Can 49ers Pass Rush Expose Seahawks QB Russell Wilson?


It has not been a good few weeks for the 49ers’ pass rush. San Francisco may have returned to winning ways on Sunday by beating the Baltimore Ravens, but the game was another poor one for the defense in terms of pressuring the quarterback. The Niners had no sacks for the second straight week but face a welcome matchup in Week 7 as the Seattle Seahawks come to town on Thursday Night Football.

Calling the Seahawks a welcome matchup would have raised the eyebrows as early as last season but, because of their failure to protect the quarterback, the 49ers’ pass rushers will be relishing going up against a Seattle offensive line that is among the worst in the NFL.

The 49ers had three sacks in the same fixture last season but were unable to prevent Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson from leading the Seahawks to a comprehensive 19-3 win as he threw for 236 yards and a touchdown on Thanksgiving.

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Wilson’s escapability has long been one of the keys to his success, however, this season it has not been enough to prevent him from taking a hammering at the hands of opposing defenses. The Seahawks have given up 26 sacks through six games; numbers that should offer the 49ers defensive front and leading pass rusher Aaron Lynch a great deal of encouragement.

With LBs Lynch, Ahmad Brooks, NaVorro Bowman and rookie defensive lineman Arik Armstead, who has impressed in flashes as a rusher, the 49ers certainly have players capable of getting to Wilson and stopping the Seattle offense from functioning properly.

The combination of the young talent on the Niner defense and a struggling Seattle O-line should figure to result in a successful evening for the 49ers pass rush. Indeed, the Seahawks’ O-line is ranked at No. 31 in the league by Football Outsiders, while every lineman who has played double-digit snaps this season has a negative grade from Pro Football Focus.

But the key to the Niners’ hopes of shutting down Wilson is not just a case of exploiting bad linemen who have struggled in pass protection. Instead, San Francisco will require an intelligent all-around game plan to stop one of the most dynamic signal-callers in the NFL in Wilson who, like opposite number Colin Kaepernick, has proven himself adept at extending plays and making an impact with his legs in the ground game.

Although Wilson was sacked four times in Seattle’s Week 6 loss to the Carolina Panthers, he was still able to throw for 241 yards and a touchdown and rush for 53 yards on eight attempts — a performance that would have seen the Seahawks to victory over Carolina if not for another fourth-quarter collapse by the defense.

The Niners cannot bank on another poor showing from what has been arguably the league’s best defenses in recent times. Therefore if, they are to avoid a second home loss in two seasons to the Seahawks, the 49ers have to get Wilson on the turf.

Carolina provided a window in how to do just that with their defensive performance last Sunday. Two of the Panthers’ sacks of Wilson came when they attacked the left side of the Seattle O-line.

Linebacker Thomas Davis sacked Wilson after a blitz aimed at the left side was not picked up, and defensive tackle Kawaan Short registered his second sack of the game after rookie defensive end Ryan Delaire forced Wilson to step up into the pocket by easily beating left tackle Russell Okung.

It was a rough day for Okung and left guard Justin Britt but they were not alone in that regard. Right tackle Gary Gilliam gave up six hurries, per PFF, and Panthers defensive lineman Wes Horton manhandled center Patrick Lewis on his way to a sack of Wilson.

In short this is an offensive line that can be attacked in a number of areas, however, Wilson appeared to particularly struggle with pressure from his left and up the middle.

Brooks and Lynch can and do rotate between the left and the right side, meaning the 49ers could deploy Lynch against Okung, who seems to be the weakest link, and allow Brooks who, per CSN Bay Area admitted to cramping on Sunday after missing a game following the death of his sister, to attack Gilliam and hopefully improve on a five-hurry performance against the Ravens.

San Francisco was able to manufacture interior pressure in the season-opening win over the Minnesota Vikings in which the Niners sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater five times.

But pressure from up the middle from the Niners has been noticeably absent since that triumph. With Bowman and aggressive safeties Antoine Bethea and Jaquiski Tartt and a rookie defensive lineman of the calibre of Armstead, San Francisco certainly has the players capable of giving the Seahawks’ interior O-linemen significant issues. Yet the 49ers will need to be wary of being picked apart should they choose to send extra men on the blitz.

Wilson, per PFF, has been sacked 16 times and intercepted twice when blitzed this season. However, he has still averaged 7.7 yards per pass attempt and thrown three touchdowns against the blitz. Additionally, PFF ranks Wilson at No. 3 among quarterbacks when throwing under pressure.

Much of Wilson’s success this season has come on throws over the middle. He has completed 17 of 18 passes for 304 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions on throws over the middle of 10 to 19 yards, per PFF.

That does not bode well for a Niners pass defense having struggled in recent weeks and has seen its zone coverage scheme picked apart by quarterbacks Eli Manning and Joe Flacco in back-to-back weeks, particularly on throws over the middle.

Manning had a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 on throws over the middle of 10-19 yards, completing six throws for 114 yards and a touchdown in the New York Giants’ Week 5 win over the Niners, while Flacco went 6-of-10 for 111 yards on passes over the same area.

With tight end Jimmy Graham finally getting going with eight catches for 140 yards versus the Panthers, the Niners can ill-afford to be as weak over the middle on Thursday and allow the tight end to be a very explosive safety net for Wilson.

Varying up coverages and matching up Graham with a tall, physical corner such as Donate Johnson may help matters, but the 49ers still also have to worry about keeping contain to prevent Wilson from exploiting the blitz and breaking big runs, which is something most NFL teams have found difficult, and stopping running back Marshawn Lynch from putting the defense on the back foot.

The 49ers have only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season and, if they can keep Lynch in check, San Francisco should be able to key in on Wilson and the passing game and send more pressure.

Can the Niners pass rush exploit Wilson? It certainly has all the tools to do so but needs assistance from defensive coordinator Eric Mangini, who must produce a more successful gameplan that nullifies the running game and helps lessen the 49ers’ problems in pass coverage over the middle if San Francisco is to emerge victorious.