The Seahawks host the NFC West-leading 49ers on Thursday night in a game with big playoff implications for both teams, and Pete Carroll knows that his team is going to need to beat tough opponents like San Francisco if they're going to finish out this season as a playoff team.
"Each week is a great opportunity, and this one, these guys happen to be in first place and they're playing great," Carroll said. "If you're going to have a good year, you have to win games like this. You have to win them. You have to find your way through the great challenges—there will be more on the schedule before we're done—but you have to match up and you've got to get your games. You've got to expect to play these guys well and you've got to go and perform and play well. And it just happens to be the 49ers this week, and they've got a great run going. What's been really impressive about that is they've done it with different guys, they've had some guys banged up and they've really been able to maintain their level of play and all that. This is a really good team, but this is what it takes, so it's a great matchup."
As Carroll said, it is indeed a great matchup, and here are five things to watch when the 49ers and Seahawks face off at Lumen Field Thursday night:
1. Can the Seahawks improve their run defense to slow down one of the NFL's most efficient offense?
Over the course of this season, the 49ers offense has gone three-and-out on only 12.3 percent of their drives, the lowest rate in the league. And a big reason why the 49ers are able to move the chains is that they have one of the NFL's most dangerous run games, one that only got better with the midseason trade to acquire running back Christian McCaffery. Last week with McCaffrey leading the way, the 49ers rushed for 209 yards, their sixth game this season with more than 150 rushing yards, including a 189-yard performance against Seattle in Week 2.
"They are really efficient." Carroll said. "They have a running game that they are really dependent upon, they have as quick of a passing game as anybody in the NFL, and are controlled, so they get a lot of completions, that's why they move the sticks. It all fits together really nicely. It's really the rhythm of the passing game in complement to the running game."
Seattle's recent struggles to stop the run have been well-documented, and they know that until they show they can consistently make it tough on opponents, they're going to see a lot of rush attempts.
"Guys have shown to be able to do that in spurts, but it's the consistency," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said. "When you show that if people keep hammering it at you, eventually, you are going to find a leak. That's what happens when you shut the water off early. It's like anything, everybody in this league, it's a copycat league, so you want to put a fire out early. Now that you have shown it, you are going to show for a couple of games that you have fixed the issue so that way it doesn't keep compounding itself and keep happening over and over. I would be concerned if they haven't shown that. We have shown that in a streak of games where we have been able to shut down the run, but it's the consistency of doing the right things play after play that is the most frustrating thing that is hurting us right now."
2. How much has Seattle's offense improved since a Week 2 loss to the 49ers?
When the 49ers beat Seattle in Week 2, the Seahawks didn't score a point on offense, and in the days that followed, Carroll said it was time to put more faith in Geno Smith and open up the offense.
"He's clearly in command of it, poised, and we need to not hold back at all," Carroll said the day after that loss in Santa Clara. "We could have thrown the football more with the opportunities that we had, and with the trust that we have in him, we need to do that. When it's given to us, we need to take advantage of it, and we don't have to hold back at all."
Smith responded by throwing seven touchdowns with one interception over his next three games, went on to earn NFC Player of the Month honors for October, and really hasn't cooled off sense, turning himself into one of the NFL's best quarterbacks by just about any measure.
So while the Seahawks have the utmost respect for the 49ers defense, which has allowed the fewest points, yards and rushing yards in the league this season, they do feel like they're a much better offensive team than they were in mid-September.
"We have become very confident in what we can do," Carroll said. "(Smith) has done everything he could have done to give us reason to. The consistency that he has had with his receivers, his ability to use everybody, just look at how balanced our numbers are, you even see Marquise (Goodwin) start to get his touchdown numbers up as he is catching up a little bit with receptions. He mixes the ball well to everyone, he has used everybody, everybody is mixed into it, and we are all counting on them to do their part. I don't know if you guys see it that way, but it's really the point guard approach. He's really moving the ball to everybody and is getting those guys their opportunities. He's been very consistent about that, and I think it has given us some confidence."
The Seahawks hope the expected return of Kenneth Walker III gives the running game a boost, and a balanced attack will always be Seattle's preference, but even if the league's No. 1 run defense makes it tough on the Seahawks, they'll still have confidence in the abilities of Smith, Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and the rest of their weapons to get the job done in the passing game.
3. Can Seattle's offensive line keep Nick Bosa from being a game-wrecker?
The Seahawks have faced no shortage of dangerous pass-rushers, a tough test almost every week for rookie tackles Abraham Lucas and Charles Cross, and this week they'll be seeing one of the NFL's very best for the second time, hoping to minimalize the impact of Nick Bosa. That's obviously a lot easier said than done against a two-time Pro-Bowl defensive end who was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2019.
"He's non-stop," said offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. "He is such a great combination of talent and work ethic, the desire to get to the quarterback. He does an excellent job. You've seen him throughout the course of the year. He's always getting double teamed or triple teamed, chipped, and he's just relentless to the ball. If he does have those one-on-one opportunities, he's been maximizing if he gets matched up against a running back or matched up against a tight end. We just have to do a good job of knowing what type of player he is, being aware of where he is at, and doing the best job we can throughout the course of the game of limiting his impact on the game, but also knowing the player of his caliber, he's going to have his chances. There are going to be some plays, and it's that next play mentality where we are right on to the next one, looking to get a positive play to get back on track."
After recording 15.5 sacks in 2021, Bosa is on pace for an even better season this year with 14.5 sacks, tied for the most in the NFL. In the previous meeting between these teams, Bosa had 2.0 sacks and five quarterback hits, and the Seahawks would love to see both of those numbers go down on Thursday night, a task made even more difficult because of all the different weapons the 49ers defense can throw at an offense.
"They'll move him around especially in those known passing scenarios and those rush plans they have going with him," Waldron said. "He'll rush inside, outside, left, right. He'll do it from a little bit of every position, and you mix in (Fred) Warner and Samson (Ebukam) and (Arik) Armstead, all these guys they got. They got a relentless pass rush, a relentless front seven that has been doing a great job getting after the quarterback."
4. Does Godwin Igwebuike again provide a spark on special teams.
One of the most pleasant surprises of last weekend's loss to the Panthers was the emergence of running back Godwin Igwebuike as a kick returner. A former safety who converted to running back and kick returner with Detroit last season, Igwebuike twice gave the Seahawks a short field with returns of 50 and 35 yards, field position the offense turned into 10 points.
Godwin will have to be elevated off the practice squad once again to handle return duties Thursday, but Carroll all but confirmed that will happen when asked about Godwin's return ability after the game.
Facing a defense as tough as San Francisco's, a big return or two could make a world of a difference, and as the Seahawks showed in Santa Clara earlier this season when Mike Jackson returned a Tariq Woolen-blocked field goal for a touchdown, they're more than capable of making big things happen on special teams.
5. An early lead would be nice.
For as long as he has been coaching the Seahawks, Carroll has made it clear that he isn't overly concerned with how teams start games because it's not how you start, but how you finish. But even though you can't win a game in the first, second or third quarter, Carroll does recognize that winning a game in the fourth quarter would be easier if the Seahawks are playing from ahead this week, especially when playing a team that's so committed to the run.
There have been a lot of factors contributing to the big rushing numbers put up against the Seahawks in recent weeks, but one of them has been that opponents have been playing from ahead quite a bit, making it easier to stay committed to the ground game. Get ahead, especially at home, and suddenly the pressure can shift to the passing game and an inexperienced quarterback in Brock Purdy.
"The thought there is when you have teams that are really satisfied in hoping they can run the ball, if they are in the lead, it really plays into their strength," Carroll said. "People have been talking about the throwing game in the NFL and all that for the last few years or whatever; tell me about it now. Look how it is going, and how teams are so balanced. The best teams are so balanced and are doing a nice job running the football. It's really obvious."
Another reason not to play the 49ers from behind? As Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out, the 49ers have outscored their opponents 80-14 in the second half of games during their current six-game winning streak.
The Seahawks certainly won't panic if they do get behind; Smith and company have shown the ability to bring the Seahawks back, but playing from ahead could definitely help, particularly when it comes to slowing a dangerous 49ers running game.
Behind-the-scenes of Episode 8 of The Sound, featuring the Seahawks' historic trip to Munich, insights from Geno Smith, the story behind Kenneth Walker III's "My Cause My Cleats" design, and more. Read more here.