Four Downs: Can 49ers Exploit Seattle's 26th-Ranked Passing Defense?

Both the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks are looking to bounce back after disappointing losses in Week 3, and hope to do so in Sunday's divisional matchup. To help breakdown some of the top storylines and matchups to watch for, 49ers.com is joined by Seahawks.com digital reporter John Boyle to preview the Week 4 contest.

Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:

1st Down: What's to Blame for the Week 3 Loss?

@KeianaMartinTV: Slow Starts and Turnover Battles

Sunday night's matchup was the second-straight game the 49ers played from behind. While less drastic in Week 2, the 49ers were down 17-0 before their first score of the game against Green Bay, which came just ahead of the half.

In consecutive matchups, the 49ers have gotten off to a slow start offensively. How slow? Well, San Francisco failed to score a point in the first 29 minutes in both of their last two matchups. Misthrows and drops are a part of the offense's recent woes which have forced San Francisco's defense to clean up mistakes.

Additionally, the turnover battle also did not fare in the 49ers favor. A unit that has managed to protect the ball through the first nine quarters of the season saw two turnovers against the Packers on Sunday with nothing coming on the defensive side of the ball. With just one takeaway through three contests, finding ways to get the ball back to the offense has to be a point of emphasis for San Francisco's defense heading into Week 4.

@JohnPBoyle: Taking the Foot Off the Gas in the Second Half

The biggest culprit is a defense that started the year pretty strong in a win over Indianapolis, and in the first half of an eventual loss to Tennessee, but that has struggled to get stops over the past six quarters.

But while the defense has had the biggest issues, the offense isn't without blame either. Russell Wilson and company have started off all three games looking great, with the Seahawks scoring 21 first-half points in their opener, 24 in Week 2 and 17 in Week 3, but managing only 13 total points after halftime in those three games, including a second-half shutout last weekend. Obviously not scoring is the biggest issue, but the offense slowing down in the second half has also compounded the defensive issues, with time of possession swinging wildly in favor of opponents as the defense struggles to get stops, and the offense struggles to stay on the field and sustain drives.

2nd Down: Position Group You'll be Watching Closely

@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Pass Rush

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the 49ers pass rush as if they have not been an impressive unit through the first three weeks of the season. I say pass rush because of the question marks the 49ers have at cornerback.

San Francisco was hit hard with the injury bug through the opening three weeks of the season. The loss of Jason Verrett (ACL) and K'Waun Williams (calf) has left the 49ers cornerback depth relatively thin. Meanwhile, there's still question marks surrounding veteran newcomer Josh Norman, who suffered a lung contusion following a hit to the chest in Week 3.

Rookie Deommodore Lenoir  has had a respectable start to his NFL career, being thrust into a starting role with injuries at the position, and Emmanuel Moseley made his season debut on Sunday night while working his way back from a nagging knee injury. The team has brought in several free agents with the hopes of shoring up some of the loose ends at corner.

While the 49ers continue to work through their depth in the defensive backfield, a lot will be up to the pass rush to limit any damage Russell Wilson might cause with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett in tow.

@JohnPBoyle: Seahawks Cornerbacks

Too often against the Minnesota Vikings, receivers were wide open for big gains, especially on third down with the Vikings going 9 for 14, including conversions on six of their first seven third downs. Not every big catch was a case of a cornerback getting beat, but whether it was poor execution or schematic issues getting them out of position, the Seahawks need to cover opposing receivers a lot better than they did against Tennessee and Minnesota. A more productive pass rush would certainly help the back end of the defense as well, so another way for the defense to improve, regardless of what's going on on the back end of the defense, would be to find ways to get more pressure on Jimmy Garoppolo.

3rd Down: Biggest Question Mark Heading into Sunday?

@KeianaMartinTV: Running Back Depth and Productivity

Since I just highlighted the 49ers cornerback situation, another major question still lies at running back. Again, one of the deepest positions on the 49ers roster quickly turned into one of the thinnest. Last week, the 49ers promoted newcomer Kerryon Johnson to the active roster ahead of the contest, but it was all third-round pick Trey Sermon against the Packers in Week 3.

After his scary start in Week 2, Sermon got the nod as San Francisco's lead back with no other running backs seeing any touches on the night. But will it be the same story against the Seahawks?

San Francisco hasn't made any recent additions to their backfield with running back and returner Trenton Cannon as the other lone healthy ball carrier on the roster. The team could also promote Johnson again along with Jacques Patrick, who was signed to the team's practice squad last week.

Much will weigh on Elijah Mitchell's progress this week at practice. The sixth-round pick suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2 and missed Sunday night's matchup against Green Bay. Mitchell was limited in the week's practices, which is a positive indication of his progress. Hopefully with the return of the running back who posted a 100-yard outing in his NFL debut will help San Francisco bolster their run game that posted a mere 3.2 yards per carry in Week 3.

@JohnPBoyle: Can the Seahawks Offense Remain Consistent for Four Quarters?

Why has the offense been so much better in first halves, and can it buck that trend and play well for a full game? I fully expect the defense to get better as the season goes along, but that doesn't mean it's reasonable to expect a complete 180 from Week 3 to Week 4. The offense, however, has shown its plenty explosive and capable of scoring a lot of points, so if that group can put a full game together, then the Seahawks have a chance to win every week even if the defense is struggling some.

4th Down: Matchup You're Most Eager to Watch in Week 4

@KeianaMartinTV: 49ers Receivers vs. Seahawks Cornerbacks

In Seahawks.com's Opponent Q&A, I spoke in great lengths about Deebo Samuel's importance to San Francisco's offense - as has San Francisco's brass. The 49ers have been pleased with how the wideout has approached Year 3, crediting his approach to the season, route running, conditioning, as well as his start to the 2021 campaign.

Through three weeks, Samuel is second in the league in receiving yards behind fellow NFC West rival Cooper Kupp, while averaging a career-high 16.7 yards per reception. Coupled with his yards-after-the-catch ability (184 yards), Samuel has established himself as one of the most potent receivers in the league.

He'll have an opportunity for another big matchup against Seattle's secondary who is allowing an average of 285.3 yards per game to opposing receivers, ranked 26th in the league. In back-to-back weeks, Seattle has allowed over 300 yards to opposing quarterbacks, including a three touchdown performance for Kirk Cousins in Week 3.

If San Francisco's offensive line can continue to hold up and let plays develop for Garoppolo, it could be a big day for San Francisco's pass catchers in the divisional showdown.

@JohnPBoyle: Both Teams' Receivers vs. Opposing Corners

Between DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and Deebo Samuel, this game features three of the most productive receivers in the NFL this season. As detailed earlier, the Seahawks secondary has had some issues the past two games, so they'll need to be better against Samuel and company, and with the 49ers dealing with injury issues at corner, that could make it tough to contend with one of the NFL's best receiver duos. We've seen teams have some success slowing down either Lockett or Metcalf in any given game, but it's almost always a pick-your-poison situation where one goes off if the other is being held in check.

Another one that stands out is Nick Bosa against Duane Brown, two of the best in the business at what they do. At 36, Brown is showing no signs of slowing down, and through three games he has been nearly perfect when it comes to keeping Russell Wilson's blindside clean, but Bosa is about as good as it gets when it comes to edge-rushing threats.

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