Let’s not kid ourselves. The 49ers probably won’t beat the Seahawks on Sunday. The game will be in Seattle, where the Seahawks have lost only five times the past three seasons.
But that doesn’t mean the Niners are hopeless. It means their burden of execution will be extremely high. Here are the five things they have to execute perfectly to win this Sunday.
1. Improve their TPS Report.
Before even thinking about beating the Seahawks, the 49ers must make sure they don’t beat themselves. They didn’t get that memo last week against the Panthers.
The 49ers flunked their TPS report. Not the Testing Procedure Specification report Bill Lumbergh pestered Peter Gibbons about in “Office Space.” I’m talking about turnovers, penalties and sacks. Self-inflicted errors.
Against the Panthers, the 49ers fumbled once, threw one interception, turned the ball over on downs three times, committed 10 penalties and allowed four sacks. Add all that up, and the 49ers scored 19 on their TPS report — the second-highest score in the NFL for Week 1.
The Niners aren’t talented enough to overcome 19 mistakes and win. They have to play a much cleaner game Sunday. They need single digits on their TPS report.
I’ll go ahead and make sure they get another copy of that memo, mkay?
2. Keep Russell Wilson in the pocket.
The Seahawks knew their offensive line was bad when the preseason started, but they were optimistic about their left tackle, George Fant. Then Fant tore his ACL three weeks before the regular-season opener, and the Seahawks’ offensive line got even worse.
Their new left tackle, Rees Odhiambo, was their backup left guard before Fant went down. Odhiambo made his first start in the NFL last week, and gave up a sack on the first play from scrimmage.
The Seahawks’ right tackle, Germain Ifedi, isn’t much better than Odhiambo. Ifedi played right guard as a rookie last season. That means both of the Seahawks offensive tackles are guards.
And that means the Seahawks will try to move Wilson out of the pocket altogether on Sunday. Ifedi and Odhiambo can’t protect Wilson. He will try to roll out or scramble.
The 49ers can’t let him do either one. They have to cage him in the pocket, force him to stand in one place and throw. They can sack him if they contain him.
3. Run away from Sheldon Richardson.
Most run plays involve a two-on-one double-team block at the point of attack. Call this the buddy system. Offensive linemen helping each other.
Kyle Shanahan’s favorite run play, the outside zone, does not involve the buddy system. It involves a series of one-on-one blocks. Offensive linemen all alone, stranded on desert islands. Call them Gilligans.
Last week, the Niners didn’t have an offensive lineman who could block Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short one on one. Every time the 49ers ran the outside zone toward Short, he bulldozed a blocker and cut off Carlos Hyde in the backfield. That’s a big reason the 49ers gained just 6 yards on outside zone runs.
This week, the Niners have a similar problem. They don’t have an offensive lineman who can block Seahawks defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson one on one.
So they have to run away from him. If Richardson is on the left side of the line, run the outside zone to the right. And if he’s on the right, run the outside zone to the left. Don’t let Richardson blow up the play.
4. Take an early lead.
Of the five teams that have beaten the Seahawks in Seattle the past three seasons, only two of those teams came from behind to win.
The 49ers won’t be the third. They aren’t built to come from behind, as we saw last week. Their offense depends on the run game and play-action pass game, and neither is a viable option when the Niners are losing by two touchdowns.
If the Niners score first, they can stick with their run game and silence the loudest crowd in the NFL. That crowd is part of the reason the Seahawks are so good at home. Opponents can’t communicate over all that tumult. Players screaming face to face still can’t hear each other.
The Niners have to find a way to score first. And here’s how they can do that.
5. Make the big play.
Forget the long drive.
The 49ers probably aren’t talented enough to execute perfect 10-play drives against the Seahawks. At some point, the 49ers will commit a penalty or drop a pass or give up a sack and they’ll have to punt. They should find an opportunity to throw long.
Second-and-2 would be one of those opportunities. Don’t run up the middle — take the deep shot. If Brian Hoyer doesn’t complete the pass, the result would be third-and-2, and the 49ers can convert third-and-2.
First-and-5 after the Seahawks jump offside would be another chance to throw long. First-and-5 is a free down. Go deep. The 49ers have to recognize the opportunity is there and seize it.
But how? What are some deep passes that would work against the Seahawks defense? I’m glad you asked.
The Seahawks primarily play Cover 3, also called three-deep zone coverage. That’s one safety in the middle of the field, two corners playing deep along the sidelines, and four “underneath defenders” — guys playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
Here are five plays designed to go deep and exploit Cover 3.
The 49ers line up in a two-by-two formation (two receivers on the left and two receivers on right). The outside receivers run straight go routes down the sidelines to occupy the cornerbacks. The two inside receivers run seam routes along the inside edge of the numbers on the field. This play puts the free safety in a bind. He has to cover both inside receivers. The quarterback must stare at one of the inside receivers and force the free safety to take a few steps his direction. Then, the quarterback throws to the other inside receiver, who is wide open. This is the play the Raiders used when Derek Carr threw the game-clinching touchdown pass to Seth Roberts during the fourth quarter against the Titans Week 1.
Triple Post (Three Verticals).
The 49ers line up in a one-by-three formation (one receiver on the left and three receivers on the right, or vice versa). On the three-receiver side, the inside receiver runs a post route in front of the free safety. The outside receiver runs a straight go route to occupy the cornerback. And the middle receiver runs a seam route up the inside edge of the numbers. He should be open. Bill Walsh used to run this play all the time against Cover 3, and he would use Jerry Rice as the middle receiver. When Kyle Shanahan calls this play on Sunday, he should use rookie tight end George Kittle as the middle receiver. He’s fast enough to run deep, and has the awareness to find the open window in Seattle’s zone coverage.
Y Sail — Outside Flood Concept.
The outside receiver runs a straight go route. The tight end runs a 15-yard out route toward the outside receiver. And the running back runs a five-yard out route on the same side of the field. This creates a three-on-two advantage for the 49ers. The Seahawks will have only two defenders to cover three receivers. Most defenses see this route combination and think the outside receiver is a decoy whose purpose is to create space for the tight end running the deep out route. So they play the tight end. Hoyer must be determined to throw the deep pass to the outside receiver unless the defense takes him away.
Y Stick Nod.
This play is designed to go the tight end. He runs 5 or 6 yards up field, then breaks to the outside for a couple of steps. This is the “nod.” The quarterback takes a three-step drop and pump fakes toward the tight end, who quickly turns back up field and runs deep between the free safety and the cornerback.
This play is similar to the Y Stick Nod. The main difference is the tight end runs 10 yards up field before selling the outside move, and the quarterback takes a five-step drop before pump faking.
As you may have noticed, most of these plays are designed to go to Kittle, the tight end. Look for Kittle to have the game of his life if the Niners pull off the upset.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.