Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the keys to the San Francisco 49ers upcoming road game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Let's get to the four downs for Week 11 of the 2015 regular season, where the 49ers will look to avenge a Week 7 loss to the Seahawks from Levi's® Stadium.
1st Down: What needs to change from the Week 7 matchup?
@Joe_Fann: Convert on third down
This one is pretty cut and dry. The 49ers were just 1-of-11 on third down against the Seahawks in Week 7. Blaine Gabbert, however, was fantastic in this department in his first start against the Atlanta Falcons. In the game, Gabbert completed 8-of-11 passes on third down for 115 yards and both of his touchdown throws to Garrett Celek. Keeping drives alive and giving the 49ers defense time to rest on the sideline will be crucial on Sunday.
@TylerEmerick: Protect the quarterback
In the first meeting between the rival clubs, the Seahawks tallied nine quarterback hits, including six sacks. Michael Bennett earned NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 3.5-sack performance. Clearly that can't happen again if the 49ers are to win in Seattle for the first time since 2011. The situation at right guard between Jordan Devey and Andrew Tiller still appears to be in flux, but whatever combination makes up the o-line needs to have its best game. San Francisco can help slow down the rush with misdirection and screen passes to wide receivers and running backs.
Three points won't get it done in the NFL. The 49ers could only manage a 35-yard field goal in Week 7 against the Seahawks. This absolutely has to change against a Seattle team which has lost its last two games at home, allowing 27 and 39 points to the Carlolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals. San Francisco can't necessarily expect to put up the same numbers against a division rival, but an early touchdown or two would go a long way in establishing improvement against Seattle. The 49ers got down 17-0 at halftime the last time these teams played. That simply can't happen again.
2nd Down: Which Seahawks player does the 49ers need to keep in check?
@Joe_Fann: Michael Bennett
Seattle totaled six sacks and nine quarterback hits against the 49ers the first time around. Bennett accounted for half of those sacks and recorded four total hits on Colin Kaepernick. The Seahawks top pass-rusher has 6.5 sacks on the season and moves around the defensive line, making him a player that must be accounted for prior to each snap. Check downs and quick passes might be a way to limit Bennett's production.
@TylerEmerick: Tyler Lockett
Although he was quiet in Seattle's loss to the Arizona Cardinals last week (one catch for seven yards and one punt return for zero yards), Lockett remains a threat who can alter a game in an instant. The 49ers witnessed this first-hand earlier this season when Lockett hauled in a 43-yard touchdown pass at the end of the first half to put his team ahead, 17-0. The rookie speedster also has two return touchdowns through Week 10, one punt and one kickoff.
@TaylorPrice: Marshawn Lynch
There must be something about the 49ers that brings the best out of the Oakland, Calif. native. Lynch's only 100-yard game of the year came against the 49ers in Week 7. He has long been a bell cow against some of San Francisco's stout run defenses over the years with seven, 100-yard games in 13 appearances against the 49ers. The road team this week, however, are hopeful that the 12-yard, 12-carry performance of Devonta Freeman will be something they can build on against Lynch. "Beast Mode" opens up everything for Seattle's offense. You can't let him set up Wilson for third-and-manageable scenarios.
3rd Down: What are your expectations of Gabbert? @Joe_Fann: Be cool under pressure
Carson Palmer threw for an impressive 363 passing yards and three touchdowns on the road against Seattle in Week 10. That stat line has been unheard of for an opposing quarterback in recent years against the Seahawks defense. Despite the gaudy numbers, however, Palmer was still hit a whopping 13 times. Gabbert will have to be prepared to make throws while taking a hit, something he proved he's capable of doing against the Falcons in Week 9. @TylerEmerick: Manage the game
In his 30-game career, Gabbert has thrown for two touchdowns in consecutive starts just once – as a rookie for the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011. The quarterback has a chance to accomplish that feat again this week, but he'll have to earn it against the second-ranked Seahawks pass defense. The tricky thing for the 49ers is how they balance protecting the football and being aggressive. Gabbert has to be careful but also take shots when they are available – or else the Seahawks secondary will smoother the underneath routes. @TaylorPrice: Get the ball out quick
This might be the area that impressed me the most in Gabbert's first 49ers start. He was decisive with the football and got it out on time. On Quinton Patton's 41-yard catch and run, Gabbert identified an open receiver and threw it in rhythm where his target could make a big play after the catch. Gabbert has often said that check-downs can lead to big plays. With quick timing and awareness of the playbook, the key is for Gabbert to play fast and avoid Seattle's relentless pass-rushers.
4th Down: What's your score prediction if the 49ers are to beat the Seahawks? @Joe_Fann: 20-17
I think the game could play out very similar to the Week 7 contest. The difference in this game is that San Francisco must convert in the red zone when they get the opportunity. The 49ers defense held a potent Falcons offense to 16 points in Week 9, and I think a similar performance is possible this Sunday from CenturyLink Field.
The 49ers defense has been tremendous at home this season – limiting the first-place Minnesota Vikings to three points and Atlanta's top rusher 12 yards before the bye week. Road games, however, have been a different story – with the team being outscored by an NFL-high 89 points. If San Francisco can solve its road woes, the team has a chance. That means creating turnovers and stopping Lynch – who has averaged 91.3 yards per game versus the 49ers.
You have to expect Seattle to make a run in the second half. They always seem to pick up a timely turnover which sends the home crowd into a frenzy. If the 49ers are able to overcome the second-half surge and put together their own scoring drives, perhaps two touchdowns and a trio of Dawson field goals, that could be the difference in this game. The defense has established it can hold Seattle to 20 points. Now it's up to the offense to get to 21 points or higher.