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Thursday Night Football Preview: Once Upon a Time in the West

While the 49ers-Seahawks rivalry isn't what it used to be, their next meeting in this week's Thursday Night Football game is guaranteed to be another hard-fought NFC West battle.

Just two seasons ago, the Seahawks and 49ers battled each other in the NFC Championship Game for a spot in Super Bowl XLVIII.

This Thursday, they face each other under vastly different circumstances; at 2-4 records for both these squads, both teams are just hoping to climb out of the bottom of the division.

But what hasn't changed between these two teams is the mutual hatred they hold for one another. Featuring perhaps one of the bitterest rivalries in the NFL today, Thursday night's game is likely to be another hotly-contested match with pride and divisional standings on the line.

So with no love lost between the Hawks and Niners, what can we expect in this divisional face off on Thursday night?

The Pre-Game Rundown

The Seahawks seem to have fallen victim to the Super Bowl hangover after their gut-wrenching, last-minute loss to the Patriots last February.

Perhaps a part of the problem lies in the offseason trade of All-Pro center Max Unger for tight end Jimmy Graham. As a run-fist team, the Seahawks offense wasn't necessarily built to take advantage of the pass catching prowess of Graham. So far, Graham is averaging a full fewer target in Seattle than he saw in New Orleans last season, and even then these numbers are boosted by a season high 12 targets thrown his way in a loss to the Panthers last week. Whether this is an outlier or a trend has yet to be seen.

The Seahawks' problems on the offensive line actually go beyond losing just Unger, however. Dating back to the 2014 offseason, the team has also lost key pieces from their Super Bowl XLVIII squad in tackle Breno Giacomini and guard Paul McQuistan during the 2014 offseason and guard James Carpenter this offseason.

The effect of losing so many core players on their offensive line is best demonstrated by the fact that this team is currently giving up the most sacks in the league with 26 on the year. And while the offense is still the 10th most efficient rushing offense according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics when adjusted for strength of schedule, they're just the 17th most efficient offense overall (down from their sixth place ranking in 2014).

If you take the losses that the Seahawks suffered to their offensive line and apply that to an entire roster, you essentially get the 49ers offseason. Beyond the inexplicable firing of head coach Jim Harbaugh, the number of players that have left the organization this offseason are just too numerous to list here. If we just look at the defensive side of the ball, the team saw the retirement of future Hall of Famer Patrick Willis, along with the retirements, releases, or free agent departures of Justin Smith, Chris Borland, Perrish Cox, Chris Culliver, Aldon Smith, and Dan Skuta.

It should therefore be no surprise that a team that fielded one of the best defenses in the league as recently as last season -- who despite a number of injuries to key players was still the 12th most efficient defense according to our strength-adjusted defensive NEP metrics -- now sits as the fifth least efficient unit in the league.

On the offensive side of the ball, a number of new faces now in starting roles -- including Torrey Smith and Carlos Hyde -- have had mixed performances so far this season.

After losing three straight games in Weeks 2 through 4 in blowout fashion -- with the team being outscored 107-28 in that time span -- the team has started to show signs of improvement over the last two weeks. As our Associate Editor Brandon Gdula has found, Colin Kaepernick in particular has picked up his level of play as of late, and when you exclude his disastrous performances in Weeks 3 and 4, has actually had the efficiency of a top-10 quarterback according to our Passing NEP per drop back metrics.

So with all this being said, which of these trends will hold and which ones will break when these two teams face off in this divisional matchup for Thursday Night Football?

The 49ers' Game Scipt

A beneficiary of Kaepernick's performance, Anquan Boldin has now recorded back-to-back 100 yard receiving games against the Giants and Ravens. On the other side of the field, wideout Torrey Smith has also seen a benefit from the Niners' improved quarterback play, catching 3 of 6 targets for 96 yards and a touchdown against his former team, Baltimore, last week.

However, this short bout of success in the passing game is likely to end when the Seahawks come to town. Kaepernick has historically struggled against Seattle; last season he averaged just 131 yards through the air and 31.5 yards on the ground with no touchdowns and one interception in two regular season games against them. And with the Seahawks currently ranking as the 10th most efficient defense against the pass, there's a high likelihood that Seattle will continue to frustrate and confuse Kaepernick in this game as well.

If we take a look at the Niners' chances in the ground game, it doesn't get any prettier. With expectations that San Francisco will be down this game and the negative gamescript for the running game typically associated with such a situation, it's clear that Hyde faces tough sledding in this matchup. While the Niners' lead tailback has averaged 23.5 carries for 111.5 yards and 1 touchdown in two wins, he's tallied per-game averages of just 14.3 carries for 51.8 yards and 0.25 touchdowns in four losses. It doesn't help matters that the Seahawks also rank as the third most efficient defense against the run.

 Taken all together, it looks like this game is shaping up to be a busy night for rookie punter Bradley Pinion.

The Seahawks' Game Scipt

With the Seahawks facing the 49ers' sixth least efficient defense against the run according to our NEP metrics, Seattle can make sure that the 49ers will have their hands full trying to contain dual threat quarterback Russell Wilson and workhorse running back Marshawn Lynch. Indeed, over the last four regular season games against San Francisco, the Seahawks' dynamic duo has combined for 115 yards per game on the ground.

In the passing game, while the Seahaws rank in the bottom-10 in pass-to-run ratio, they won't necessarily need a high volume approach to rack up yards through the air against San Francisco. The 49ers own the seventh least efficient defense against the pass, and while the offensive line has struggled to keep Wilson upright -- which is no small feat given Wilson's mobility that already gives him an above average ability to avoid the rush -- they should have better luck keeping the 49ers' pass rush at bay. San Francisco's nine sacks on the year tie them for 24th in the league in this category.

All this suggests that the Seahawks should have no problem moving the ball down the field against a 49ers defense that is now a shell of its former self.

Fantasy Football Implications

At face value, it looks as if Wilson makes for a nice start with a favorable matchup in this game; the Niners are currently giving up the third most points to quarterbacks in standard-scoring leagues this season. However, with Wilson's modest averages of just 202 yards and one touchdown through the air and 31 yards on the ground in two regular season games against San Francisco last year, we may need to temper our expectations of him.

The questions surrounding Graham has less to do with his skill or matchup -- the Niners are a middle-of-the-road team against tight ends, giving up the 16th most fantasy points to the position on the year -- and more to do with his usage. As mentioned previously, Graham saw a season-high 12 targets last week but before that averaged just 5.6 targets per game over the first five weeks of the season. Whether these trends will continue or whether Graham's usage will regress to his early season numbers will be difficult to predict for this game.

The reason for this is that the team may choose to lean on Lynch and the running game for most of this contest. Last year, the man they call Beast Mode averaged 97.5 yards and 0.5 touchdowns on 20.5 carries in two games against the 49ers. Coming into San Francisco as big road favorites and with the Niners' surrendering the eighth most points to running backs, Lynch has a very good chance to put up similar, if not better numbers in this contest.

If you're looking for fantasy football production out of the 49ers this week, it might be best to move along and look elsewhere.

Kaepernick faces a defense giving up just the 18th most points to quarterbacks, while Boldin and Smith will take turns playing in Richard Sherman's "no fly zone." As a home underdog facing a defense that allows the fourth least points to his position, Hyde also can't be trusted. And while Vernon Davis has a juicy matchup -- the Seahawks give up the second most fantasy points to the tight end position -- whether due to inefficiency or a knee injury he suffered a few weeks ago, he has largely been absent this season, seeing just three targets over his last two games while being outsnapped by Garrett Celek 34-to-46 in a win over the Ravens last week.

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