Given the 49ers record, now 1-10, it is tempting to regard the Seahawks’ 24-13 win Sunday as more or less an exhibition game, in which neither good plays nor bad plays are weighty because of the caliber of the opposition. While it is partly true, the larger point is that the Seahawks late in the season are breaking in a more-or-less new secondary and a new offensive line, and neither unit spit up.
A modest feat, to be sure, but necessary to have a shred of hope for Sunday night at home against the team with the NFL’s best record, the 10-1 Philadelphia Eagles.
The O-line began the game at damp, windy Levi’s Stadium deploying Luke Joeckel at left guard for the first time in five weeks. It was his first chance to play alongside Duane Brown, the highly regarded veteran left tackle for whom the Seahawks gave up serious treasure to acquire. Joeckel’s temporary replacement, rookie Ethan Pocic, moved to right guard as the emergency fill-in for Oday Aboushi, out with a separated shoulder.
The shuffled lineup didn’t plow the 49ers into the soggy sod, but did manage 90 rushing yards on 30 carries. More noteworthy were two other deeds: No sacks of QB Russell Wilson and no holding penalties.
“I felt like we got something going here,” said coach Pete Carroll, wizard of the half-full glass. “It’s time. We’ve been waiting. I hope we can build on that.”
RB Eddie Lacy started and managed 46 yards on 17 carries, and three catches for 15 yards. RB J.D. McKissic had 22 on four runs, and four receptions for 24 yards.
Meager sums by NFL standards, but given the personnel mess on offense, they represent progress.
“Eddie ran hard and tough — I liked it,” Carroll said. “First time we’ve had to feel Eddie throughout a game. He’s got a presence about him because he’s such a load.
“He gives us a dimension we can play off of to go forward. He showed that today. The contrast with McKissic, who’s so quick and explosive, is a nice mix.”
Expected to return Sunday from injury is RB Mike Davis. But Thomas Rawls, who was active Sunday, had no carries, despite Carroll’s raised expectations fof him during the week.
Considering that Brown and Joeckel didn’t practice together during the week, owing to sprained ankle that kept Brown sidelined, it was something a coach could admire, even if fans might not.
“I was really excited about that,” Carroll said. “Duane couldn’t practice all week, and Luke’s coming back for the first time. These guys stuck it out all week and did a really good job. They all seemed to come out OK, so maybe we can take a step forward.”
The Seahawks need enough of a threat on the ground to make the play-action part of the playbook work. Even though first-half production was miserable, Carroll put that off to four dropped passes that killed drives.
The poor start “was more about the drops, which were very uncharacteristic for us,” he said. “Other than that, I think we would have a really solid game with continuity.”
On defense, a secondary missing stalwarts CB Richard Sherman and SS Kam Chancellor, as well as rookie prodigy CB Shaquill Griffin (concussion), nevertheless kept the 49ers out of the end zone again, except for a last-play TD at 00:00 that meant nothing.
The Seahawks started Bradley McDougald at strong safety, and at the corners were Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane, the latter with a sore knee injured late in the week.
Granted, they were up against a rookie QB in C.J. Beathard, but the defense led by LB Bobby Wagner — if he isn’t a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, the NFL will need to be hauled before Congress — was much better than in the teams’ first meeting when everyone was healthy.
That 12-9 Seattle victory at the Clink featured 124 yards in 15 carries by RB Carlos Hyde, who this time carried 16 times for 47, with a long of 14.
Wagner, who reached 100 career tackles for the fifth year in a row, supplied the afternoon’s turning point in the first minute of the second quarter. At the 49ers’ 16-yard line, he simultaneously tackled WR Trent Taylor and wrestled away the bobbling ball for an interception.
“I figured I might as well take it from him,” Wagner said, “since he didn’t seem to want it.”
For a guy who sat out the week of practice with a sore hamstring, Wagner delivered, setting up a short field for a rushing TD by Wilson two plays later for a 7-0 lead.
“I don’t know how the heck it happened, but it was an extraordinary play,” Carroll said. “Really heads-up.”
The defensive line benefited by a return to health of several players that helped restore the rotation Carroll so craves.
“We had a bunch of guys active today — big rotation,” he said. “The run defense was excellent all day long. That’s the kind of consistency we hope to get.
“We mix those guys in to keep them fresh and fast.”
Replicating that pass-rush pressure for the rest of the season is the only way to manage the absences of Sherman, Chancellor and DE Cliff Avril. Beating the 49ers with it for the ninth time in a row just proved the template.
Harshness awaits in the next four weeks with the Eagles, Jaguars (7-4), Rams (8-3) Cowboys (5-6 with star RB Ezekiel Elliott returning Christmas Eve) eager to take advantage of a Seahawks team diminished by injuries and youth.
Exhibition season is over. Big-boy ball beckons.