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Clayton: Even with Richard Sherman on 49ers, Seahawks can throw Sunday

The Seahawks have a chance to secure a playoff spot with a win Sunday. (AP)

The storyline of Richard Sherman returning to Seattle was considered prime-time material.

Seahawks-49ers previews: O’Neil | Moore | Gee Scott3 key players

NBC scheduled the first Seahawks-49ers meeting of the season as a Sunday night game for good reason. Sherman, who seemed to have lost his faith in the Seahawks’ future, was cut while recovering from an Achilles tendon tear. After departing for San Francisco, he said the Seahawks had lost their way as a team. He even discussed not having a relationship with quarterback Russell Wilson and how the fact that Wilson has had a five-interception game before shows he can beat defended.

As we got closer to the 49ers’ trip to CenturyLink, however, it turned out the matchup didn’t meet prime-time standards, so NBC flexed the Los Angeles Chargers-Pittsburgh Steelers game to prime time, putting Seahawks-Niners at a normal afternoon time. But even though the story has gone more local than national, the Sherman-Seahawks matchup should be an interesting one.

With the 49ers at 2-9, the Sherman storyline may be better than the game matchup. Here are some things to watch Sunday.

• Sherman may not look as fast and smooth as he was before the Achilles injury (as Dave Wyman pointed out earlier this week in Football 101), but he’s still effective at cornerback. Looking at the numbers, it’s hard to tell if there is any drop-off.

In nine games, quarterbacks have thrown only 30 passes at him, with 16 completed for 248 yards and no touchdowns. From 2013 through 2016, quarterbacks only completed between 30 and 36 passes against him per season. During that four-year period, he gave up only 10 touchdowns.

Last year before the season-ending Achilles injury in Seattle’s ninth game, he was beaten for only 19 passes for 236 yards. Safe to say, the standard for Sherman is giving up only two completions a game.

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• The Seahawks have to be wary of San Francisco tight end George Kittle. Because of the 2-9 record, the 49ers aren’t getting a lot of publicity league-wide, but Kittle is a young tight end who is one of the better prospects in the league. He ranks third in receptions among tight ends with 56 catches, which have resulted in 823 yards and three touchdowns.

Thanks to safety Bradley McDougald, though, the Seahawks are the second-best team in the NFL at defending tight ends. They have surrendered only 38 completions for 414 yards, with the New York Jets the only team to give up fewer completions.

• The Seahawks survived a five-game stretch in which they faced five franchise quarterbacks – Matthew Stafford, Jared Goff, Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. That five-game stretch dropped them from the seventh-best defense to 16th overall.

The numbers should start getting better again beginning Sunday against the 49ers. The Niners are starting a third-string quarterback who is a rookie, Nick Mullens. The 49ers come into the game minus their top two receivers, Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin. And San Francisco’s No. 1 wide receiver coming into Sunday is Kendrick Bourne, who has 25 catches for 257 yards.

Mullens hasn’t been bad, though. He’s completing 65.6 percent of his passes and averages 7.9 yards an attempt, which is pretty good.

• Even though the Niners’ best running back, Jerick McKinnon, is on the injured reserve list with an ACL tear, they have a dangerous smaller back in Matt Breida, who has 738 yards on 127 carries this year. In training camp, he looked quick to the hole and can be hard to stop. The Seahawks run defense has faced some of the best backs in the league this year and they still need a good run-stopping game this week.

• Something that should help Russell Wilson is that the 49ers still need one more quality pass rusher to make their defense better. They struggle getting to the quarterback (26 sacks), and while opponents still avoid throwing Sherman’s direction, San Francisco has allowed 23 touchdowns passes to just two interceptions for a 101.5 rating opposing QB rating.

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