Here are five things to watch when the 49ers travel to play the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday.
The return of Sherman to Seattle
Cornerback Richard Sherman didn’t mince words about his departure from the Seahawks this week, saying he felt disrespected by getting released while injured last spring after accomplishing so much during his seven seasons. He also said he’s treating this like just another road game, but it’s hard to imagine one of the league’s most fiery competitors not getting extra amped up in his old stomping grounds.
Sherman, 30, is having a good season for the 49ers, but not a spectacular one. He allowed five catches on five targets last week in Tampa Bay after being one of the least-targeted corners in football coming in. And according to Pro Football Focus, he’s second among cornerbacks that have played in at least nine games allowing one reception per 21.6 coverage snaps.
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The reasoning behind those numbers is twofold: Sherman is playing well, but opponents are more often targeting cornerbacks playing opposite Sherman who have mostly struggled, particularly second-year pro Ahkello Witherspoon, who has been targeted 59 times, nearly double Sherman’s 29.
Perhaps we should have seen Witherspoon’s regression coming. After all, he was playing opposite Dontae Johnson last season, who was benched on two separate occassions for struggling and has since bounced around the league after the 49ers decided not to bring him back. Now that there’s a high-level corner playing opposite Witherspoon, he’s viewed as the weakpoint in the secondary.
Still, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Seahawks pick on Sherman Sunday in order to prove they were right to get rid of the veteran in favor of their young players. Sherman is still close with Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, who surely would love to put a dent in Sherman’s impressive metrics since joining San Francisco.
Can Mullens bounce back?
It was somewhat surprising 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan elected to stick with Nick Mullens at quarterback following Sunday’s loss in Tampa, when San Francisco scored a season-low 9 points against a defense that’s struggled this season.
Mullens had easily the worst of his three games since taking over for C.J. Beathard, completing just 56 percent of his passes for 221 yards. And for the second consecutive game, he threw more interceptions (2) than touchdown passes (1). His combined passer rating since his impressive debut against the Raiders: 68.5, which isn’t good.
But Shanahan has insisted it wasn’t only Mullens’ fault for the offensive struggles. The offensive line had one of its worst games of the season, allowing four sacks after Mullens didn’t get sacked in his first two starts, and the receivers Marquise Goodwin and Pierre Garçon were out (more on them later).
The 49ers haven’t won in Seattle since December 2011, meaning Mullens has a monumental task ahead of him. The Seahawks are surging after consecutive wins against the Packers and Panthers, as they look for a return trip to the playoffs. If Mullens struggles, don’t be surprised if Beathard gets back on the field and is given the start the following week when the 49ers have a home game against the Broncos.
Without Goodwin and Garçon, spotlight shifts to Pettis
Shanahan ruled out Goodwin (personal reasons) and Garçon (knee) on Friday. Goodwin has remained away from the team to deal with an ongoing family issue, while Garçon was a limited participant in practice throughout the week, but didn’t see enough progress from his balky knee to be cleared to play.
That means the 49ers will go with an unestablished foursome of receivers without their two starts: Rookie second-round pick Dante Pettis, former undrafted free agent Kendrick Bourne, seventh-round pick Richie James and fifth-round choice Trent Taylor. Paired with Mullens, that group hardly resembles the greatest show on turf.
And it means Pettis needs another strong performance coming off his career-best 77 yards in Tampa, when he also scored his second career touchdown, and first since the season opener against Minnesota.
“I thought this week was his best week yet,” Shanahan said of Pettis the day after playiong the Buccaneers. “Not to get confused with great, but I thought it was his best week and I hope he continues to do that each week for the next five weeks.”
Pettis will be returning to where he played his college ball at nearby Washington, though he took in their game Friday night against Utah at Levi’s Stadium in the Pac-12 title game. He said he’s not responsible for tickets to Sunday’s game because his sister is dating a Seahawks player who can get better seats than he could.
Replacing Reuben Foster
Foster’s release last Sunday morning hit the 49ers like a ton of bricks before playing Tampa Bay. Now, a week later, his departure following his second arrest for alleged domestic violence in a year has settled in, and the team can begin evaluating the position to look for solutions.
Foster will leave a big void on the roster. He was a first-round draft choice, after all, and was once believed to be a cornerstone of a rebuilt defense. Now the 49ers are seeing if veteran Malcolm Smith, a former Seahawk, and Elijah Lee can pick up the slack. Foster’s release also provides a reminder the team lost Brock Coyle during the season opener while he was replacing Foster during the first of his two-game suspension.
Smith has been dealing with Achilles tendinitis throughout the season after suffering an injury over the summer, he said this week. He’s been in and out of the lineup in recent games, and Lee was forced to play in the second half against the Buccaneers. Lee is essentially a third stringer.
The linebacker position will under pressure to perform in Seattle. The Seahawks have the NFL’s top rushing attack averaging 147 yards per game. They’ve been doing it with running backs Chris Carson, recent first-round pick Rashaad Penny and former 49er Mike Davis.
If San Francisco is going to have a shot at pulling the upset, they’re going to have to remain stout against the run and force the Seahawks to get away from their smash-mouth identity.
Can 49ers finally win in their house of horrors?
Tackle Joe Staley is the only player on the roster that’s experienced winning in CenturyLink Field. He was on the team the last time Michael Crabtree saved Christmas with a 41-yard grab in the fourth quarter that set up David Akers’ game-winning field goal in Dec. 2011.
The Seahawks have won nine straight against the 49ers, including on the road, and have never beaten any opponent 10 straight times. The last time San Francisco won came Dec. 8, 2013, when a long Frank Gore run at Candlestick Park set up a game-winning field goal in the final moments.
Since then, the Seahawks have beaten the 49ers by an average of 11 points overall. San Francisco is a 10-point underdog this week, according to Westgate.