The first foray into the NFC West for the Seahawks last week didn’t go so well, extending a somewhat unnoticed and unfortunate streak — Seattle has now lost four in a row against division foes dating to last December.
The last time Seattle won a game against the NFC West? Last Nov. 11 against the 49ers, who come to town Sunday to renew a rivalry that reignited in earnest last season when the teams fought two classic battles that each came down to essentially the final play.
There’s ultimately no less riding on this game than the ones a year ago, as Seattle is 5-1 and leading the West. But with a combination of a loss to the 49ers and wins by the Rams and Cardinals, Seattle could fall to third. The 49ers, meanwhile, have won two in a row to get to 4-3 and back in contention, and with a win would stamp themselves as legitimate contenders once again.
It should be a fun one.
Let’s take our weekly look at some keys to the game:
Matchup to watch
San Francisco tight end George Kittle against Seattle’s linebackers
The 49ers will be without receiver Deebo Samuel, which might mean forcing the ball even more to Kittle, who didn’t play when the Seahawks won in San Francisco last year but did in the game in Seattle.
Kittle missed two games earlier this year but is now back and averaging seven catches per game, the best in his career, with 35 receptions for 435 yards. Kittle’s yards after catch average is down slightly — 5.8 compared to 7.1 and 9.9 in 2019 and 2018. Keeping it in at least that range will be a key for the Seahawks, who won’t be able to stop Kittle from getting the ball but have to limit big gains. That’s a task that will mostly fall on the shoulders of Seattle’s linebackers and safeties.
It’s unclear if Jamal Adams will be available — that would help immensely. But the return of Jordyn Brooks and getting him comfortable as the weakside linebacker in the base defense should help solidify the linebacking corps going forward.
Player to watch
Receiver Tyler Lockett
Lockett is coming off one of the best individual performances in Seahawks history with 15 receptions for 200 yards and three touchdowns at Arizona. Now, he and the rest of Seattle’s receivers face a secondary that, other than one surprising faceplant against Ryan Fitzpatrick and Miami, has played as well as any in the NFL, holding five of its last six opponents under 200 yards (even without former Seahawk Richard Sherman, out since Week 1 with a calf injury that will also hold him out Sunday).
Lockett has been lining up in the slot on more than half of his snaps — 209 of 378 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus — and when he’s there Sunday he could be matched up against Jamar Taylor. If that name sounds familiar it’s because Taylor was Seattle’s starting nickel much of the first half of last season before being released. Taylor has played well since taking over for the injured K’Waun Williams as the 49ers’ nickel three weeks ago, allowing a passer rating of just 62.8, according to PFF. Williams, dealing with a sprained knee, could be back Sunday. Either will have his hands full with Lockett, whose 25 receiving touchdowns since 2018 are the most in the NFL.
Coaching decision to watch
Defensive line rotation
With just three defensive tackles active last week, starters Jarran Reed (73, 87%) and Poona Ford (61, 73%) each played season highs in both total snaps and percent of snaps, and it would only make sense they might have gotten worn down by the end of the game. Seattle also gave rookie end Alton Robinson just seven snaps, in part due to playing Shaquem Griffin a season-high 40, most as an edge rusher.
Each of those could change Sunday as the Seahawks could elevate Snacks Harrison to help out the tackle rotation and will probably try to get Robinson out there more, especially with Benson Mayowa dealing with an ankle injury and listed as questionable for the game.
The fourth quarter
Remember when the Seahawks couldn’t win the game in the first quarter but they could in the fourth? Seattle has flipped the script on that this year a bit, outscoring opponents 50-36 in the first quarter this year but so far being outscored 63-52 in the fourth quarter.
Seattle has had a negative fourth-quarter point differential only once in the Pete Carroll era, a year ago (137-126). The Seahawks usually have a whopping positive point differential in the final 15 minutes (such as 115-60 in 2013 and 149-119 in 2018). Obviously, much of the fourth-quarter scoring this year has been when teams were trying to come from behind, and some of it wasn’t overly meaningful. But it was plenty meaningful last week, when Seattle got outscored 10-7 in the fourth quarter by Arizona, allowing the Cardinals to come back and force overtime.
Player who could surprise
Running back DeeJay Dallas
As of Friday, it was still unclear which of Seattle’s top three running backs — Chris Carson, Carlos Hyde and Travis Homer — will be available, each battling injuries (Homer seemed the most likely after he was able to practice on a limited basis). Even if they do suit up, each would obviously be at the risk of re-injury, which could put the onus back on Dallas, a rookie who was the only healthy running back left at the end of the Arizona game. Dallas struggled in pass protection and undoubtedly has gotten a crash course in that this week, getting the majority of the work in practice this week.
That’s Seattle’s third-down conversion rate on offense this season, 33.9%, 31st in the NFL, a stunningly low number considering how successful Seattle’s offense has been this season. That includes going just 5 of 20 the last two weeks, and having yet to convert any of 13 attempts on third downs of 10 yards or longer. Seattle has somewhat made up for it by going 5 of 6 on fourth down this year, fifth-best in the NFL and the 11th-most conversions.
But Seattle’s third-down percentages remain mystifying, with Carroll saying this week he wouldn’t put his finger on it for the reason. Seattle will need to keep some drives alive Sunday, but will be challenged by a 49ers defense that has allowed just 29 of 81 third downs to be converted, 35.8%, seventh-lowest in the NFL.
The final word
Seahawks 27, 49ers 24
A game featuring two teams with some significant injuries could well be determined by which team can stay healthiest through the game’s 60 (or 70?) minutes. Here’s a number that compels us to stick again with Seattle for another week — 31-8. That’s Russell Wilson’s record following an in-season loss in his career, the best for any QB since the 1970 merger.