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We have much to be thankful for this week, including the return of the NFL’s best rivalry. Harbaugh vs. Carroll. Sherman vs. Crabtree. Kaepernick vs. People Who Don’t Kiss Their Biceps. The two toughest teams in football square off for the first time this season, and as usual, much is on the line. A lot has changed since the last time these teams played. Here are some facts and notes to prepare you for what’s next.
Injuries piled on top of injuries
If you have the unfortunate experience of watching the game with a 49ers fan this week, do not try to win an argument about which team has more crippling injuries. Seattle has been battered. San Francisco has been decimated.
The Seahawks have what amounts to two starters on injured reserve in Zach Miller and Brandon Mebane. You can call it three if you want to throw fullback Derrick Coleman in there despite the smallish role of the fullback. The 49ers have five, and could soon have six. Take a look at the talent sitting on the sidelines for San Francisco this year:
LB Patrick Willis
LB NaVarro Bowman (PUP, but looking like he will not play this season)
CB Chris Cook
C Daniel Kilgore
Slot CB Jimmie Ward
3rd down RB Kendall Hunter
NT Ian Williams
Then, add in players who have missed significant time (5+ games):
NT Glenn Dorsey
DE Aldon Smith
CB Tramaine Brock
RT Anthony Davis
FB Bruce Miller
Seattle has weathered the injuries to Bobby Wagner, Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell and Tharold Simon. It has been a hard year in terms of injuries piling up at certain positions like cornerback, center and tight end. The 49ers year has been harder.
There are questions about whether Anthony Davis will be able to return from his concussion in time for this game. Dorsey and Brock are also question marks. Playing without these players would be nothing new for San Francisco.
San Francisco secondary improved
The 49ers lost both starting safeties, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, the last two off-seasons via free agency. Veteran Carlos Rogers moved on. Starter Brock has missed most of the year with injury. Yet, they have shown real improvement in this year.
They have held opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating in the NFL (74.1), and are one of the few teams to have a better mark in that category this year compared to last year despite the points of emphasis that have led to a league-wide inflation in the passing game.
The safety play has been terrific between Eric Reid and veteran Antoine Bethea. Bethea has been one of their best defenders. He is second on the team in tackles and interceptions. Their cornerback depth is better than Seattle’s, even if their top-end talent is not as good.
Take Dontae Johnson. He is a rookie fourth-round pick who has gotten playing time due to the injuries to Ward, Brock and Cook. He is physical and sticky, and has graded out well with a +2.1 pass coverage grade from ProFootballFocus.com. Seattle has only one corner, Sherman, with a better grade.
Perrish Cox, who has bounced between Seattle and San Francisco, has had a terrific season, leading the team with 4 interceptions. Most of these gaudy numbers and performances have happened with a suspect pass rush. The return of Aldon Smith only makes things more difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Passing will be extremely difficult against the 49ers, but having just played the Cardinals helps.
Run defense in question
The 49ers have been one of the toughest team to run against in the NFL over the last few years. They managed to remain stout even without Willis and Bowman patrolling the middle, but the injury to starting nose tackle Ian Williams might have been the straw that broke their backs.
San Francisco allowed 85.6 yards rushing per game before the Williams injury, but 112.3 in the three games since
Last years starter, Glenn Dorsey, might be ready to return, but that would count as a surprise for this week. That leaves second-year player Quinton Dial to play the nose, and it is not looking like a good fit so far.
Dial excels as a pass rusher, but has struggled to hold the point against the run. He has graded out negatively in run defense in seven of the nine games he has played this year, and has gotten progressively worse the last three games as his role has increased.
Seattle could have a significant advantage if an experience player like Lemuel Jeanpierre can make it back and combine with either J.R. Sweezy or James Carpenter to create space inside.
Run offense takes a step back
The potent combination for San Francisco the last few years has been a physical run offense and a steel wall run defense. The run defense is looking vulnerable and the run offense has regressed.
San Francisco’s rushing attack is down 20 yards per game from last year and has failed to reach 100 yards rushing in four of their last six games
The 49ers rank 19th in the NFL in yards per carry, and after averaging 145 yards per game on the ground through five games, they have averaged just 98 yards rushing per game in the last six.
Much of this is attributable to their offensive line challenges. Alex Boone missed training camp with a holdout and has been just okay at guard. Mike Iupati is still an Earth mover, but losing center Daniel Kilgore for the rest of the year has forced them to lean on rookie center Marcus Martin.
Martin has not been up to the task in run blocking or pass blocking so far. Davis is a huge part of their running game, and has not been able to stay on the field. That makes it hard to combine blocks as Joe Staley and Iupati are on opposite sides of the line, and are the only quality run blockers left.
Frank Gore is still dangerous, and Carlos Hyde is a quality backup. Should Davis be unable to play, though, the Seahawks could have a significant advantage in stopping the run.
The team that has won the rushing battle between the 49ers and Seahawks since Harbaugh joined the team is 6-1, with the lone loss being the 49ers in the NFC Championship
San Francisco wide receivers are really good
Anquan Boldin is a hard guy to dislike with the way he plays the game. He leads a much-improved group that includes Sherman’s favorite mediocre receiver in Michael Crabtree, talented veteran Stevie Johnson and big play Brandon Lloyd.
The talent of these players, combined with some of the challenges running the ball, have led to the 49ers throwing the ball significantly more than they have in past past years. Their pass attempts per game has risen from 26 to 32 in one year.
Only Carolina, Oakland and Philadelphia have increased their pass attempts by more than San Francisco has this year.
Seattle is healthier at cornerback and safety than at anytime this year. They will have their hands full, but have always made life hard on Kaepernick.
Situational struggles on both sides
By now, Seahawks fans are well aware of their struggles in the red zone. The defense ranks 28th in the NFL in red zone defense, while the offense sits at 21st.
3rd Down Off
3rd Down Def
They may have met their match. The 49ers have been terrible in the red zone all year, especially on offense. Both teams are similarly challenged on third downs as well. This could come down to who sucks less in converting red zone and third down opportunities.
This will be the Seahawks fourth game on Thanksgiving, and first since 2008. All three previous games (2008, 1986, 1980) were played @ Dallas.
This will also be the fourth time the 49ers have played on Thanksgiving. They last played in 2011 against the Ravens. Before that, they had not played on turkey day since 1969. That game, at Dallas, ended in a 24-24 tie.
Road teams are 38-62 since Thursday night football started in 2006. That works out to a 38% win rate, compared to a 46% win rate for road teams playing on any night during that span.
There was a stretch over 2013 and early 2014 that road teams were 3-10 on Thursday night games, but are 2-2 in the last four contests.