San Francisco-Seattle: How 49ers can snap Seahawks' winning streak
Two weeks ago, San Francisco lost to Seattle, 19-3, followed by a loss to the Raiders last weekend in which the 49ers mustered only 248 yards and 13 points against one of the worst defenses in the league. Now, here comes the "Boom" — again.
Seattle is looking more and more like last year's Super Bowl champions with every passing week. In the past three games, the Seahawks beat Arizona, which had the NFL's best record, San Francisco and Philadelphia, holding the Eagles to 139 yards, which is the fewest for Philly under Chip Kelly.
The Seahawks' defensive legion is again ranked No. 1 in the league, allowing only 274.5 yards per game (less than one yard off their league-best average in 2013), and their offense is picking up steam at the right time, too, due in large part to their run game, which now leads the NFL with 170.1 yards per game and 5.2 yards per attempt.
The Seahawks are looking scary-good again, and there's a chance they'll dominate the 49ers in Seattle, one of the most difficult places to play in sports (I can confirm from experience). But San Francisco may see this game as an opportunity to reclaim some respect that's been lost in recent weeks. They'll be like a wounded animal and will come out swinging, no doubt. A victory over Seattle would keep San Francisco's slim playoff hopes alive.
Here are a few things San Francisco may focus on to have a shot at bringing down the high-flying Seahawks.
Round up Russell
The 49ers sacked Russell Wilson four times in their matchup two weeks ago, and he escaped a few other near-sacks in the game. Most of the pressure came on plays when there was solid coverage in the secondary and a simple, straight, four-man rush. Discipline on the edges — preventing Wilson from breaking contain — was key, but SF also had success using stunts while rushing only four defenders.
If the 49ers are able to once again get pressure on Wilson without blitzing linebackers or a nickel back, it would allow them to drop more defenders into zone coverage while being able to keep their eyes on Wilson in case he escapes the rush. Here's a look at how one scheme was drawn up in the 49ers' last matchup with the Seahawks, and one we're likely to see again.
Notice in the first photo there are three defenders on the line of scrimmage to the left of the offensive line and only one to the right. Before the snap, the 49ers appear to be setting up some sort of stunt that will occur to the side with three defenders, but as you can see by the arrows the stunt (an E-T stunt) is actually going to happen on the far side of the formation.
In the next photo, you can see there is now a three-on-two matchup to the right side of the line. Justin Smith (94) is running his long scoop into the heart of the line while Aaron Lynch (59) is looping outside to keep contain.
Although the 49ers are outnumbered to that side, the stunt got the Seahawks' linemen out of position.
In the final photo, you can see that Smith eventually pops free from the one-on-one matchup with the guard that the stunt created.
The play resulted in a sack while one of the Seahawks' linemen (circled) was providing no help as a result of the confusion the stunt caused.
This was an exotic stunt by the 49ers that resulted in a sack even though they rushed only four defenders. We should expect to see more of these types of elaborate stunts out of a four-man rush from San Francisco in the upcoming clash.
Keep Kaepernick a dual threat
In each of their two consecutive losses, Kaepernick had only three rushes. If SF doesn't game plan to make Kaepernick a dual-threat quarterback moving forward, he'll simply be a dull threat and the 49ers will have no shot at defeating the Seahawks. Taking away Kaepernick's ability to run is like cutting Samson's hair — it takes away his greatest strength and the most dynamic aspect of San Francisco's offense.
Kaepernick is not a traditional pocket passer, and offensive coordinator Greg Roman should not call the game as if he is one. He is simply not accurate or erudite enough to make good decisions and slice a defense up with his arm from the pocket. Can he be someday? Sure, but he isn't at this point in time.
Kaepernick has completed less than 57 percent of his passes in six of San Francisco's 13 games, including a woeful 43-percent performance against New Orleans on Nov. 9. Last week against Oakland, the 49ers needed to commit to the run to take pressure off Kaepernick's arm after his awful performance against Seattle in the game prior. But San Francisco produced less than 100 yards on the ground and chose to rely on the pass. Kaepernick finished the game by completing only 18 of 33 passes with two interceptions in addition to being sacked five times.
Kaepernick should be running the read-option enough times in a game that it remains a viable threat on each and every snap. Just the threat alone of the read option — or any other designed quarterback run play for that matter — is enough to keep a defense on its heels and make a defensive coordinator streamline his play-calling. Also, the game plan should include heavy doses of sprint-outs and bootlegs that change Kaepernick's launch point and put him on the move, providing him the ability to take off and run even on designed pass plays. All of this makes the game more difficult for the defense and easier for Kaepernick, increasing his effectiveness.
More Gore and Hyde, please
San Francisco's offensive line has been banged up, but the 49ers must establish a run game if they're going to have any chance at knocking off the Seahawks. While Kaepernick must be a vital cog in the run game, Frank Gore and Carlos Hyde need to be used in droves to attack defenses. The juxtaposition of the new-school, read option and a good ol' fashioned smash-mouth run game is what has given the 49ers the most success in recent years, and they need to revisit that theme.
San Francisco has the league's third-ranked defense in yards per game allowed at 308.5. They also have the league's 10th-ranked defense in points per game allowed at 20.6. Being patient with establishing the run and trusting the defense to keep them in the game is a must for San Francisco.
Gore averaged 5.3 yards per carry against the Raiders yet got only 12 rushes in the game; he needs more than that, as SF is 6-1 when Gore gets 14 or more carries. Hyde had only two carries in that game.
The run plays they should use against the Seahawks feature pulling linemen. Seattle's 4-3 scheme can be susceptible to counters, divide plays, power-O schemes and any other runs that use pulling linemen to change the defenders' run fits. One mistake by one defender usually results in a big play for offenses facing 4-3 schemes.
The Seahawks showed vulnerability against a run game that features pulling linemen in their loss to the Chiefs, who hit them for 190 yards and 6.3 yards per rush. Seattle was banged up in that game, but it's still a good plan of attack for the 49ers. Let's take a look at one of the run plays in which the Chiefs stayed committed as they racked up more rush yards than any other team has against Seattle.
The O-play uses a pulling lineman from the backside of the play to kick out the frontside linebacker. It is designed to force the backside linebacker — who is unblocked — to make a good read (seeing the pulling lineman) and make a one-on-one tackle in the hole on the running back. Here's how it's drawn up:
The linebacker here made a great read and followed the pulling lineman to the play, putting him in position to make a one-on-one tackle on the back.
Yet, this is still not an easy play to make, especially against a guy who possesses Kaepernick's running ability. As defenses get tired, missed tackles become more prevalent and the odds of a runner breaking a big play increase. That's what Jamaal Charles did here.
When a team has two backs like Gore and Hyde who can be rotated throughout the game to stay fresh, it has an especially good chance of wearing down the linebackers — who stay on the field the entire game — and breaking big runs.
The Seahawks are hitting stride at the right time. They've overcome injuries, departed players and the headache that was the Percy Harvin chaos earlier in the season. They're healthier on defense now, and their offense is humming.
If the 49ers are going to have any shot at taking them down, they're going to have to find ways to pressure Wilson, create opportunities for Kaepernick to run the ball and stay committed to a ground attack that also features Gore and Hyde. If they do that, they can snap Seattle's winning streak. If not, the Seahawks will have a feeding frenzy.