For the second straight week, Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks are trying to figure out what went wrong in the fourth quarter of a game they thought they were going to win. There is still plenty of season left to turn things around, and the way the Seahawks have played at times shows there is plenty of talent on this roster to win games, but beginning with Thursday night's game at San Francisco, the Seahawks know they need to get back to closing out games the way they have in years past.
"They're really disappointed and they know we're better than what has shown the last couple of weeks," Carroll said of his players' state of mind. "And we need to get going. These guys are very clear about being determined to get that done. That's how we're going about it."
Getting it going shouldn't take drastic changes for the Seahawks, just a more complete effort through four quarters. A couple more first downs or another stop or two, and the Seahawks could be in a very different position right now. So while there are issues that need to be cleaned up, nobody is pushing the panic button in Seattle.
In addition to finishing stronger, turning things around in San Francisco could also could come down to these three matchups for the Seahawks:
1. Marshawn Lynch vs. the 49ers front seven.
Marshawn Lynch has yet to have a big game this season, but Thursday night would be a great time for that to happen. Back when the 49ers had the league's stingiest run defense, Lynch was one of very few backs to gain 100-plus yards on San Francisco, and over the past few seasons, he has been a huge part of Seattle's success against its NFC West rival.
In 10 games since coming to Seattle, postseason included, Lynch has seven games with 90 plus yards, including five games over 100 yards, and nine total touchdowns. When Lynch goes for 90 or more yards, the Seahawks are 5-2 against San Francisco, including five straight victories.
"It's always important," 49ers coach Jim Tomsula said of containing Lynch. "He's just a tremendous player in this thing for a long time."
The 49ers defense isn't quite what it used to be, having lost several star players, including defensive end Justin Smith and linebacker Patrick Willis, who both retired, but there are still playmakers on that side of the ball for San Francisco, most notably All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who is back after missing the entire 2014 season with a knee injury.
"It's very important (to contain Lynch)," said Bowman, who has 31 tackles in his last two games. "He's a back that's put his staple on the NFL for several years. We understand the type of attention that he deserves so we're definitely preparing for that."
2. Colin Kaepernick's current form vs. his history against the Seahawks.
If Colin Kaepernick plays like he has in his career against Seattle, the 49ers could be in trouble. If, however, Kaepernick plays like he has in his past two games, the Seahawks will have their hands full.
In six career starts against Seattle, including one postseason game, Kaepernick has won just once, and has three touchdowns with nine interceptions. Since throwing for 244 yards in his first start against Seattle, Kaepernick has yet to throw for more than 175 yards against the Seahawks, and he has a 52.5 percent career completion percentage and a 53.7 passer rating.
Kaepernick's last two games, however, have been very encouraging for a San Francisco offense that started slowly this season. In the past two weeks, including last week's win over Baltimore in which he threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns, Kaepernick has thrown for 602 yards and four touchdowns without an interception.
"The throwing game really came together (Sunday) for them," Carroll said. "… Obviously they found the throwing game and that was in some big plays. Torrey (Smith) had some big plays, so they did some good things. I think they're just scrambling to get it together too, with a new squad, new (play)-callers, all of that. Unfortunately, they probably hit their best stride the week before they play us. We'll see what happens."
3. Seahawks offense vs. third down.
Ask Carroll or offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell about the offense's inability to put together a drive to close out a game in the fourth quarter, and they'll point to an inability to convert on third down. As for their red zone struggle? That's a third down issue too, they say.
Sometimes not converting on third down comes down to simple execution or a decision made by a play-caller, while other times it is the result of poor results on first and second down creating unfavorable third-down situations, but whatever the reason, the Seahawks need to be better on that crucial down.
"We're doing a really nice job of keeping our third downs manageable," Bevell said. "That's probably the positive that we've been able to do. We're staying in shorter yardage situations. Like under 6 yards, those are ones that we feel like that's where we want to live. We've kind of done that really well. We just haven't been able to get the number of conversions that we like. So we're all working. That's what the major emphasis was (Tuesday). I'm looking for things, coaches are looking for things. Things that we can help our guys, put them in the best position to be successful. Calls I need to make, calls I need to change, those kinds of things. Players are working hard at making sure they're working their routes, working their depths, working their progressions, protection, all this stuff works together. And we'll continue to work at it."
When the Seahawks aren't converting on third down, especially on those manageable ones, it also means they're not finishing drives. One reason Seattle is losing games in which it wins the turnover battle is that the offense isn't turning those turnovers into touchdowns—the offense has yet to score a touchdown off a turnover this season. And in Carroll and Bevell's view, third-down struggles have been a big reason why the Seahawks are scoring touchdowns on only 28.6 percent of their trips into the red zone, the lowest conversion rate in the league.
"We're not converting," Carroll said of the red zone. "I see it as third-down conversions. We missed on a couple shots down there and it just accentuates the importance of third down. When you're down there, you get your next set of downs, you get your either-or down situations on first and second down to make the plays and call the passes that you want. I really sense that it's the lack of the third down conversions down there that's part of it. We have to improve there."