As much as any other professional sport, the NFL is a team game. No one player can be successful without the assistance of others. That said, individual matchups can and do determine winners and losers on a weekly basis.
Sure, superstars Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch could be called keys in every game but let's dig deeper. The goal here is to identify three critical one-on-one matchups (that few others are talking about) which will likely determine whether or not the Seahawks emerge victorious.
On paper, the San Francisco 49ers are one of the NFL's worst pass-rushing teams with just 16 sacks over the first nine games of the year. That puts the club on pace for 28.4 sacks on the year, which as longtime 49ers beat reporter Matt Barrows notes, would be the least from San Francisco since 2005. Six of those sacks, however, have come from Lynch, who not only has three times as many quarterback takedowns as anyone else on the 49ers' roster, two of them were of Wilson in Seattle's Week 7 win.
At 6-5, 270 pounds, Lynch has a rare combination of size and athleticism for a stand-up edge rusher. He's quick off the ball, possesses the strength to bull rush effectively and uses his length to swim over the top of tackles when they attempt to get under him. It is the power Lynch possesses which could make it difficult for Gilliam, a former tight end, to handle. Gilliam has quietly made strides this season in terms of pass protection but he remains Seattle's least effective run blocker and has drawn more than his share of flags, as well.
The Seahawks' season-long struggles with opposing tight ends continued last week in the loss to Arizona with Jermaine Gresham beating both Chancellor and Earl Thomas over the top for the fourth quarter score which gave momentum back to the Cardinals. Celek doesn't have the name recognition of Gresham and former 49ers standout Vernon Davis - each former first round picks - but he has the trust of new San Francisco starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who tossed two touchdowns to him in a surprising 17-16 upset over Dan Quinn and the Atlanta Falcons two weeks ago.
To be fair to Quinn and the Falcons these were Celek's only two catches of the day and they covered a total of 12 yards. However, given the run-heavy approach San Francisco is likely to take with Gabbert, slowing down the team's primary short-yardage passing option is key.
The 6-5, 252 pound Celek isn't a flashy athlete but he is a reliable route-runner and hands-catcher. Chancellor and Co. should be fine covering him but with Mike Morgan making just the second start of his NFL career in place of injured strongside linebacker Bruce Irvin, Seattle can't afford mistakes in the deep patrol.
A big part of Seattle's disappointing offense thus far this season has been Graham's slow acclimation to the Seahawks' run-heavy attack. While he predictably leads the team in every receiving category, Graham has shown less-than-ideal physicality as a blocker, when fighting through coverage and when attempting to break tackles in the open field. This includes a two catch, 31-yard effort in Week Seven against the 49ers.
The Seahawks may be acknowledging that Graham's ultimate best fit in Darrell Bevell's offense is at wide receiver with the surprise release of fellow big-bodied pass-catcher Chris Matthews this week. Graham has been his most successful when lined up wide, drawing defenders away from the middle of the field where the Seahawks like to run the ball.
If Graham's relatively passive play has been disappointing thus far for the Seahawks, the 49ers are likely quite pleased with the play of Tartt, who alongside of free safety Eric Reid has emerged as a Chancellor-like intimidating force at strong safety since a season-ending injury to then-starter Antoine Bethea.
While Tartt is a heat-seeking missile, he's a bit stiff when changing direction. Should Seattle be able to provide Wilson protection, there should be opportunities for Graham to get open against Tartt and the 49ers' secondary, including in the red zone.