What Went Wrong: Examining the 49ers Loss to Seattle
Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
Lieutenant Dewindt: FUBAR.
Private Reiben: FUBAR.
Sergeant Horvath: FUBAR.
Captain Miller: FUBAR
Private Jackson: Y'all got that right.
Corporal Upham: I looked up "fubar" in the German dictionary and there's no ‘fubar’ in here.
- Saving Private Ryan
The San Francisco 49ers have not beaten the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle since Christmas Eve 2011. Sunday’s loss extended Seattle’s winning streak over the 49ers to 9 games.
Yesterday’s loss wasn’t surprising and reflects the ongoing metaphysical crisis for the 2018 49ers.
The bitter song remains the same for post-game recaps and analysis: An injury-plagued team lacks the necessary depth and talent to compete with the bulk of the NFL. While some players take steps forward, others continue to lag behind and not compete to their expected potential.
I’ve done my best to remain upbeat about this season, finding diamonds in crushing losses and rising above click-bait arguments about who should be fired.
For reasons known only to the Great Magnet, the blow-out loss continues to ice my blood and crush my black soul.
Thirty-Seven Points are on Saleh
NFL history is filled with potential-laden coaches failing miserably in leadership positions. Then-Jaguars linebackers coach Robert Saleh seemed to be the right man to serve as the new defensive coordinator under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Saleh was going to bring a version of Seattle’s 4-3 defense to Santa Clara, and he had an intensity that had been missing from the building.
For the record, I was neutral on Saleh’s hiring but thrilled to hear the 49ers were going to use a one-gap defense. I had long felt the 49ers had the talent for a 4-3 front, not the 3-4 used by former defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil.
The 49ers opened the 2018 season missing tackles and blowing coverages. It took Saleh until Week 8 to start calling a more aggressive defense, and he still refuses to play defensive lineman Solomon Thomas as an interior lineman.
We've seen moments when the 49ers' defense looks sound. The defense held the L.A. Rams to 3 points on the first three series, and a few weeks later embarrassed the Oakland Raiders on national television. They significantly improved their tackling and have kept an upbeat attitude.
Coming into Week 13, the 49ers’ run defense ranked 10th in the NFL, and the pass defense was at 17th overall. Both somewhat shocking statistics for a team with 9 losses.
Run Defense: A Spaghetti Strainer
Yesterday, under a Seattle grey sky, the 49ers allowed 168 yards on the ground and one touchdown on 29 attempts.
Indeed, the 49ers’ defense is missing a true edge defender. Keep in mind the 49ers have three first-round selections playing in the trenches, and a promising rookie linebacker, yet still allowed nearly 6 yards per carry against Seattle.
One bright spot on the defensive line from Sunday was rookie Jullian Taylor notching 16 snaps. He ended the game with one tackle, and an overall 69.1 grade from Pro Football Focus. Defensive tackle Solomon Thomas, who was inconspicuous on 29 snaps, earned a 45.4.
Pass Defense: Exploited by Nanobubbles
Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson completed 11 passes for 185 yards and four touchdowns. Ninety-seven of those yards came when Saleh called the same coverage – Cover 3 Mable – on back-to-back possessions. Cover 3 Mable places the defense in zone coverage to one side of the field and man to the other.
In the first quarter with 5:14 on the clock, Wilson found wide receiver Jaron Brown on a deep crossing route. Brown would score the game’s first touchdown four plays later.
On Seattle’s next offensive possession, the offense ran another play with two vertical routes and a deep crossing pattern. Saleh had the same coverage set up, and Wilson found wide receiver Tyler Lockett matched up against 49ers’ linebacker Malcolm Smith.
Smith might as well have been standing on the bottom of Puget Sound because there was no way he was going to keep up with Lockett.
Seattle knew where to exploit Saleh’s defense. They went after defensive backs Ahkello Witherspoon, Antone Exum, Jr., and K’Waun Williams, and attacked all the weak points in the defense for 60 minutes.
Wilson was 6-for-8 when throwing left for 106 yards and 3 touchdowns. He threw to the right only twice for 45 yards and one touchdown. Oddly, Saleh couldn’t dial up a defense that shut down the left side or conjure up a call that forced Wilson to look another way.
Witherspoon, Exum, and Williams also completed the secondary penalty hat trick, as all three had at least one flag for pass interference.
As a defensive unit, the 49ers missed 10 tackles against Seattle, the most since the Week 3 loss to Kansas City when the team missed 17 tackles. (Per Pro Football Focus)
In the coming decades, professional football historians will look back at the 2018 season and write thesis papers on the creative ways the San Francisco 49ers found to loses games. Some games, the 49ers couldn’t hold the lead. In other games, the offense couldn’t mount a last-minute drive.
Saleh’s been the scapegoat for most of the season, sometimes for good reasons, other times because fans need a common enemy. In reality, the 49ers have a good defensive scheme. Shanahan and Saleh have been cramming square pegs in round holes to try and bridge the gap until the offseason.
On paper, our football historians will write, the 49ers had a quality defensive playbook. But no vaccination could rid the disease of execution, talent, and poor play calling.
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