The San Francisco 49ers head into their Week 10 matchup with their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks, with a NFL-best record of 8-0. While there are many key matchups the Niners will need to win the contest, the biggest might be the ground game.
It has been a long time since a matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks produced the possibility of a top-tier contest.
When the Niners were last one of the NFL’s premier contenders during the Jim Harbaugh era, these division clashes were grinding throwbacks to a bygone era of the league, with both teams seeking to control the line of scrimmage and pound the other team into oblivion.
This season, the Seahawks have been quite far away from that version of their franchise, as they’ve developed more into a team led by the arm of quarterback Russell Wilson than a ball-control run game. Wilson has responded thus far with a MVP-caliber performance through nine games, as he’s completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,505 yards, 22 touchdowns and just one interception.
Still, the Seahawks find themselves two games behind the 49ers in the loss column coming into this Monday Night Football contest, and a ninth straight win for the Niners would do a lot towards pushing the team to a NFC West title.
One of the ways the 49ers will need to take advantage of the Seahawks is counterintuitive to football in 2019, and actually resembles the game plan Harbaugh and former offensive coordinator Greg Roman might have cooked up earlier in the decade.
The 49ers are going to need to run the ball.
Yes, in spite of how effective 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was last Thursday against the Arizona Cardinals, and in spite of the team just having traded away draft picks to bring in receiver Emmanuel Sanders, and in spite of arguably the team’s best player being tight end George Kittle, whether or not the 49ers can get back to their early season running success will heavily impact their ability to beat Seattle on Monday.
Let’s take a look at a few numbers to support the claim.
First, Seattle’s run defense grade, according to Pro Football Focus, has been pretty mediocre for most of the season. Other than a 88.8 grade against the run in their opener against the Bengals, and a Week 4 84.2 against the Cardinals, the Seahawks’ grades have hovered mostly in the low-to-mid 60s, a grade PFF considers average.
Their two losses have featured two of their lowest grades, 64.0 against the Saints and 61.7 against Baltimore, while others came in close wins over Pittsburgh (56.1) and Cleveland (62.4). So while the team has often found a way to win, even while struggling to stop the run, it’s fair to say running effectively against the Hawks is the first step to getting to them.
The numbers also suggest the running should be happening where 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan prefers to run anyway: outside the tackles.
The best-graded run defenders for Seattle are defensive tackles Quinton Jefferson (89.2) and Al Woods (81.4), linebacker Bobby Wagner (85.3) and edge rusher Jadeveon Clowney (79.3), so avoiding the middle of the field, where Jefferson, Woods and Wagner take up space, should be the plan. The rest of the edge defenders don’t hold up like Clowney, so running away from him should be, too.
Football Outsiders’ DVOA numbers help to develop the point, too.
Seattle currently sits at 22nd in defensive DVOA against the run at minus-2.4 percent (OK, but not great), a number that isn’t helped too much by FO’s adjustments (they are minus-0.5 percent by that metric). Overall, FO’s numbers suggest Seattle’s defense is, in fact, one of the league’s worst, with a total defensive DVOA of 7.4 percent, sixth worst in the NFL.
Another reason the 49ers should be running the ball is because their top running backs are two of the most efficient runners in the league, according to Football Outsiders.
Running back Matt Breida is FO’s ninth most effective, per DVoA, at 9.8 percent and is out-gaining his expected yardage by 81 yards on just 99 carries. The success rate for the former undrafted free agent is 47 percent, good for 20th in the league, which measures his consistency. He also is among the tops in the NFL in terms of yards per carry at 5.3.
Breida also still has the fastest single play of the season, according to NFL NextGen Stats, clocking in at 22.3 MPH on his 83-yard dash against the Cleveland Browns the last time the 49ers were on Monday Night Football.
Breida’s fellow backfield mate, Tevin Coleman, is 18th in DVOA at 2.2 percent, with a success rate of 43 percent, which is 32nd in the league. And while he has underperformed his expected yardage by just nine yards, his raw yards per carry of 4.3 is still pretty solid.
But the easiest explanation as to why the 49ers need to run the ball to win is because of how we began this argument: Wilson has been really good in 2019.
It isn’t just the raw numbers, either. He’s PFF’s highest graded quarterback, in terms of overall grade (91.9) and passing (90.9), and is sixth as a runner (75.2), behind the Houston Texans’ Deshaun Watson, the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, the New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill, the Dallas Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers.
He’s also the leader in FO’s QBR number at 78.5, just ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, who hasn’t played in several weeks. Wilson is also third in quarterback DVOA at 28.6 percent, and is actually underperforming his yardage output via FO’s EYds metric.
Running the ball, while it may be a relic of an older version of football, is still a way to control the tempo of the game, something the 49ers are already doing quite effectively anyway. According to FO’s offensive pace stats, the Niners are currently the sixth slowest in terms of seconds per play at 29.44.
That number drops to last in the NFL during the second half at 31.77 seconds per play, suggesting the team is quite good at milking the clock when they are leading late in the game, as they have been every week so far in 2019.
The easiest way to win the game, then, is to dominate the time of possession and limit the opportunities Wilson has to beat the 49ers defense, which should be looking to come back this week with something to prove after a lackluster Thursday Night Football showing.
And yes, you can do that with an effective short passing game, too, but the variables of interceptions and breakdowns in pass protection come into play in those cases. Instead, the 49ers will need to run the ball effectively throughout the game to maintain possession and control the game.
It will open up chances for play-action shots downfield to take advantage of a weak Seattle secondary to be sure. But mostly the goal should be to keep Wilson off the field, limiting his opportunities to make magic happen.
If they the 49ers are able to do this, it should give them a good chance at extending their winning streak to open the season and take control of the NFC West heading into the second half of the campaign.