Heading into Week 14, the Seattle Seahawks were flying high. They had just dismantled the New Orleans Saints on a national stage, were riding a seven-game win streak and touting the stingiest defense in the NFL.
Yet fans and media members alike knew the team’s biggest challenge was in front of them.
As well as the Seahawks had played through 12 games, it's no secret that Seattle would have its hands full with San Francisco on the road. Despite the 49ers' inferior record, Jim Harbaugh and Co. have owned Pete Carroll’s club at home.
Since Harbaugh started coaching the 49ers in 2011, San Francisco had won every meeting between the two teams at Candlestick.
Lo and behold, this past Sunday was no different. The 49ers won the time-of-possession battle 32:28 to 27:32, they out-gained the Seahawks on offense and limited Darrell Bevell’s offense to five third-down conversions on 12 attempts.
All in all, San Francisco couldn't have hoped for a better showing.
At 9-4, though, the 49ers aren’t about to get complacent. There’s a lot of work that still needs to be done if they want to make noise in the playoffs. Their offensive line needs to return to full health and they have to hold off the Arizona Cardinals for the last wild-card spot in the NFC.
As far as the Seahawks go, their loss to the 49ers is the reality check they needed.
Even third-year wide receiver Doug Baldwin echoed the same sentiment when he pulled a positive out of a negative. "This [loss] will make us stronger down the line," he told Dave Boling of The News Tribune.
Sure, the Seahawks would have liked to clinch their first NFC West title since 2010 with a win versus the 49ers, but adversity has a weird way of inspiring improved play in the Pacific Northwest.
Remember last year when Seattle was on the verge of losing back-to-back road games to the Miami Dolphins and Chicago Bears? That particular two-game stretch proved to be a turning point for Seahawks. Instead of folding and kissing their playoff hopes goodbye, they responded to adversity by winning five games in a row.
The Seahawks have an opportunity to respond in a similar manner from now until the end of the season. Aside from winning the division and stringing together an impressive win streak, Seattle can still clinch a first-round bye and garner home-field advantage all throughout the playoffs.
However, it will need to get the run game cranked up, clean up the gobs of unsightly penalties and somehow account for outside linebacker K.J. Wright's injury, which was reported by Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times.
Of those three things mentioned above, the most concerning area has to be running back Marshawn Lynch and the team’s rushing attack. For whatever reason, over the course of the last three games, the Minnesota Vikings, Saints and 49ers have turned Lynch into a mediocre running back.
On 53 rushing attempts, he has amassed a mere 171 yards, 3.2 yards per carry and two runs of 20 or more yards. Without a doubt, his three rushing touchdowns during that three-game span are impressive, but his longest touchdown run was from 11 yards out.
Have opposing defenses been stacking the box to neutralize Lynch? Yes, but it’s evident that Lynch has to do a better job of breaking tackles and making defenders miss.
Furthermore, the offensive line has to step its game up as well.
Left tackle Russell Okung has to find his Pro Bowl form from a season ago and center Max Unger needs to shake the injury bug. When the offensive line isn’t performing at a top-notch level, it affects Lynch’s rushing ability and Russell Wilson's ability as a play-action passer.
In terms of Wright and his broken foot, Seattle will have to find a way to get by with outside linebacker Malcolm Smith in the starting lineup.
Smith has always been a reliable backup who can fill in at a moment’s notice, but is he a guy who can make plays when called upon? Surprisingly, he is.
According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the third-year pro out of USC has accumulated the fourth-highest overall grade on the Seahawks defense. Additionally, he is the fourth-best 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL this year.
He’s above average in coverage and plays the run as well as any linebacker in the league. This, in turn, means that defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s defense shouldn’t miss a beat with Wright on the sidelines. Quinn can only hope that Smith’s play doesn’t deteriorate when an increased snap count is thrown his way.
Seattle’s penalty woes may prove to be a harder fix than the other two areas of concern.
Prior to Week 14, NFLPenalties.com indicates that the Seahawks were averaging 7.92 penalties per contest. That was the second-highest average in the league. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers owned the league lead at 8.17 per game.
Of the ‘Hawks' 95 penalties, 33 were pre-snap infractions. A lot of the pre-snap errors can easily be fixed by offensive line coach Tom Cable and defensive line coach Travis Jones, but what about the pass interference and unnecessary roughness calls?
Those penalties fall directly on the shoulders of the players. Coach Carroll and his staff have to stress the importance of these calls. There’s no reason any team should come close to averaging one unnecessary roughness penalty per game.
Just like with any other team, it’s obvious that the Seahawks have their fair share of problems to deal with before postseason play begins.
Nonetheless, there are times when a reality check is needed to help put things in perspective. And for Seattle, that time is now.