The San Francisco 49ers are set to close out their 2020 season in a divisional rematch against the Seattle Seahawks. Seattle is looking to fight their way to the top of the NFC with a win in Week 17, which requires some assistance from around the league. Meanwhile, the 49ers aim to close out the season on a high note and finish the year with the best divisional record with a win on Sunday.
For this week’s Four Downs, we are joined by Seahawks.com reporter John Boyle to get an insider’s look ahead of Sunday’s divisional rematch. Here’s what Boyle has to say about the Week 17 matchup:
FIRST DOWN: Seattle has seen a defensive turnaround over the second half of the season. The unit went from allowing the most passing yards through nine games in league history to holding their opponents to a league-low 13.7 points per game over the last six weeks. Who or what is responsible for the defense’s late-season resurgence?
Boyle: A big part of it was just the result of getting healthier, and with that, some continuity for the defense—and the secondary in particular—which began playing as a more cohesive unit starting in Week 10. Offseason trade acquisition Jamal Adams missed four games early on, their top three cornerbacks, or at least top three at the time (more on that below) Shaquill Griffin, Tre Flowers and Quinton Dunbar, all missed time at various points of the season, and nickel corner Marquise Blair was lost for the season in Week 2. All of that led to some of the pass coverage issues that led to the big numbers in the first half of the season.
The emergence of former 49ers DB D.J. Reed, who will likely start a fifth-straight game at right cornerback, even if Flowers returns from IR this week, has also helped bolster the secondary. Up front,x the addition of Carlos Dunlap has helped upgrade the pass rush, not just with his production (5.0 sacks in seven games), but with how he has created opportunities for other linemen. The result has been the Seahawks going from nine sacks through their first six games to recording a league-high 37 sacks dating back to Week 8 when these teams last met.
Lastly, the coaching staff, led by Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. deserve a lot of credit for helping make the subtle but necessary adjustments, starting in Week 10, to help the defense perform better.
SECOND DOWN: Seattle currently holds the third seed in the conference and has an outside chance to secure the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which would take some help from a few teams around the league. Nonetheless, Pete Carroll said the team is “going for it.” What’s the team’s mindset heading into Sunday’s game?
Boyle: Just as Carroll said, they’re treating this game like any other knowing that, if things fall their way, there’s still a chance, albeit not a great one, of getting the bye. The other factor Carroll outlined on Monday is that as well as the team, and the defense in particular, has been playing of late, he doesn’t want to do anything to lose that momentum.
“The other side of this is maintaining the consistency and maintaining the regimen that we have and the mentality that we have, I don’t want to break that thing right now, I don’t want to break that mentality at all,” Carroll said. “We want to stay right with it and keep pushing, trying to get better. We’ve got a lot of room to get better, we made a lot of mistakes that we can fix during the course of this week for the next game and leading into the next couple games and all that. So I don’t like taking the chance of breaking the mentality. I think we can get up every single week, we can get every freakin’ week, it doesn’t matter. There are coaches that say, ‘Oh you get up four or five times a year, or three or four times a year.’ I’ve never thought that, and we’re not going to mess with that right now. We’re going to keep on rolling.”
THIRD DOWN: Injuries are a common thread among all 32 clubs and teams have seen an uptick in play from some lesser known players. Who is an underrated playmaker that 49ers fans should keep an eye out for?
Boyle: Not to rub salt in the wound, but D.J. Reed has been fantastic since coming off the non-football injury list, playing well enough that he has a good chance of keeping his starting job even when the Seahawks are fully healthy at corner. Reed has started at left and right cornerback, in the nickel role and returned kicks and punts, earning rave reviews from coaches. Sticking with the defense, I’d also point to defensive tackle Poona Ford, who was primarily a run-stopper his first two years but has emerged as a pass-rush threat as well this season.
On offense, DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett rightly get most of the attention when it comes to receivers, but No. 3 receiver David Moore is always one to watch and seems to have a big play or two in him every week, including a spectacular 45-yard catch last week that set up Seattle’s first touchdown. Running back Rashaad Penny could also be one to watch if the Seahawks decide to increase his workload this week. The former first-round pick was hitting his stride late last season when he tore his ACL, and only returned to game action two weeks ago, but perhaps this is the week the Seahawks look to get him more involved heading into the playoffs.
FOURTH DOWN: What do you see as the top matchups to watch on Sunday?
Boyle: With George Kittle coming off another strong outing in his return from injury, I’ll be curious to see what the Seahawks do to try to slow him down. Jamal Adams didn’t play the last time these teams met, and while he’s best known for the pass-rush skills that have produced 9.5 sacks this year, he showed some legit coverage chops last week against Rams tight ends and could spend some time covering Kittle this week.
On the other side of the ball, I’ll be curious to see if the Seahawks can successfully run the ball against a good 49ers run defense, or if that’s not going well, how the 49ers can contain Russell Wilson, DK Metcalf and a Seahawks passing game that had a lot of success last time around when the Seahawks didn’t run the ball much with Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde both unavailable.