3TFO: Seahawks @ 49ers, Week 14
After beating down the New Orleans in convincing fashion, the Seattle Seahawks find themselves in the driver’s seat for homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. The 49ers on the other hand aren’t even a lock for the playoffs right now, despite their 8-4 record. If the playoffs began today, they would be the sixth and final seed, but currently they have a pair of 7-5 teams nipping at their heels. With so many solid teams vying for playoff berths, this division matchup is especially crucial for the 49ers.
On paper, these teams have plenty in common. They throw the ball less than all 30 of the other teams in the league, they rely on the power running game, both have up-and-coming mobile quarterbacks who can utilize the read option and both are known for their stifling defenses. The similarities don’t end there , but the big difference this season has been Seattle’s ability to put up points. The Seahawks rank second in the NFL, scoring 28.3 points per game, whereas the Niners are putting up 24.8 per game. Here are some of the key focal points of this game.
The War in the Trenches
This applies for both offenses and both defenses, but we’ll start with the Seattle offensive line against San Francisco’s defensive line. The Seahawks have starting tackles Russell Okung (-4.4) and Breno Giacomini (-1.2) back, but they haven’t exactly set the world on fire this season. Giacomini also has three very rough games on his resume against San Francisco, with grades of –4.9, -4.2, and -5.5. Making matters worse, all five of Seattle’s projected starting offensive linemen having negative overall grades for this season. They’ll face a very solid defensive front that features Justin Smith, Ray McDonald, and Glenn Dorsey. Seattle’s tackles will have their hands full with Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, who rank 6th and 7th respectively among 3-4 outside linebackers in Run Stop Percentage. Smith also happens to be one of the top pass rushing 3-4 OLB’s in the league, as evidenced by his 4th ranked Pass Rush Productivity of 14.3.
When San Francisco has the ball, they’ll look to dominate the line of scrimmage with their powerful offensive line. They haven’t quite enjoyed the same level of success as a unit that they did last season, but Joe Staley has remained at the top of his game. He has the 2nd best Pass Blocking Efficiency among tackles at 97.2, in addition to the 2nd best overall grade (+25.5). However, the rest of the line has been pretty average, and they’ll face a variety of quality run stoppers and pass rushers from the Seahawks excellent four-man front. Six different Seattle defensive linemen have earned positive grades and played at least 370 snaps. Michael Bennett jumps out immediately as a fierce pass rusher and solid run defender, while Tony McDaniel has really come on lately as a force against the run, racking up 13 stops over his last four games.
Controlling the Ball
Both teams will look to sustain long drives and grind out tough yards in the running game. For Seattle, much of that burden rests on the shoulders of Marshawn Lynch. Beast Mode has broken 66 tackles and has a 69.5 Elusive Rating, both of which lead all running backs (just edging out Adrian Peterson). Without the luxury of a road-grading offensive line, Lynch has had to gain many of his yards after contact, averaging 2.64 per carry. On the other side, Frank Gore has an Elusive Rating of just 19.1, ranking 42nd among running backs, and he’s only forced 20 missed tackles. However, Gore still has a positive rushing grade due in large part to his ability to choose the right hole and be decisive with his running.
The team that can run more effectively should be able to control the ball, but turnovers can also play a huge role in that area. Each team has a positive turnover margin on the season, with Seattle at +12 and San Francisco at +6. Given that both defenses are loaded with playmakers, ball security could be a major influence in the outcome of this game.
Big Plays with Play Action
With such strong running games on both sides, play-action can be especially effective for generating big chunks of yardage through the air. Seattle uses play action on 34.3% of their pass plays, a higher clip than any other team in the league. When using play action, Russell Wilson averages 10.0 yards per attempt, has thrown 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions, and has a QB Rating of 120.9. Much of this success comes from the extra time that Wilson gets to throw when using play action. Often times he runs around waiting for a deep receiver to uncover, then delivers the ball with great accuracy. In fact Wilson’s Deep Ball Accuracy Percentage is 60.0% which leads all qualifying quarterbacks.
Both Wilson and Colin Kaepernick throw deep (over 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage) on about 15% of their attempts, and Kaepernick also happens to use plenty of play action (28.3% of his attempts). The difference in his effectiveness with and without play action is striking. With play action, Kaepernick completes 60.2% of his passes, has eight touchdowns, one interception, averages 8.5 yards per attempt, and has a QB Rating of 113.3. Without, his completion percentage drops to 56.7%, he’s thrown seven touchdowns to six interceptions, he averages 7.3 yards per attempt, and just a 78.9 QB Rating. When facing a pass defense as strong as the Seahawks, the misdirection and extra time could help receivers get more open and allow for some big plays downfield. We’ll see which team is able to take better advantage of this on Sunday.
Follow Scott Hanson on Twitter.