Grant Cohn: How 49ers can beat the Seahawks

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The Seahawks expect to pound the 49ers into flat, little hamburger patties on Sunday and probably will. Face it.

Seattle put the 49ers through the meat grinder just two weeks ago, rushed for 168 yards and won by 27 points. Now, the Seahawks need just one more win to clinch a playoff berth.

They’re coming to clinch that berth, hurt the 49ers and break their will to play. I expect the 49ers will lose 20-13. The Seahawks simply are better.

But the better team doesn’t always win. The 49ers have a chance if they can follow these five instructions offered in a well-meaning spirit.

1. Establish someone other than George Kittle in the pass game.

Here’s the Seahawks’ game plan on defense: put eight defenders near the line of scrimmage, shut down the run game, double-cover Kittle and force other 49ers to produce.

Duh.

The 49ers might have lost last week had the Broncos followed that obvious plan. Instead, the Broncos covered Kittle man to man during the first half, and Kittle gained 210 receiving yards before halftime while the rest of the 49ers gained just 61 yards through the air.

The Broncos’ defense made a simple adjustment during the second half. Switched from man-to-man coverage to zone. That’s all it took to shut down Kittle and the 49ers offense. Kittle caught no more passes and the 49ers scored no more points.

The Seahawks play lots of zone coverage. They will have plenty of ways to bracket Kittle with two or three defenders and force Nick Mullens to throw elsewhere.

Kyle Shanahan must establish someone other than Kittle in the pass game. Someone like Dante Pettis or Trent Taylor or Kyle Juszczyk. If Mullens has to drop back and hold the ball too long because no one is open, the 49ers have no chance.

2. Create a big play for a touchdown.

Here are some numbers you should know:

A typical NFL game usually contains 11 or 12 drives for each team.

The Seahawks shorten games by running the ball more than they pass and using lots of clock. So, a Seahawks game can contain as few as nine drives for each team.

The past three weeks, the 49ers offense has scored points during just 28 percent of their drives — less than one in three. That’s because they’ve struggled to convert on third down (32.4 percent) and in the red zone (37.5 percent).

If the 49ers’ offense gets nine drives on Sunday, it most likely will reach the red zone only three times, enter the end zone just once, kick two field goals, score 13 points and lose.

The 49ers need ways to score touchdowns while avoiding third down and the red zone. They need big plays outside the red zone. Here’s how the 49ers can create them:

3. Challenge Seahawks cornerback Tre Flowers.

The Seahawks defense has given up just 16.7 points per game the past three weeks. But it has a weakness the 49ers can exploit.

Rookie cornerback Tre Flowers.

Flowers played strong safety at Oklahoma State. Never played corner before this season. The Seahawks drafted him in the fifth round this year. On Monday, he gave up a 48-yard catch up the sideline to Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who ran right past Flowers.

The 49ers also have a receiver who can run past Flowers: Marquise Goodwin. One of the NFL’s fastest players.

Goodwin almost is too fast. Because if he runs a go route or a post route to the middle of the field, he may outrun Mullens’ arm. Mullens isn’t a great deep thrower. Kyle Shanahan needs to call shorter deep passes, if you’ll forgive the apparent paradox.

What’s a shorter deep pass? Any play with a double-move for the receiver, where he fakes a shorter route and gets the corner to bite. A slant-and-go. An out-and-up. A stutter-takeoff. Goodwin can run those routes. Flowers can’t cover them.

4. Rediscover the screen pass.

Shanahan loves calling deep play-action passes with deep, seven-step drops for the quarterback and deep crossing routes for the receivers. Stuff that makes his quarterback hold the ball forever.

But a quarterback doesn’t always have to throw deep to create a big play. He can throw a quick screen pass behind the line of scrimmage to a running back, and let him run for the big play. See Bill Walsh or Andy Reid.

Last week, Shanahan called two screens to the offense’s left, and both plays were practically identical. Combined, they lost two yards. One was almost intercepted. The Broncos were prepared for that play.

Is that the only screen in Shanahan’s playbook?

No. We’ve seen him call lots of different screens for lots of different players. Week 5 against the Cardinals, Shanahan called two screens for Kyle Juszczyk during the 49ers’ opening drive. The first screen gained 16 yards. The second gained 25.

Shanahan doesn’t have to draw up new, creative screens for Juszczyk. Those are in the playbook already. Just turn the page and call them.

5. Play physical run defense.

The 49ers didn’t have to do that last week against the Denver Broncos’ 190-pound running back, Phillip Lindsay, and their finesse, outside-zone blocking scheme.

The Seahawks’ running game is not finesse. It’s physical and straight-ahead. They use six offensive linemen most of the time. Their starting tight end, George Fant, was their left tackle in 2016. He weighs 322 pounds. And their starting running back, Chris Carson, is a later-day Marshawn Lynch. Same mentality and aggression.

Carson fights for extra yards every carry. He primarily runs right up the gut, but will bounce to the outside if an edge defender over pursues him and opens a lane. The 49ers opened lots of lanes for Carson two weeks ago.

Defending the Seahawks run game requires gap discipline and a certain mindset. A passion for brute force. A desire to take on 320-pound behemoth blockers and push them away 30 to 40 times per game. It’s hard work, like coal mining. Nothing pretty about it.

The 49ers have to get dirty to give themselves a chance to win. Winning wipes out all stains.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers and Bay Area sports for The Press Democrat and pressdemocrat.com in Santa Rosa. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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