49ers vs. Seahawks: What’s San Francisco’s Game Plan in Week 11?


The 49ers have endured a miserable time in their recent matchups with the Seattle Seahawks, who are looking to make if five wins in a row over San Francisco if you include the NFC Championship game last January, which served as the high point of a rivalry that now appears to be dying down.

San Francisco was shut down completely in the first game of this season’s series with Seahawks, losing 19-3 as a hurried and harried Colin Kaepernick proved unable to get anything going while Seattle’s running game – led of course by Marshawn Lynch – did enough to enable Pete Carroll’s team to put points on the board.

This time Blaine Gabbert will be at quarterback for the 49ers offense and, after leading San Francisco to a 17-16 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Week 9 – the new Niners signal-caller is not expected to have the same success at CenturyLink Field on Sunday.

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The 49ers will need an excellent gameplan on both sides of the ball if they are to deal Seattle, beaten by the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10, a surprise second straight loss on their home turf. And it must start with ensuring Gabbert has the opportunity to get the ball in the hands of his playmakers and move the offense.

Week 7 saw Colin Kaepernick put up a dismal performance, but he was not helped by the offensive line, which gave up six sacks to the Seattle pass rush.

The absence of Seahawks outside linebacker Bruce Irvin, who is out with a knee injury, is a boost to an O-line that did not concede a sack in Week 9. However, Gabbert still figures to be under consistent pressure from a Seattle defense that strip-sacked Carson Palmer twice in the loss to the Cardinals.

In order to combat that pressure, Gabbert will need to get the ball out quickly, so expect plenty of checkdowns to newly signed running back Travaris Cadet, who had 38 receptions for 296 yards and a touchdown last year with New Orelans.

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Seattle has been susceptible to the short passing game, Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer picked up 229 of his 363 passing yards on throws under 20 yards, per Pro Football Focus, with Larry Fitzgerald doing a lot of damage out of the slot as much vaunted cornerback Richard Sherman did not shadow Arizona’s most experienced receiver.

San Francisco should look to imitate the formula used by Arizona. Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton both have the speed to be dangerous over the middle, while Anquan Boldin has the hands and the toughness to move the chains by deploying him in the slot as the Cardinals did with Fitzgerald.

Torrey Smith – held without a catch by Sherman in Week 7 – could also be played in the slot in an effort to allow him to get deep by matching him up with a different defensive back.

With Vernon Davis out of the picture, Garrett Celek flourished with two touchdowns in the defeat of the Falcons and, given the success Tyler Eifert, Greg Olsen and Jermaine Gresham have had against Seattle in recent weeks, the Niners new top option at tight end figures to be featured heavily in the game plan.

Getting the passing game going will be key to any hopes of a Niners victory as the Seahawks have been stout versus the run, allowing only 3.7 yards per carry. However, the San Francisco defense has traditionally been able to keep these games relatively close, so the 49ers are likely to stick to the ground attack, even without Carlos Hyde.

Hyde will miss his third straight game because of a foot injury, leaving Shaun Draughn as the lead runner in the backfield ahead of Cadet and Kendall Gaskins.

The 49ers did have 133 yards rushing versus the Falcons but at an average of just 3.5 yards per attempt. Still, providing the defense can keep it close, San Francisco will likely feed Draughn on a regular basis with runs behind left tackle Joe Staley and right guard Andrew Tiller, providing the latter sees more snaps than Jordan Devey. Staley and Devey each have positive run-blocking grades of 1.1 from Pro Football Focus.

For the defense the focus of their attention should be firmly on Marshawn Lynch following his 100-yard game in Week 7. Lynch was the key to Seattle’s success in that game with 122 yards and a touchdown.

San Francisco did a better job against the run two weeks ago by holding Atlanta’s Devonta Freeman to a mere 12 yards on 12 carries. The Niners’ efforts in stopping Freeman mainly surrounded preventing him from breaking contain in getting the edge.

That should still be a primary focus of the D-line, but the problem with Lynch is that he possesses the elusiveness and the power to be a threat to when running to the outside and in-between the tackles.

Lynch did much of his damage on runs behind his guards in the reverse fixture but San Francisco can afford to have more faith in its cornerbacks in man coverage after Week 9, so it would be no surprise to see the Niners commit more defenders to the run to clog the lanes up the middle and allow of NaVorro Bowman – who has an 8.4 PFF grade defending the ground game – to tackle for the Seattle tailback for a loss.

Athletic and physical rookie safety Jaquiski Tartt could also be brought down into the box to help slow down Lynch, which will be pivotal to taking away the threat of play-action.

The Niners were burned on play-action in Week 7 as Russell Wilson hit Tyler Lockett on a 43-yard touchdown pass. However, overall in that game the Niners did a good job of keeping Wilson in check and got pressure on him throughout, sacking him five times.

Aaron Lynch, who recorded two of those sacks, will again be the featured pass rusher, but, with Arik Armstead and Bowman both playing well as pass rushers, there figures to also be an emphasis on interior pressure to further disrupt the rhythm of arguably the best dual-threat quarterback in the league by overwhelming an O-line ranked last in the league in pass protection by Football Outsiders.

Wilson still does not appear to have a target capable of consistent production. Tight end Jimmy Graham has failed to have an impact for the majority of his first season with the Seahawks and was held to two catches for 31 yards in the game at Levi’s Stadium.

One way the Niners could keep him quiet again would be match Graham up with rangy cornerback Dontae Johnson, who is coming off an excellent display against the Falcons in which he helped hold Julio  Jones without a touchdown.

Huge blowouts are rare in this matchup but, while the 49ers defense has been getting better in recent weeks, it is difficult to see Eric Mangini’s group being allowed to stay off the field by an offense that has struggled mightily against the Seahawks.

If the 49ers are to win this game, Gabbert will have to have success in the passing game. And, on the road, the odds of the Seahawks defense letting that happen are slim.