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O’Neil: Seahawks will face formidable version of their former selves in 49ers

The Seahawks' defense has been sliding back in defending the run, which the 49ers at. (Getty)

The San Francisco 49ers are playing like the team the Seahawks used to be.

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That’s not a criticism of what Seattle is doing now on offense, but it is a challenge for the defense. San Francisco is going to try to run over the Seahawks this Sunday afternoon in Seattle. In fact, it’s about the only way I can see this banged-up 49ers team winning this game. They don’t have as good of a quarterback as Seattle. Their defense is even more injured than Seattle’s, which is really saying something.

But the 49ers do have a ground game. It’s how they beat the Los Angeles Rams two weeks ago. It’s also how San Francisco trounced the New England Patriots last week. The 49ers ran the ball on more than half their plays in each of those games, asking less of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo by letting the running backs provide the bulk of the horsepower.

Sound familiar? It’s how Pete Carroll structured Seattle’s offense back in Russell Wilson’s first three years in the league – not because they lacked confidence in their quarterback but because they didn’t want to risk asking him to do too much too soon in his pro career.

It was only this season, in fact, that Carroll fully embraced an approach that centered more on passing both on early downs and early in the games. The results are clear: Seattle leads the league in scoring at 33.8 points, and Wilson has been nothing short of spectacular with the exception of those three passes he had picked off last Sunday in Arizona.

This Sunday, though, Seattle will need its defense to keep the 49ers from taking the air out of the game. Because San Francisco is going to try and turn this into a tractor pull. The 49ers don’t want a scoring duel, they want long, drawn out possessions that will chew up clock and shorten the game. They want to do to Seattle what the Seahawks used to do to other teams in the division.

Weird to think of Seattle being the team that wants a shootout, isn’t it? Goes to show you how things have changed in the NFC West because it’s not just the 49ers who are taking this approach, but it’s the Rams, too. Los Angeles emphasized its rushing offense in its victory against Chicago on Monday night.

It’s a different running scheme than the Seahawks have used. The 49ers and the Rams want to run wide and then get upfield as opposed to running between the tackles, but the reality is that neither of those teams have a quarterback like Seattle so they’re trying to compensate by controlling the tempo with a rushing attack.

There’s one way to stop that: Stop the run. It’s something that Seattle was fairly good at the first month of the season but has looked a little flimsy the past couple of games as Minnesota and Arizona ran for a combined total of 360 yards. To put that in perspective, Seattle gave up only 303 yards over its first four games.

The debut of defensive tackle Damon Harrison should help the Seahawks. Anthony Rush was released this week, presumably to make room for the big man who played in Detroit last season. Defensive end Carlos Dunlap figures to help, too, though he won’t be able to play this week as he must go through the testing protocols to ensure that he has not contracted COVID-19.

The Seahawks will need all the help they can get up front because the NFC West is shaping up as the best division in football, and it includes three of the top eight rushing offenses in the league. The Seahawks are averaging the fewest rushing yards of any team in the division, actually. That shows how far they’ve developed as an offense, but it also shows quite clearly what Seattle’s defense needs to do on Sunday, because the only way the Seahawks are going to lose this game to San Francisco is by getting run over.

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