The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are two different teams at two completely different points of their season. After a slow start, the 49ers have won four of their past five contests and look to remain relevant in the NFC playoff race. Meanwhile, Seattle has dropped six of their last seven games and currently sit at the bottom of the division.
Despite Seattle's 3-8 start, the Seahawks are looking to play spoiler against a 49ers team who is likely to be without a few key players. Seahawks.com reporter John Boyle joins to discuss several key storylines to watch for in Sunday's divisional showdown. Without further ado, here are this week's Four Downs:
1st Down: Key Stat Defining 49ers/Seahawks Current State
@KeianaMartinTV: Red Zone Efficiency
While there are a number of stats to highlight in the team's recent improvements over their three-game winning streak, what has really caught my eye is San Francisco's efficiency when sustaining drives. The 49ers currently lead the league in red zone scoring percentage, finding the end zone, not just field goals, on more than 77 percent of their drives. It has also played a hand in the 49ers scoring 30-plus points in each of their last four wins.
Of course, the 49ers recent haul of 18-plus play drives certainly helps as well. Over the last three games, San Francisco has dominated the time of possession, chewing an average of 38 minutes off of the clock while also seeing improvements in their third-down conversion rates.
These turnarounds have allowed San Francisco to dictate games and get back to what makes the offense successful, and that's running the ball and scoring points.
@JohnPBoyle: Offensive Plays
I'll give you two. First, the Seahawks are 1-4 in games decided by one score, including two overtime losses. Additionally, in a 9-point loss to the Rams, they had the ball late with the chance to take the lead before a turnover led to Los Angeles adding to their lead, and in a 17-0 loss to the Packers, it was 3-0 into the fourth quarter before Green Bay pulled away. In past years, Pete Carroll led teams with Russell Wilson at quarterback have thrived in late-game situations, including last year when they were 9-3 in one-score games. The inability to close out games late has been a huge factor, and a big part of it has been a struggling offense, which brings us to the second stat.
The Seahawks have run just 595 offensive plays this year, the fewest in the league by a significant margin. Only twice this season have the Seahawks run more than 60 offensive plays, and they've established new season lows in total plays and time of possession in each of the last three games. That's the result of a lot of factors, but the biggest has been the inability to convert on third down, with the Seahawks ranking last at 32.5 percent.
2nd Down: Area That Gives You Confidence Heading into Week 13
@KeianaMartinTV: Run Game Resurgence
By looking at Elijah Mitchell, you'd have no idea the rookie has played through a shoulder injury, rib injury and more recently a metal pin in his finger that was surgically repaired just two weeks prior. As the weeks have progressed, it's clear to see the rookie's improvement in his vision, yards after contact, and in particular, his comfort in Kyle Shanahan's offense, which has been a spark for the entire team.
The 49ers rookie is the only running back in the NFC with five games of 90-plus yards. Mitchell also currently leads the NFC in yards per game (86.6) while amassing 693 rushing yards and four touchdowns through eight games - the second most among first-year running backs behind only Pittsburgh Steelers Najee Harris (708), who has played three more games than Mitchell.
But it's not entirely just Mitchell. San Francisco has been able to run the ball 36-plus times (and as many as 44 in the Week 10 win over the Los Angeles Rams). The unit went from averaging 118 rushing yards per game over the team's first eight games to 178 since Week 10. With Jeff Wilson Jr. and JaMycal Hasty both healthy, San Francisco has a stable of talent to build off of its formidable ground game.
@JohnPBoyle: Defensive Performance
The overall play of the defense following a slow start to the season. Even with giving up 63 points in back-to-back losses early in the year, the Seahawks are still tied for fifth in the league in scoring defense, and they've held five of their last six opponents to 17 or fewer points. Yes, the offense has been struggling and Russell Wilson hasn't been himself since returning from the injury, but while there were some throws he missed last week, he also made some of his usual great throws on deep balls and in tight windows, so if he can take another step toward getting back to his pre-injury form, an even slightly improved offense can score enough to win with the way the defense has been playing.
3rd Down: Area of Concern Heading into Sunday's Divisional Match
@KeianaMartinTV: Russell Wilson
While there has been plenty to be made of his swift return from a finger injury, at the end of the day, Russell Wilson is still Russell Wilson. He has given San Francisco grief over the past decade and seems to put up some of his best performances in his divisional showdowns. While Seattle has dropped each of their last three since his return from Injured Reserve, he's coming off of a modest outing against the Washington Football Team where he completed 64 percent of his passes for 247 yards (8.0 yards per attempt) and two scores while bringing Seattle back in a near-comeback victory – his best outing since his return.
The best way for San Francisco to remedy Wilson's ability is through its pass rush. Seattle gave up two sacks and 10 quarterback hits during their primetime loss, which factored into their lowly 4-of-12 on third down conversions and just 28 points scored over their three-game losing steak.
@JohnPBoyle: Can the Offense Finally Get Going?
As detailed above, it's been a struggle for Seattle's offense, which, other than a blowout win over Jacksonville in Week 8, hasn't scored more than 20 points in a game since the 28-21 win over the 49ers in Week 4. The spotlight has been on Russell Wilson, and for good reason—quarterback play affects an offense more than just about anything—but he's hardly the only reason the offense hasn't been sharp. And if everything, from the running game to pass protection to coaching doesn't get cleaner, it's hard to see the Seahawks righting the ship if so much of the burden continues to be placed on a defense that has played admirably, but has spent way too much time on the field this season.
4th Down: Player Who Must Step Up For a Seahawks Victory
@KeianaMartinTV: WR Jauan Jennings
You can't overstate the importance Deebo Samuel is to the 49ers, and in particular, the team's recent success. Shanahan has unlocked another level to the wideout, who obviously does damage lining up at multiple receiving spots and sits in the Top 4 in the league in receiving yards through Week 12. But more recently, Samuel has added another layer to his game as a rusher, totaling 19 carries for 181 yards (9.5 yards per carry) and four touchdowns over the last three games.
San Francisco will be without the stud wideout at least through Week 13 while he works through a groin injury. But the 49ers feel confident in a number of playmakers on offense to step up in his absence.
We've already discussed Mitchell and his early impact thus far. But Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Trent Sherfield are additional key pieces of the offense that can't be overlooked. But I'm focusing my attention on Jauan Jennings, who has made the most of his recent opportunities. The former seventh-round pick has seen his role increase with Mohamed Sanu Sr. (knee) out and is likely to be called on more on Sunday. He notched two receptions on three targets for 24 yards, including a key 21-yard third down pickup, and a touchdown in Sunday's win over Minnesota (not including an overturned second score of the day). During his time at the University of Tennessee, he led all wide receivers in the nation in broken tackles with 30, which has the perfect making to add to Samuel's regarded "YAC Bros."
"Jauan is a receiver all the way. It's nice that he does have a big body in that size he's similar to Mo Sanu and how he's wired," Shanahan said. "And it's been nice that he allowed Jauan to get more ready. Jauan's done a good job when his opportunities have come here these last couple of weeks."
@JohnPBoyle: RB Alex Collins
The easy answer is Wilson, who as mentioned above, hasn't been the same player after the injury as he was before. Given the importance of that position, he more than anyone can turn Seattle's fates if he gets back on track.
If we're looking for a less obvious answer, I'd say Alex Collins or whoever else is running the ball. The turning point in the previous meetings between these teams was when Collins came off the bench late in the second quarter and helped spark an 80-yard touchdown drive after five straight three-and-outs. Collins, who has taken over the starting role for an injured Chris Carson since that Week 4 game in Santa Clara, has been a little banged up, so it's not a sure thing he'll carry the load. But whether it's him or someone else like Rashaad Penny or DeeJay Dallas, or perhaps even the just-signed Adrian Peterson if he gets up to speed fast enough, the Seahawks need more out of their running game than they've gotten the past few weeks.