49ers have ways to thrive against Seahawks
SANTA CLARA - No offense to the Seahawks, but the 49ers should beat them even without George Kittle and Kwon Alexander.
Alexander is out for the season with a torn pectoral muscle. Kittle is doubtful for this game with knee and ankle injuries.
Last season, the 49ers beat the Seahawks at Levi’s Stadium without Alexander, Nick Bosa, Dee Ford, Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt, Tevin Coleman, Emmanuel Sanders, Deebo Samuel and Jimmy Garoppolo. Those players either were injured, on other teams or still in college. Sure, the Seahawks have added players since then, too, but you get the point. The 49ers are better.
The Seahawks aren’t bad - they’re 7-2, but it’s a deceptive 7-2. They most likely would have only two or three wins without their starting quarterback, Russell Wilson. He’s the hands-down favorite for the MVP award, because he almost single-handedly carries the Seahawks to wins. Last week, he threw five touchdown passes and no interceptions, and the Seahawks still needed overtime to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have just three wins.
The 49ers beat Wilson and the Seahawks last season and should beat them Monday, too. Here’s why:
1. The 49ers have four extra days to prepare.
This is a huge advantage.
Last week, the 49ers almost lost to the Arizona Cardinals. But, the Niners were on the road, and they were playing their second game in four days. They looked exhausted, especially during the second half when they missed blocks and tackles they normally would make.
Now, they’ve had 11 days to rest, practice and game plan for a home game against an inferior opponent. The 49ers’ offensive and defensive game plans should be more sophisticated than the Seahawks’ game plans. And the 49ers’ players should have more energy.
2. The Seahawks have a bad run defense.
It’s hard enough to beat the 49ers. It’s almost impossible to beat them if the opponent can’t stop the run.
The Seahawks can’t stop the run. They have allowed 4.7 yards per carry (tied for sixth most in the NFL), and 12 rushing touchdowns (second most). Their front-seven is old and slow. And their middle linebacker, Bobby Wagner, isn’t the stud he was when the 49ers and Seahawks were rivals earlier in the decade. Meaning the Seahawks will struggle to stop the 49ers running backs, particularly Matt Breida, who’s averaging 5.3 yards per carry.
When asked about the 49ers running game this week on a conference call, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll responded with deep admiration. “Such a committed running game. They’re really hard to deal with. Kyle (Shanahan) has a big reservoir of things (in his offense), and he’s pulling on it. That’s why they’re so difficult to deal with.”
Carroll sounded like he knows what’s coming. The 49ers should rush for at least 150 yards.
3. Some of the 49ers best players are returning.
Sure, Alexander won’t play, and Kittle probably won’t, either. But, Kyle Juszczyk and Marquise Goodwin will return, and Joe Staley, Mike McGlinchey and Ahkello Witherspoon could as well.
Goodwin missed the past two games for personal reasons. “He’s healthy and he’s good to go,” Shanahan said. “He had a good week of practice.”
Juszczyk will play for the first time since Week 5, when he injured his knee against the Cleveland Browns. Before the injury, he was the 49ers best run blocker and arguably their most valuable offensive player.
“I feel fresh,” Juszczyk said. “It’s not normal to feel fresh Week 10.”
Staley, McGlinchey and Witherspoon all are “questionable” for this game. All three practiced this week and have a good chance to play.
“They are fully healthy,” Shanahan said. “I know they are from a medical standpoint, but you don’t get to see how much (time off) has affected their bodies until they go full speed, not just for a few reps but a couple days back-to-back. If they are what they were before they left, then they will for sure be out there.”
Sounds like the 49ers will be healthier than they’ve been in weeks.
4. The 49ers have weapons other than Kittle.
A few weeks ago, losing Kittle might have ruined the 49ers’ chances to win. He was their only consistent receiving threat. But, then they traded for Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders has played only two games with the 49ers, but already has shown he’s dangerous. He has caught 78.6% of his targets from Jimmy Garoppolo. Kittle has caught 80.7%.
“He’s a savvy guy,” Garoppolo said of Sanders. “He feels space in the defense, he’ll cut his route short if he needs to, he’ll take it a little deeper if he has to. As a quarterback, I love that. Just guys that feel the same thing that I’m seeing and it’s nice having that.”
Garoppolo trusts Sanders already.
And he trusts Kittle’s backup, Ross Dwelley. Garopolo threw the game-winning pass to Dwelley on third and nine last week. Dwelley is an effective young tight end who has caught 77.8 percent of his targets this season.
The 49ers don’t necessarily need Kittle to win anymore.
5. Robert Saleh knows how to fix the run defense.
The 49ers have one major weakness - their run defense. It has allowed a whopping 5.5 yards per carry the past four games.
Opponents have found ways to exploit the weaknesses of the 49ers’ “Wide 9” defensive alignment. The Wide 9 enhances a defense’s pass rush, because it puts extra space between the defensive linemen, but it also weakens the run defense.
“As we see the way teams are attacking us, we’ll get better and better in the run game,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “I’m not hitting the panic button, but obviously it is an area of emphasis to make sure that we are still stout against the run. Because to be a good defense, you’ve got to be able to stop the run to make teams one dimensional.”
Saleh knows the 49ers have to stop the Seahawks ground game. The Seahawks are a run-first team that averages 30.3 carries per game. And Saleh knows the Wide 9 defends the pass much better than the run.
Meaning Saleh might not use the Wide 9 so much in this game. He might go back to last season’s defensive alignment, with five defensive players across the line of scrimmage, because that defense ranked seventh-best in the NFL against the run.
Certainly the Seahawks, a quality outfit, will present questions for the 49ers. The 49ers should have all the answers.