The Morning After: Seahawks Choke Out 49ers 43-16, Breathe Life Into Playoff Run
The San Francisco 49ers were once the baddest team on the block. No team was more intimidating. Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, Navarro Bowman, Aldon Smith, Joe Staley, Mike Iupati, Frank Gore, Anquan Boldin, and many more, formed an imposing crew who tilted whatever field they walked on. The Seahawks grew into a fearsome fraternity in their own right at roughly the same time. When those two teams clashed, it was like Zeus battling Hades. The collisions were like lightning strikes. The outcomes were unfortunately very predictable. Seattle would lose, time and again. Until one late season meeting in 2012 when the Seahawks unleashed a calamitous series of strikes, leaving the 49ers bruised and bewildered. That 42-13 contest was a Category 5 storm warning for the rest of the league. The Seahawks were coming, and even the baddest kids on the block were powerless could not stop them. This was not that game. Seattle scored their most points against a 49ers team on Sunday and blew out their former rival in another late season match in CenturyLink Field, but only the score and the jerseys were similar. The 49ers may be the baddest team in football again, but in a much different way.
Russell Wilson was brilliant on Sunday, tossing four touchdowns in just 17 pass attempts, with no interceptions and a sterling 140.9 passer rating. His day included four passes of 20+ yards and two of more than 40 yards. I remain bewildered by the notion that some Seahawks fans have that somehow the game was flawed because Wilson ended with just 17 chances to throw. Seattle scored 43 points. Wilson played wonderfully. If anything, I could argue the team could have scored four more points had they asked Wilson to pass one fewer times at the 1-yard line when he took a costly 16-yard sack instead of throwing the ball away. What I see is a formula that works for this squad.
Chris Carson and Rashaad Penny took turns breaking off big runs. Tyler Lockett continued to devastate defenses with the deep ball. The offensive line imposed their will on talented San Francisco front four. They piled up yards and points without giving the ball away for the 7th time in 12 games. The offense is averaging 27.8 points per game over their last 10 games, 29.3 in their past eight, and 32.8 over their past four. They have scored 27 or more points in seven of their last eight games, and 30 or more in three of their past four.
Since starting 0-2 while maddeningly eschewing the run game and Chris Carson, the Seahawks are 7-3. Those who decry Wilson’s low pass attempt totals also cling to the belief that it was the opposing defenses that explained the performances in weeks one and two. Balderdash! Had the Seahawks utilized the run-centric formula they rediscovered in week three to start the season, Seattle would almost certainly be sitting here at 8-4, and possibly even 9-3.
A story came out this week from Kevin Burkhardt of FOX, that Brian Schottenheimer admitted to them during a pre-game production meeting before the Panthers contest, that Pete Carroll approached him after the loss to the Bears and told him they needed to get back to their identity around the run. Schottenheimer agreed. He continued by saying that, “I got too enamored with Russell Wilson early on.” As well he should. Have you seen the other quarterbacks Schottenheimer has had to deal with through his coaching career? The point is not that Wilson is not worthy of capturing a coaches imagination and attention. It is that this team is best suited to run through people and pass over them. That also appears to be what best suits Wilson, based on some research I shared this weekend.
This game was a perfect example. Wilson’s efficiency and big-play ability is incredibly tough to beat in games where the Seahawks also can run the ball effectively. One is the setup. The other is the knockout. How well does it work? Wilson moved passed Sean McVay’s poster child, Jared Goff, in touchdown passes on the season. He is on pace to throw 39 touchdowns on the year. His touchdown rate of 8.9% has been topped by only four players in the history of the NFL for a full season: Peyton Manning (2004), George Blanda (1961), Y.A. Tittle (1963), Len Dawson (1962). Only two players have ever thrown for as many as 39 touchdowns in a season in fewer than 500 pass attempts: Manning in 2004 with 49 TD and 497 pass attempts, and Kurt Warner in 1999 with 41 TD and 499 attempts. Wilson is on pace to do it in just 435 attempts. He has 29 touchdowns and just 5 interceptions. If the season were to end today, he would become just the third quarterback in history to throw for as many as 29 touchdowns with 5 interceptions or fewer. The others were Aaron Rodgers in 2014 (38 TD/5 INT) and Tom Brady in 2010 (36 TD/4 INT).
Those quarterbacks are either in the Hall of Fame, or on their way there. It is hard to understand why there is such angst about what could be, when what we are witnessing is pretty darn remarkable. Over his past 10 games, Wilson has thrown 24 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions for a passer rating of 122.6, best in the NFL over that span. I could go on, but I’m already getting calls from PETA about what I’m doing to this horse.
Tyler Lockett has been a perfect partner in crime for Wilson. He not only caught another deep touchdown pass on Sunday, his 9th of the season, but he displayed remarkable savvy in slowing down while the ball was in the air to use his body to control the defender, and then accelerate away from him and under the ball at the perfect moment. He continues his perfect season as the only receiver in football with more than 25 targets to have a perfect passer rating. In other words, Wilson has a perfect 158.3 rating when throwing the ball to Lockett.
Jaron Brown joined the party this game with two touchdown passes. That continues a bizarre season where Brown has just 11 receptions, but 5 of them are for touchdowns. Even with that, I’d rate Brown’s contributions as disappointing on the whole.
What keeps this team from being a true contender is the defense. A guy named Nick Mullens threw for 414 yards and two touchdowns against the Seahawks, and he did it with his two starting receivers out with injuries. Former Husky Dante Pettis had a great homecoming with 129 yards and both scores. Seattle did manage to slow one of the league’s best running games, holding the 49ers to just 66 yards on 23 carries for 2.9 yards per run, but it feels a lot like the only way to stop a team from running or passing is to let them do the other thing at will. Let’s face it, the Seahawks defense has often had trouble stopping both.
Perhaps Poona Ford and Nazair Jones getting time with Shamar Stephen sitting due to injury will lead to more consistent run defense. Honestly, I would take consistently good anything from this group. It is mind-boggling that they are 9th in the NFL in points allowed. More telling is they are 28th in the NFL in yards per play allowed. I don’t see the talent on that side of the ball to change much of that the rest of this season. Mychal Kendricks return this week will help some.
Bobby Wagner had one of the best defensive performances in NFL history. He had a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, an interception, a touchdown, 12 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hits, and 2 passes defensed. Defensive statistics only go back so far, but only three other players have had a sack, pick-six, forced fumble, and fumble recovery in the same game. Those are Khalil Mack (twice), Charles Woodson, and Tony Brackens.
Seattle now welcomes in the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football in a game that could all-but-clinch a playoff berth. The Seahawks have roughly an 86% chance of making the playoffs as it now sits. Should they beat the Vikings, and one of either San Francisco, Kansas City, or Arizona, their chances rise to 95-99%. The Vikings bring with them one of the best defenses in football, and more than enough talent on offense to give the Seahawks fits. Seattle will likely be without D.J. Fluker, who appeared to seriously injure his hamstring late in the game and was visibly upset. The outcome is far from guaranteed, but I love that Seattle is the team that enters this game certain of who they are and how they play. They are not searching for some new gimmick or chasing a trend. They are physically punishing people on the ground, and striking like valkyries from the air. Being timeless instead of timely is worth embracing.