The Seahawks (5-1) are looking to bounce from their first loss of the season when they host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday afternoon, Seattle's second straight NFC West matchup. The 49ers (4-3) come to Seattle looking for a third straight win after a 2-3 start, and to learn more about this week's opponent, we reached out to 49ers.com senior team reporter Keiana Martin with five questions about the defending NFC champions.
The 49ers looked like they were in serious trouble after a blowout loss to Miami left them with a 2-3 record, what allowed them to bounce back and put together a couple of impressive wins over the Rams and Patriots?
Martin: I had the chance to talk to 49ers linebacker Fred Warner this week, one of the leaders of the defense, and he believed the embarrassing loss to the Dolphins was a "wake up call" for San Francisco. The 49ers locker room is well aware that what was left on the field in Week 5 is a far cry from the caliber and standard this team expects from themselves.
Could that humbling blowout loss have been responsible for lighting a fire under the team? It appears so. Since that game, the 49ers have undergone a complete turnaround with two convincing wins over the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots. The run game has found its footing. The O-line is coming off its best performance of the season while opening up lanes for the 49ers ball carriers and managing to keep Jimmy Garoppolo upright. Meanwhile on the other side of the ball, San Francisco's banged up defense looks revived while still being without a whopping seven season-opening starters. "Identity" has been a word that's been circling around this 49ers team and it appears San Francisco may have gotten its "mojo" back.
With WR Deebo Samuel out and so many injuries at running back, who needs to step up for Jimmy Garoppolo and the offense to be able to function well this week?
Martin: Losing their top wideout is a tough loss for San Francisco, especially considering the ways Kyle Shanahan can employ a weapon like Samuel. We've seen him line up in the slot, outside and in the backfield, and Shanahan utilizes him in sweeps, screens and slants. Samuel is undoubtedly an all-around gadget player who is tough to replace. Not only that, but the second-year wideout has been said by the coaching staff and players to bring a unique energy to the field that has been relied on since returning from an offseason foot injury in Week 4.
With that being said, the void of Samuel and three of the 49ers top running backs isn't likely to be filled by just one specific person. It will take a collective effort from the offense to attempt to replace the production of some of San Francisco's top playmakers. Fortunately, San Francisco values versatility, which can be seen in a number of skill players. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk has the ability to line up all over the field. First year wideout Brandon Aiyuk's arrival added a boost to the offense as the rookie has already proven that he can run the same types of plays Shanahan designed for Samuel. There's George Kittle, whose skillset and toughness cannot be overstated. This is combined with a host of additional playmakers like Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor and Jerick McKinnon who are likely to see their numbers called on Sunday.
Shanahan's offense is predicated on playmakers who are versatile enough to line up anywhere on the field. His ability to plug-and-play skill players has been evident through seven weeks as the 49ers have navigated injuries at nearly every position on the roster, and somehow, are still standing.
The 49ers have some of their top defensive players on IR but still have a Top 5 defense in yards and points allowed, who or what has allow that unit to thrive minus some key players?
Martin: Depth has been San Francisco's savior in 2020. The 49ers currently lead the league with the number of players on Injured Reserve, with nearly half of the list being starting talent. San Francisco has weathered the injury storm fairly well to this point, considering those numbers.
Kerry Hyder Jr. is a name who was quickly thrust into a starting role with injuries to both Nick Bosa and Dee Ford. The edge rusher is second in the NFC in quarterback hits and has the fifth-highest pressure rate in the league so far this season. Jason Verrett is another highlight of the defense, playing comparably to his 2015 Pro Bowl season as a key contributor to San Francisco's third-ranked passing defense.
Much credit goes to general manager John Lynch and his team's ability to assemble a valuable pool of talent that has stepped up to the occasion more times than not this season. Couple that with Warner, who in Year 3 has inserted his name into the discussion of one of the top linebackers in the league, has been key in helping keep San Francisco's injury-marred defense together.
After the 49ers' Week 5 loss to Miami, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh insisted that the 49ers could still be a "top-five defense" regardless of who's on the football field. It may have sounded like coach talk, but as of late, Saleh defense appears to be backing up his words.
Statistically speaking, it's been a very up-and-down year for Jimmy Garoppolo, how would you assess the way he's playing this year?
Martin: Garoppolo has been under a microscope probably since being named the 49ers' starting QB back in 2017. And the criticism and scrutiny only intensified following the fourth quarter of Super Bowl LIV. Rolling over into 2020, he wasn't off to the greatest start in the season opener against the Arizona Cardinals. However, he put up one of the best first halves of his career the following week against the Jets, completing 87.5 percent of his passes for 131 yards and two touchdowns (140.4 quarterback rating) before suffering a high ankle sprain in the second quarter. Garoppolo was removed from the game by halftime and subsequently missed two and a half contests.
His return from his ankle injury came in the Week 5 loss to the Dolphins, where Garoppolo never looked right after throwing two interceptions in the first half and being pulled in favor of C.J. Beathard. Garoppolo's nagging ankle was visibly bothersome as Shanahan believed the quarterback's lingering ankle injury was impacting his play on the field.
Since then, Garoppolo's woes from his ankle injury have been a thing of the past as the quarterback has strung together two quality outings against well-coached defenses. Shanahan has managed to scheme up ways to quickly get the ball out of Garoppolo's hands and remove him from any compromising situations (i.e. Aaron Donald). As he continues to work his way back to full strength, he's shown signs of improvement. Sunday will be yet another test for the quarterback to prove those outings against the Cardinals and Dolphins are mere outliers.
What are a couple of the matchups you're most looking forward to seeing on Sunday?
Martin: Defense wins games, but I believe much of Sunday's outcome will rely on the performance of both offenses. Following up on the previous response, I'm interested to see how Garoppolo can fare with a limited supporting cast. The 49ers will be without Samuel, Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., but could potentially see the return of Tevin Coleman and Jordan Reed, who was a large contributor when Kittle was out during the earlier portion of the year.
It's duly noted that Seattle's defense has seen better days, but Shanahan said their numbers don't tell the entire story. Opposing offenses have been forced to play aggressive while playing a game of catch up this year given the success of Seattle's high-powered offense. It's also worth noting the Seahawks defense sits at third in the league with 12 takeaways, and their average of two per game is tied for first in the NFL. Like the 49ers, the Seahawks defense is dealing with their share of injuries. That unit could also see a turnaround with the return of key players.
On the other hand, Russell Wilson has continued his MVP campaign while averaging 315 passing yards per game, ranked second in the league behind Dak Prescott (371.2). Limiting Wilson is a challenge for any opposing defense, especially with what we've seen from veteran pass catcher Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf continuing to make strides in Year 2. What makes this matchup even more enticing is the fact that the Seahawks offense and 49ers defense both rank Top 3 in the NFL in passing yards per game. San Francisco is coming off of back-to-back games of limiting their opponents to under 200 yards through the air. The 49ers defenders are likely to have their biggest test of the season against a quarterback where 10 percent of his passes have resulted in touchdowns, the highest rate by any qualified QB in a season in the Super Bowl era. Now that's a stat that can't be overlooked.