Following the regular season schedule release in April, Sunday’s upcoming matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco was circled as one of the must-see games on the docket.
Originally scheduled as the nationally televised game on NBC, star cornerback Richard Sherman would arrive at CenturyLink Field in prime-time sporting red and gold as a member of the upstart 49ers. Cut by the Seahawks in March, he’d be seeking to enact revenge against the franchise he helped guide to back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 2013 and 2014.
Unfortunately, injuries have prevented the 49ers from coming close to meeting expectations, sitting in the NFC West basement well below the Rams and Seahawks.
Without their starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and several other key players, coach Kyle Shanahan’s team opened the season with seven losses in their first eight games. Tied for last place with the Cardinals in the NFC West, nothing has gone as planned for one of the league’s most-storied franchises.
Given the 49ers struggles, the league opted to move Sunday’s game to the early afternoon in favor of a matchup with more playoff implications, further taking the air out of a once-appetizing encounter in Sherman’s return to Seattle.
Though the 49ers have only won two games and are in the running for the first overall pick in next year’s draft, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll holds great respect for Shanahan and understands his team has to “cash in” on this latest opportunity against a well-coached division rival.
“We’re always worried about a Kyle Shanahan team. He’s a fantastic coach and does a great job with his offense.” Carroll told reporters on Wednesday. “They can run it, they’ve got a really good scheme to get the quarterback out of the pocket. They do all kinds of really good things and it’s going to be a big challenge for us there.”
Seattle came from behind in the fourth quarter in Carolina last Sunday for an exhilarating 30-27 victory, putting Carroll’s squad in the driver’s seat for one of the two wild cards in the NFC. Holding tiebreakers over the Panthers and Cowboys, the 6-5 Seahawks control their own destiny heading into the final month.
But with five games remaining, the team can ill afford to slip up in games they should win. And with the 49ers out of the playoff picture with nothing to lose, they’re a potentially dangerous opponent despite their record.
In Shanahan’s first season as coach, the 49ers battled the Seahawks tough in both contests last year, including a hard-fought 12-9 defeat in Seattle. Even after losing Garoppolo to a torn ACL in Week 3, San Francisco has remained competitive all year, losing to the Chargers and Packers on the road by less than three points in both games.
Forced to make offensive adaptations with backup quarterbacks C.J. Beatherd and Nick Mullens under center, San Francisco has leaned on a fifth-ranked running game headlined by second-year sensation Matt Breida. The former Georgia Southern standout has rushed for 738 yards and averaged 5.8 yards per carry for the 49ers while scoring five total touchdowns.
Since the Seahawks have struggled to defend the run and given up nearly 600 rushing yards over the last four games, Shanahan will aim to take advantage of this defensive deficiency and keep the 49ers within striking distance.
As for the 49ers defense, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has done a commendable job while dealing with plenty of internal issues, including the recent release of troubled linebacker Reuben Foster. A front line choked full of first-round picks has also been underwhelming and inconsistent, but Sherman’s elite play in the secondary has provided a bright spot in an otherwise dark season.
Similar to his time in Seattle, opponents have avoided Sherman like the plague, choosing to avoid throwing his direction and picking on young corners such as Ahkello Witherspoon instead. With the limited number of targets, the perennial All-Pro has yet to record an interception in nine games but has still contributed with 24 tackles and four passes defensed while also taking away part of the field.
When asked about how he anticipates fans will react to Sherman’s return wearing a rival uniform, Carroll said, “They’ll be great. I mean, I think he’s loved around here for all the great stuff that he did. I don’t know that it’s going to be noticeable what the reception is like. If it’s noticeable then it’s pretty significant. He did a lot of great stuff here. I don’t think our fans think any differently than I do about that.”
Known best for “The Tip” that led Seattle to Super Bowl XLVIII and the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy, Sherman’s tenure ended with plenty of conflict. After the team chose to cut him, he promptly signed with San Francisco and openly told reporters that Carroll and the Seahawks had lost their way.
It was an unfortunate conclusion for one of the best players to ever don a Seahawks uniform, but despite these public comments, Carroll doesn’t hold any grudges against his former pupil and can’t wait to take on the challenge of coaching against him with playoff positioning on the line Sunday.
“Sherm had to do what he had to do. He had to change allegiance and get tuned into his new team.” Carroll said. “Whatever took place was okay. I didn’t care, I know who Sherm is. I know him way differently than you guys probably think I do. I think the world of him.”