Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Coming into 2018 it looked like this matchup could have playoff implications for both teams, but a spate of injuries for the 49ers has turned the remaining five games into a prequel of the 2019 preseason. Heading into the bye week Kyle Shanahan made it clear that the remaining games of the season would be used to evaluate who will be part of the organization going forward and after one game Shanahan has been true to his word. Every eligible member of the team’s 2018 draft class played in Sunday’s loss at Tampa (except fourth-round pick Kentavius Street, who is on the non-football injury list), marking the first time that has happened all season. Will we continue to see more of the young players the remainder of the season? In addition to the youth watch, here are some storylines to follow against Seattle:
How will Richard Sherman bounce back?
After going largely untested for the first ten games of the year, Richard Sherman was targeted and beaten a couple of times by Mike Evans, first for 41 yards, then for 34 yards, amounting to his worst outing in a 49er uniform. Now Sherman goes back to Seattle to face his former team for the first time; a game that he had circled on his calendar since signing in San Francisco. The cat and mouse game between Sherman and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson will be worth keeping an eye on. After six years of going against Wilson in practice, is there any insider knowledge that Sherman can exploit and what kind of information can he pass on to the other members of the secondary?
Can Witherspoon build on his solid performance?
One of the knocks on cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon this season has been his inconsistent play and after a solid performance against the league’s best passing attack, statistically, how will he follow up? Seattle’s passing offense ranks 31st in the NFL in attempts per game (28.1) and 26th in the league with 208.2 yards per game but features a couple of dynamic receivers in Tyler Lockett and David Moore, both averaging more than 15 yards per reception. Since the 49ers use a static alignment of their cornerbacks, with Sherman always on the offense’s right side and Witherspoon always on the left, it will be worth keeping an eye on how Seattle deploys their wide receivers and how they choose to attack Witherspoon and whether or not Ahkello is up to the challenge.
Can Mullens bounce back?
In his first road start, Nick Mullens faced one of the NFL’s worst defenses and turned in his worst performance in his three-start career. Against a Buccaneers defense that came into the game giving up just over 32 points per game, Mullens and the 49ers offense managed just one touchdown and one field goal. This week Mullens will face a much stiffer opponent, the Seahawks, who have given up an average of 22.1 points per game (tied for 8th in the league), and he will be in a much more hostile environment. Mullens has a reputation for maniacal preparation when it comes to getting ready for games including simulating crowd noise through his headphones, but to get ready for the Seahawks home crowd Nick is going to need to turn his headphones up to eleven. When it comes to facing the Seattle defense it should look familiar to him because it is the same scheme that he faces every day in practice. Mullens lacks the arm strength to challenge Seattle deep down the field and he will need to be much more accurate on throws outside the numbers than he was against Tampa Bay in order to be effective.
Can Dante Pettis build on his performance?
With starters Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garçon out against Tampa Bay, Dante Pettis got the start and made the most of his opportunity. Sunday was Pettis’ best game as a professional; he finished with 4 catches for 77 yards and a score. A second-round pick in the 2018 draft, Pettis was expected to have an immediate impact on the offense, but he has struggled to make an impact. With the statuses of Goodwin and Garçon unknown for Sunday’s game (as of this writing), Pettis could again be a featured part of the game plan; his ability to win off of the line of scrimmage will be key. With Mullens not being able to threaten the secondary with deep passes, the ability of Dante Pettis to make big plays with yards after the catch will be something to look for in this game as the 49ers need someone other than Matt Breida and George Kittle to make plays on offense.
Which team will stop the run?
Each of these teams makes their hay on offense by running the football. Seattle has the number one rushing offense in the NFL (147.1 yards per game) and the 49ers rank 5th (134.9 yards per game), so this game will come down to which defense can stop the run. Stopping the run is something the 49ers do pretty well ranking in the top 10 in both rush yards allowed per game (102.7) and yards per carry allowed (4.0). Exploiting Seattle’s run defense is a real opportunity for the 49ers. Seattle gives up an average of 121.4 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 22nd in the NFL and they rank dead last in giving up 5.3 yards per carry. If the 49ers can utilize their strength against the Seattle run defense with Matt Breida and Jeff Wilson, Jr. this game could be closer than many expect.
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