sacks and have hit opposing quarterbacks 14 times. Those are impressive pass-rush numbers for the Seahawks, and they're particularly encouraging because the Seahawks have often been a team that finds its pass-rush chemistry as the season goes on. Last year, for example, the Seahawks had six sacks in their first four games before recording four in their fifth game of the season, then six more two weeks later against the 49ers.
A big part of the pass rush's early success has been the emergence of second-year defensive end Frank Clark, who has already matched his rookie-year total with three sacks.
"We've started much faster," Carroll said. "Frank has been a really good complement to the other guys. He's been more of a factor, and it just brings out the best in Cliff (Avril) and Mike (Bennett). I think he's made a difference. Just his factor in there. We're moving him around a lot like we talked about, and everybody is kind of doing the things that they have done. He's more explosive than we've seen, and I think it's been a better factor for us."
The Seahawks have also found more success blitzing than they have in the past, and the end result has been an effective pass rush that has been a big factor in the Seahawks allowing the fewest yards and points in the NFL through two weeks.
The Seahawks, however, will be facing a much-improved 49ers line than the one that allowed eight sacks against Seattle in two meetings last season. Center Daniel Kilgore missed most of last season due to injury, including both Seattle games, second-year tackle Trent Brown has been an upgrade on the right side since taking over the starting role this year, and free-agent addition Zane Beadles has helped upgrade the interior line at left guard. And through two games against two very good defensive fronts, Carolina and Los Angeles, the 49ers have allowed only two sacks
3. 49ers tight end Vance McDonald vs. Seahawks' zone coverage.
Vance McDonald was a second-round pick in the 2013 draft, but for a long time, his former Rice University teammate Luke Willson, a fifth-round pick the same year, was the more successful NFL player. But while Willson has long been a big part of Seattle's offense, McDonald looks to finally be coming into his own in San Francisco. Through two and a half seasons, McDonald never had more than two catches in a game and zero touchdown receptions, but he finished the 2015 season catching 21 passes over the final seven games of the season, including the first three touchdowns of his career, one of which came against the Seahawks in Week 11.
This season, McDonald has picked up where he left off, turning three receptions into two touchdowns, including a 75-yarder last week.
"They just sprinkle the ball all over the place they throw it to (Quinton) Patton, to (Jeremy) Kerley, the running back out of the back field," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "But the tight end might be their best offensive weapon. Like every week, you have to keep your eyes on him. They find a way to get him the ball."