Did Seattle's win give NFL the blueprint for beating 49ers?
SANTA CLARA - Every good team needs to lose a game.
With the exception of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, every Super Bowl champion lost at least once along the way. And they learned from losing and improved.
The 49ers just lost their first game. They're still good, and could become even better if they study the hard truths the Seahawks taught them Monday night. Here's what the Seahawks revealed about the 49ers. Call it the anti-49ers blueprint.
The blueprint to defend the 49ers' offense.
This is the blueprint, one the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers' next opponent, likely will follow: Take away the run. The 49ers lead the league in rushing attempts - they're a run-first offense. That's their identity. Make them become a drop-back passing offense, and live with the results.
The blueprint sounds simple, but zero teams pulled it off until the Seahawks Monday night, when they limited the 49ers to 87 rushing yards, dangerously substandard for the 49ers.
The Seahawks used a special alignment with six defenders on the line of scrimmage - the same alignment the Patriots used in the Super Bowl when they held the Rams to just three points. Placing six defenders on the line of scrimmage makes it extremely difficult for the opposing offense to run the ball or roll the quarterback out of the pocket. He needs to drop back and throw, because he's caged in the pocket. The upside is that the middle of the field is open if he can take advantage of it.
Normally against this alignment, Jimmy Garoppolo would throw to George Kittle, often over the middle. But Kittle missed Monday's game with knee and ankle injuries, and could miss more games. He has not practiced this week.
The 49ers have to find new ways to beat this defensive alignment, because other teams most likely will copy it.
“Anytime you lose your best player, you need guys to step it up,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “You really miss George on those checkdowns. A normal guy gets seven yards. George has a chance to go 60 yards. Always makes it tougher when you got to have 10 plays instead of three.”
The blueprint is effective because the 49ers' wide receivers haven't played well.
That's why they traded for Emmanuel Sanders. The rest of the receivers are young, inconsistent or both.
But Sanders might not play Sunday against the Cardinals. He fractured his rib cartilage Monday night and did not finish that game. Like Kittle, Sanders has not practiced this week.
The top four remaining wide receivers - Deebo Samuel, Marquise Goodwin, Kendrick Bourne and Dante Pettis - each dropped at least one pass against the Seahawks.
“When a ball touches the receiver's hands, the receiver needs to make that play,” Shanahan said. “You catch the ball and you move the chains. You catch the ball and you have a better chance to win. They have to get their confidence back in their hands.”
One player who needs to find some confidence in his hands and just about everywhere else is second-year wide receiver Dante Pettis. He was supposed to be the 49ers' No. 1 wide receiver this season, but currently has just 11 catches for 109 receiving yards.
“I'm one of the guys that believes in him the most,” Shanahan said of Pettis. “That's why he's here. He's had his opportunities. The more he doesn't take advantage of his opportunities, the less opportunities he gets. He did get a couple (Monday) night because of injury, and I didn't think he made (the most of) them. We'll see how this week goes. Dante has the ability, but we're waiting for him to pick it up and have the consistency and take advantage of some of these opportunities he's gotten.”
The blueprint is effective because the 49ers' pass protection isn't great.
All five offensive linemen block better for runs than passes.
Until Monday night, Shanahan could play to his offensive linemen's strengths by calling lots of runs and rolling Jimmy Garoppolo out of the pocket. But the Seahawks forced Garoppolo to drop straight back 51 times, meaning they forced the 49ers' offensive line to pass protect 51 times. And the offensive line gave up five sacks.
Offensive tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey struggled the most. Both were coming off injuries and hadn't played recently.
“Anytime you haven't played football in a while, it's always a challenge to get back out there no matter what you do in practice,” Shanahan explained. “They weren't at their best. I thought they had their good plays, but definitely had some noticeable bad plays that ended up hurting us a little bit.”
Staley and McGlinchey certainly were rusty, but Staley also looked old. He's 35 and doesn't move as well as he used to. Plus, he fractured his finger against the Seahawks and could miss more games.