During the lead-up to Richard Sherman’s return to Seattle for the first time since he was released by the Seahawks this past offseason, both he and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh noted that they had a singular favorite memory from the two teams’ rivalry in the early half of the decade.
In the 2014 NFC Championship game at CenturyLink Field, Sherman tipped a would-be 18-yard Colin Kaepernick touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree. Malcolm Smith — along with Sherman, now also a 49er — ran to the end zone instead of covering his assigned area about 5 yards from the line of scrimmage, and picked up the deflection for the decisive interception.
Since that 23-17 loss, the 49ers have not had a winning season. They’ve fired three head coaches and started six different quarterbacks. In the midst of a 43-16 loss on Sunday — San Francisco’s 10th straight loss to Seattle — the 49ers saw that play re-enacted on the first of four Russell Wilson touchdown tosses. The Seahawks would never trail in their eighth straight win over San Francisco at CenturyLink — 10th overall — and that celebration wasn’t the last indignity that 2-10 San Francisco would suffer.
“I don’t think about it, honestly. They’ve had a lot of fun celebrations,” Sherman said. “It was good for them.”
“I just want to f—ing win here so bad,” said left tackle Joe Staley, the only remaining 49er from the last time they beat the Seahawks in Seattle in 2011. “This game means a lot to me. It just sucks to not have success here.”
Quarterback Nick Mullens, who took 15 hits and three sacks, went 30-of-48 for 414 yards, was only able to find openings late in the game. Over the first three quarters, he was besieged, particularly by Bobby Wagner, who had a pair of quarterback hits — including a sack — and a pressure that led the way for another sack in the first half.
San Francisco, in committing three turnovers and not recording any takeaways, are now -20 in turnover margin on the season, worst in the NFL. The 49ers committed three special teams penalties, allowed an 84-yard return and muffed a punt — both led directly to Seahawks touchdowns — and saw continued injury attrition in a sloppy display against a rival in the playoff hunt.
Russell Wilson went 4-of-6 for 102 yards in the first half with three touchdown passes (good for a 149.3 QB rating), and set a season high with his fourth touchdown pass to start the fourth quarter — a drive made possible by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan.
Each of Wilson’s first three touchdown passes went to a different receiver. The first, to Jaron Brown, saw Wilson backpedal away from pressure at the line only to throw a four-yard dart. The second was a 52-yard dime to Tyler Lockett, in one-on-one coverage against Smith. The third came thanks to one of three first-half special teams miscues by San Francisco, as a muffed punt by Richie James led to a 47-yard scoring drive, capped by an easy toss to the left from Wilson to Doug Baldwin with 1:17 to go before halftime.
The 49ers were again snakebit by injury, as they have been all season. Running back Matt Breida re-tweaked his troublesome ankle during warm-ups, while backup running back Jeff Wilson Jr. — playing for the inactive Alfred Morris — had to exit the game for X-rays after Tre Flowers turned Wilson’s back ankle on a catch-and-run screen with 6:30 to go before halftime. He did return, and finished with 61 yards on 15 carries and 73 yards on eight catches, but that made little difference for a defense that couldn’t unsettle Wilson either up front or in the back end, as he was hit just four times and sacked just once through the first three quarters.
After losing Adrian Colbert for the season, and placing Jimmie Ward on injured reserve, San Francisco saw safety Jaquiski Tartt leave with a shoulder stinger on the very first play of the third quarter: Tartt injured his troublesome shoulder dragging Lockett down after an 85-yard kickoff return. One play later, Rashaad Penny trotted in the final 21 yards for a touchdown, giving the Seahawks a 27-3 lead just 16 seconds into the second half.
The 49ers would finally put things together for a 58-yard scoring drive on their ensuing possession. After a big 42-yard kickoff return by Richie James, third-and-seven, Mullens took a third-and-sevens shotgun snap and found rookie Dante Pettis in on a curl route a soft spot in the zone. After a Kyle Juszczyk block, Pettis cut to the outside and snaked his way into the end zone for a 17-yard score.
Special teams woes once again struck, though, as Mark Nzeocha — the leading NFC vote-getter on special teams thanks to a concerted effort from his countrymen in Germany — committed his second special teams penalty (San Francisco’s third). After holding the Seahawks thanks to a third-down sack by DeForest Buckner (his eighth), Nzeocha’s illegal blindside block on the ensuing punt negated an 11-yard return by Trent Taylor, and backed the 49ers up to their own 10.
Two big passes to Pettis (for 14) and tight end George Kittle (for 28), instead of getting San Francisco into the Seattle red zone, only got the 49ers past midfield, before the drive stalled with the second sack — and 10th hit of the day — on Mullens, which took them out of field goal range.
On the ensuing drive, the 49ers earned an unsportsmanlike conduct thanks to Shanahan protesting an offsides call, as he yelled, “Get in the f—ing game,” at linesman Walt Coleman IV. San Francisco had 14 men on the field, and was in the middle of switching out personnel, as Fred Warner and K’Waun Williams tried to exit the field with Elijah Lee sprinting in just as the ball was snapped. That series of penalties wiped out a rare San Francisco sack at the end of the third quarter.
Three plays — including a 10-yard Seattle penalty — later, Wilson rolled right, stepped up and found a diving Brown in the end zone. Doug Baldwin led David Moore, Lockett and Brown in celebration, with all four doing the Macarena in unison.
Mullens hit Pettis, the second-round draft pick out of Washington, on a deep post for a 75-yard touchdown with 14:17 to go in regulation, cutting the lead to 34-16, but Mullens’s two-point conversion try was fumbled, and recovered by Shaquille Griffin after the ball was jarred loose by Tedric Thompson.
There were other bright spots: Ahkello Witherspoon was targeted three times and didn’t allow a completion, and Ronald Blair showed up in a big way on the defensive line in the fourth quarter, slicing through blockers to sack Wilson for a loss of 16 yards with 8:42 to go. Buckner would tally his second sack several plays later, as the San Francisco pass rush finally got going, albeit briefly, and with the game solidly in-hand for Seattle, who added a field goal on the next play to make the score 37-16.
Mullens was able to maintain poise and found openings in the screen game and in the middle of the field. After going 11-of-18 for 113 yards in the first half, he started the second 8-of-10 for 178 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His attempt at a comeback-sparking drive with 4:04 left, though, ended with a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown by Wagner, the first of his career and the longest in Seahawks history. He finished with a game-high 12 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, two QB hits and two pass breakups. After his rumble, he curled up in the back corner of the end zone, and mimed falling asleep, with the football as a pillow. It wasn’t as exciting as the game’s earlier re-enactment, but it sent a message, all the same.