The 49ers upcoming game against the Seattle Seahawks will be the first relevant match up between the two teams since, well, I don’t know when. Perhaps this is a sign of the impending apocalypse But it’s more likely a sign of something far worse: The Seahawks are a good team.
This rivalry has not just been resurrected by Pete Carroll, but it has been heightened. That’s right. Though you’re loath to admit it, Carroll and company have developed a team that will likely compete for the NFC West title for years to come. The diminutive Russell Wilson has proven to be a top-10 NFL quarterback in only his rookie season. Marshawn Lynch’s ability is dwarfed only by Adrian Peterson. The Seahawks defense boasts what might be the best cornerback tandem in Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, and though they don’t have a dominant pass rusher a la Aldon Smith, their defensive line is flanked by two ends, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin, that have proven more than capable of pressuring the quarterback.
If you’re not worried about the Seahawks yet, you should be. Sure, the 49ers have won the last three matchups. But the Seahawks team they’ll face on Sunday will be different from the one they saw in Week 7. They’ll be better and more confident, especially on offense.
A big reason for their improvement on offense rests on the shoulders of Russell Wilson, according to Steve Raible, former receiver and current play-by-play man for the Seahawks. Riable appeared on 95.7 The Game Wednesday. When asked about the difference between the current Seahawks and those that faced the 49ers in Week 7, he was quick to name Wilson. “In those first four or so weeks, he was still really learning,” Raible said. “[Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell] and [head coach Pete Carroll] kept the wraps on Russell [Wilson]. I mean, there were a lot of things they did not allow [the offense] to do, allow him to do, or didn’t want him to do, didn’t want him to take the chance.”
But things have changed since. And changed a lot. Since week 7, Seattle has seen substantial improvement in completions thrown, yards per pass play, and first downs per game. “I think they’ve taken the wraps off considerably,” said Raible. “In the last six, seven, [or] eight weeks, you’ve seen more and more of the read-option. You’ve seen [Wilson] much more move to the line of scrimmage, draw the defenders to him, [and] throw the ball behind them. You’ve seen much more throwing the ball down field. [Wilson] is just much more comfortable too with his receivers.”
Indeed, the Wilson faced by the 49ers earlier this year won’t be the Wilson they’ll see on Sunday. Just what this new Russell Wilson will look like is what we sought to find out. To do so, we interviewed Seahawks blogger Brian Nemhauser of HawkBlogger.com, where Nemhauser offers unflinching and uncompromising analysis of his favorite team. For more on Nemhauser, check out his bio HERE. Also, in the spirit of keeping your friends close and enemies closer, be sure to follow Nemhauser on Twitter (@HawkBlogger).
East Bay Sports Guy (EBSG): Pro Football Focus (PFF) rates Russell Wilson as the fifth best quarterback while ESPN ranks him eighth. Impressive, to say least. What is it about Wilson that has made him so successful? How has he progressed throughout the season?
Brian Nemhauser (BN): Work ethic and talent make a powerful combination. Russell Wilson has both in spades. Nobody works harder than he does, and he has lofty goals. Matt Flynn played the position better for most of training camp, and certainly had better command of the offense, but Wilson’s trajectory was impossible to ignore and the coaching staff loved his commitment. That same story line has played out during the regular season when he was struggling early on, even with a very vanilla offense, but has taken major strides each week. He had been terrible on 3rd downs, in 40-50 range in passer rating, but has been a 90+ 3rd down passer since about week 6 on. He was struggling in the red zone, but is now over 100 in rating there, better than some big name veterans. He was scrambling into pressure instead of staying in the pocket, and now shows more patience. He would scramble to run instead of scrambling to buy time to pass, but has fixed that. You need to look no further than the first Arizona game versus the last. He is a different player, and is surely relishing the chance to measure his improvement against the 49ers.
EBSG: There is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to pressuring Russell Wilson. In total, his average time to throw is a league leading 3.29 seconds (that’s average amount of time he has until he must throw or run it). Despite this seeming extra time, he’s still pressured on 38.7% of his drop backs, which is the third highest among quarterbacks. And yet, he’s only been sacked 26 times, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. What is going on here? Is he just impossible to sack?
BN: Wilson is very elusive in the pocket, and his stature actually helps here as 6’4″ lineman are trying to reach down to grab him. We see taller quarterback elude rush by ducking all the time. Wilson starts from what is a ducking height for many QBs, and then can duck himself. He is also a great athlete, as evidenced by his open-field running. Colin Kaepernick is a great runner, but he is more about pure speed. Wilson has real wiggle.
EBSG: Though somewhat unheralded, Marshawn Lynch is having an unbelievable season. His 50 broken tackles, 18 runs of 15 yards or more and 2.94 yards after contact all rank in the top-seven among running backs. Plus, in in his last two meetings against the 49ers, Lynch has ran for a combined 210 yards on just 40 carries. Is there any hope of stopping him at this point? How were teams like New England and Miami able to contain him?
BN: Lynch is a one-of-a-kind person and player. He loves contact. There are moments when he actually practices tackling drills with the defense. Defensive players and offensive players generally keep to their side of the ball, but the defensive guys respect Lynch like one of their own. I don’t think the 49ers defense ever concedes to a running back, and they should absolutely expect to stop Lynch each time they play. The offensive line is a bigger issue to watch. Seattle does not have their mammoth left guard, James Carpenter, who was effective in the first game. There will be a combination of John Moffitt and J.R. Sweezy in there. Moffitt is more experienced, but less physically gifted. Sweezy is a mean SOB, who excels at run-blocking, but is still learning how to handle twists and blitzes in pass protection. Maybe that’s neutralized by a less-than-healthy Justin Smith. We shall see. For what it’s worth, New England didn’t really stop Lynch as much as the Seahawks saw weakness in the Patriots secondary and chose to attack it. Miami’s front seven played great, and Seattle just did not come to play on that day. I would not hold your breath for an unfocused Seahawks team to show up this Sunday.
Special thanks to Brian Nemhauser for participating. Stay tuned for what he has to say about the Seahawks defense, as well as which NFL head coach owns the title as biggest a-hole.