Seahawks-49ers preview: Russell Wilson against the blitz and more to watch for

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The Seattle Seahawks will head to San Francisco to take on the 49ers on Sunday, closing out their 2017 season series after defeating the 49ers all the way back in week two. For the Seahawks, it’s a quick turnaround following Monday night’s crushing loss to the Atlanta Falcons. Now 6-4 and on the outside looking in at the NFC playoff picture, Seattle desperately needs to win games like Sunday’s in San Francisco. A win would see them improve to 4-0 in the division, one game up on the division-leading L.A. Rams in a potential tie-breaker.

The 49ers are feeling good, fresh off their first win of the season, followed by a bye week. Their lone win in 2017 came against a New York Giants team that has fully embraced a ‘Fuck it, I quit,’ mentality. The win, and a good showing by C.J. Beathard, has bought the rookie quarterback at least another week starting over Jimmy Garoppolo, a decision announced Wednesday afternoon. We’ll start there in this week’s things to watch for:

Can Beathard build upon his first win?

In his first four starts as a pro, Beathard has looked like a third-round pick. His talent has been just as apparent as his shortcomings; moments of promise have been outnumbered by moments of bad decisions and poor throws. The numbers aren’t complimentary: 33rd in passer rating (70.8); 29th in QBR (33.9); 30th in ANY/A (4.78); 33rd in completion percentage (54.3); 2nd worst passer rating when pressured (30.7); and the worst passer rating in the red zone (15.2). He’s a third-round pick playing in one of the most talent-poor offenses in the league, and his numbers reflect it.

At the same time, Beathard deserves credit for his last game, and it’s likely what bought him another start. His numbers were much more positive: 76-percent completion, a passer rating of 123.4, 11.52 yards per attempt and a QBR of 88.2. His improved numbers were due in part to an added aggression to his game, attacking and succeeding downfield against a paltry Giants defense. In total, 103 of Beathard’s 288 passing yards came on downfield passes, with a 149.3 passer rating on downfield passes, highlighted by an 83-yard touchdown pass to Marquise Goodwin.

So what will San Francisco get from him on Sunday against the Seahawks? He’s in a similar position to Case Keenum with the Vikings currently. The future, and present, waiting on the sideline while playing to extend his job. But he’s playing with a sense of energy, and the kind of positive desperation needed to hold off the next guy. Not necessarily playing with the reckless abandon of a player on the verge of losing his job, but taking chances all the same. Against a reeling Seattle defense, it might result in explosive plays and another inspired performance. Or, it could all come crumbling down at the hands of a motivated Seahawks defense. With this team, it’s anyone’s best guess.

Will the 49ers blitz Russell Wilson?

Despite having an incredibly young, talented defensive line, San Francisco has struggled to rush the passer in 2017. They have the fifth-fewest sacks as a team, and their lack of pass rush has contributed to their pass defense (30th) being considerably lower than their run defense (23rd) by Football Outsiders. One way they’ve combated this is by bringing extra defenders, getting the eighth most pressure in the entire NFL when blitzing. The seven teams ahead of them (the Steelers, Jaguars, Chargers, Washington, Bengals, Rams and Eagles) all rank in the top-half of the league in both sacks and pass defense. Blitzing, it would appear, is the 49ers’ best chance at disrupting Russell Wilson’s game on Sunday. Or, it could only serve to heighten it.

Heading into week 11, Wilson led the league in passer rating against the blitz, posting an absurd 115.9 passer rating when pressured. His ability to extend plays and hit receivers deep on broken plays in second-to-none, and it’s reflected in his success against the blitz. On Sunday, San Francisco might be faced with a difficult decision: try to pressure him and take advantage of a weak offensive line, or trust the four-man rush and risk Wilson sitting back and picking on a depleted secondary.

Another threat the 49ers will face is Wilson’s running ability. Similar to Dan Quinn’s defense in Atlanta, Robert Saleh wants his defensive lineman to attack up-field towards the quarterback. That gives Wilson the chance to escape up the middle and gain chunk yardage running the ball, like he did on Monday night against the Falcons. Just like it’s been all season, Wilson is going to carry Seattle to a victory if they’re to get back on track.

San Francisco’s young talent

An already talented 49ers defensive line got even better this week, claiming former Jacksonville Jaguar Sheldon Day and former Seahawk Cassius Marsh off waivers. Marsh is a known commodity to Seattle and to San Francisco’s defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and will provide depth and special teams. Day is a poor man’s Aaron Donald, undersized for the position but with great burst and the ability to flash into the backfield. He’ll have the chance to really start his career in a scheme that suits his ability.

DeForest Buckner continues to be every bit the grown-ass-man defender he was supposed to be and is enjoying a breakout season. Heading into the 49ers’ bye week, Buckner was Pro Football Focus’s number three ranked interior defensive lineman, and has totaled 34 pressures with 1.5 sacks. As physically dominant as they come, Buckner looks primed for a career like Calais Campbell’s, influencing the game in an unmeasurable manner.

Arik Armstead, who was supposed to be San Francisco’s LEO edge player in Saleh’s system, was placed on injured reserve after week six. This year’s first-round pick, Solomon Thomas, has been out since after week eight, but is nearing a return. In their places, Ronald Blair has played well – including a two sack, forced fumble performance against the Giants – and the ageless Elvis Dumervil has continued to contribute.

Finally, the 49ers seem to finally have their first-round linebacker Reuben Foster back and fully healthy. Foster’s performance against New York resembled his play in preseason, recording six tackles, one tackle for loss and a QB hit. Foster, like Bobby Wagner, has the ability to play sideline-to-sideline, play the run as well as get after the quarterback. He’s a hugely important piece of their team moving forward, and having him back healthy could be a legitimate difference maker for San Francisco.

A glimmer of Shanahan’s offense

Like Sean McVay in L.A., Kyle Shanahan has done a remarkable job in year one of shaping his offensive weapons to resemble those he had in his previous stop. The success isn’t the same as McVay’s, of course, but noteworthy nonetheless.

Just 36 of 186 pass attempts for Beathard have been at or behind the line of scrimmage, the second lowest amount in the league. Despite starting a raw rookie, Shanahan’s aggressive, attacking philosophy hasn’t changed. Their young on offense, but pieces are starting to appear: Garoppolo was the best quarterback on the market; rookies Matt Breida, Trent Taylor and George Kittle are playmakers; Goodwin plays the role of Taylor Gabriel, able to beat a defender deep on any play; and Pierre Garcon, although done for the year, will still be making tough catches at age 53.

Only the New England Patriots lineup in 21 personnel (two ‘backs, one tight end) more than the 49ers, a year after Shanahan’s Falcons used 21 the second-most in the league. San Francisco is averaging 5.5 yards per play out of the personnel grouping, but big-ticket fullback Kyle Juszczyk is yet to make any sort of impact as a playmaker.

It took Shanahan, Matt Ryan and the Falcons a full season together before they felt comfortable and began reaching their potential. With a young, still talent-poor roster, it’ll take the 49ers even longer. With a quarterback in-waiting, and playmakers at every skill position, the makings of an exciting offense are there to see.

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