The FO crew previews three games in the final week of the season with critical playoff implications: Bengals-Steelers, Lions-Packers, and Panthers-Falcons.
21 Nov 2006
by Ned Macey
(Ed. note: First, let's answer the inevitable question -- if the #1 team in DVOA and the last undefeated team lost this week, why aren't we writing about those games? Short answer: We've written plenty about Indy's deficiencies, all of which showed up in that loss, and an Eagles-Titans article would consist of one sentence, "Donovan McNabb tore his ACL and the Eagles are screwed.")
The day EA Sports announced Shaun Alexander was going to be on the cover of Madden 2007, it was clear that the Seahawks were going to have a difficult time repeating as NFC Champions. The Madden curse plus the Super Bowl Loser's Curse posed seemingly insurmountable odds. Those powerful curses have taken their best shot, with both Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck suffering injuries, but entering Sunday's game, the Seahawks had a 6-3 record and were on track for the playoffs.
Most people assumed Seattle would repeat despite these well-known curses. Any challenge was presumed to come from either their recent rival in St. Louis or the hotshot skill players assembled in Arizona. Instead, it is San Francisco that stands just one game behind the Seahawks following a surprising win.
This might be called an exciting contest between the two best teams in the NFC West. But the truth is that the two best teams in the NFC West are among the worst teams in football. For San Francisco, a lucky .500 record gives credibility to a rebuilding plan that is starting to take shape. For Seattle, a lucky 6-4 record means they will be only the second Super Bowl loser to make the playoffs since 1999, despite taking numerous steps back on the field.
The Seahawks currently rank 25th with a DVOA of -15.1%. Both the rank and the DVOA rating itself are the lowest of any Super Bowl Loser since 1999 except for the 2003 Raiders. The Seahawks were blessed with 11 games this season against teams that currently have a below average DVOA. That schedule and two close wins over St. Louis may allow them to make the playoffs despite the Curse's best efforts.
The most surprising feature of Sunday's game was watching little-known Frank Gore run wild while reigning MVP Shaun Alexander struggled in his first game back from injury. Gore has emerged as one of the most dynamic running backs in football, always capable of breaking a big run.
Alexander has struggled all season, even when supposedly healthy. Running backs tend to take a substantial step back after having 370 carries in a season. Add Alexander as another data point supporting that theory. He has missed six games and averaged only 2.7 yards per carry. Alexander was hesitant at times and had few running lanes. He showed some flashes of his old form, but they were few and far between.
A frequent justification for the Seahawks' struggles on the ground is the departure of guard Steve Hutchinson. Widely considered the best guard in football, Hutchinson was not given the franchise tag and received an unmatchable offer from the Vikings. The Seahawks have been unable to develop a consistent ground game without him.
This theory overstates the impact of the admittedly valuable Hutchinson. Guards battle with centers for being considered the least valuable position on the offense. If the absence of even the game's best has this sort of impact, Hutchinson and his fellow elite guards deserve to be paid like Peyton Manning. Minnesota has one of the worst rushing offense DVOA ratings with Hutchinson, so he is hardly a panacea.
The Seahawks miss Hutchinson, but other injuries have upset continuity along the line. Center Robbie Tobeck, left guard (and Hutchinson replacement) Pork Chop Womack, and right tackle Sean Locklear have all missed games. 2005 first-round pick Chris Spencer is a more than adequate replacement, but he is only one player. Different players at different positions each week do not allow the line to play consistently.
More importantly, both left tackle Walter Jones and fullback Mack Strong have played well below their own high standards. Jones is widely considered the best left tackle in football. On Sunday, he was beat for two sacks. Jones is 32 years old, the same age as Jonathan Ogden, who has already lost a step. The transition of the game's best left tackle into merely an above average one could have as large an impact as the departure of Hutchinson.
Jones did play impressively at times, which is more than can be said for Strong. The venerable fullback finally started to get his due last year, but it appears his age has made him a liability. Consistently this season he has struggled both in clearing holes for running backs and in pass protection.
On the game's most pivotal play, a fourth-and-1 attempt in the fourth quarter, both Strong and Jones struggled. The Seahawks predictably ran Alexander behind left tackle with Strong as the lead blocker. Strong's block on a defensive back was ineffective, while Jones was also beat. The two defenders brought Alexander down behind the line of scrimmage.
Of course, while the run game struggles, nobody is talking about the elephant in the room: Matt Hasselbeck's injury. Almost everyone considers the Eagles' season effectively over thanks to an injury to Donovan McNabb. Hasselbeck is the same caliber quarterback, and the Seahawks have tried to play four and a half games without him.
Seneca Wallace has impressed with his poise, but his overall production has been substandard. He threw three interceptions on Sunday. The first one was a bad throw, the second one terrible, and the third one atrocious. Things should improve with Hasselbeck's return this week. Deion Branch is getting more comfortable in the offense, and along with Darrell Jackson will provide Hasselbeck with an excellent pair of starting receivers.
The massive injuries to the offense make it a little hard to evaluate that unit going forward, but more troubling for the Seahawks is their poor defense. A year ago, the Seahawks had one of the league's best offenses and an average defense. With some young players maturing, the return of safety Ken Hamlin, and the signing of Julian Peterson, it was reasonable to assume the Seahawks would improve. Instead, their defense ranks 24th in DVOA, equally bad against the run and the pass.
Unlike the offense, injuries have not been nearly as big a problem, with defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs as the only injured player of note. The seemingly no-brainer signing of Peterson may actually have been a mistake. Peterson provides excellent pass rushing skills, but he struggles playing the run. The Seahawks already were capable of getting to the quarterback without him. They lacked an elite pass rusher, but their overall pressure ranked among the league's best. And when Peterson was on the field Sunday, the 49ers ran at him constantly throughout the game.
Hamlin's return from an injury is an inspiring story, but he may be struggling to recapture his old form. Gore had two long runs on the day. On the first, Hamlin was easily blocked by a tight end leaving the hole to Kelly Herndon, who missed the tackle. Hamlin and Peterson both whiffed on Gore on his second long run.
Gore's two runs highlighted an amazing day that set the 49ers single-game rushing record. Football Outsiders predicted big things for Gore -- even comparing him to Priest Holmes in Pro Football Prospectus 2005 -- but not many others saw him emerging as one of the top backs in football. Gore now ranks second in the league in rushing yardage despite a suspect quarterback and unheralded offensive line. The offensive line looked impressive on Sunday, particularly the left side with tackle Jonas Jennings and future Hall of Famer Larry Allen.
Gore is not the top-ranked running back according to Football Outsiders' stats in large part because he intersperses great runs with poor runs. 11 of Gore's 24 carries went for two yards or less. Fortunately, he had four carries of at least 20 yards, including two of 50 yards. Gore has gained at least 20 yards on an amazing 6.3 percent of his runs this season. Tiki Barber, Larry Johnson, and LaDainian Tomlinson all gain 20 yards on fewer than 3.3 percent of their carries. Edgerrin James has yet to gain 20 yards on a carry.
Other than consistency, the only thing holding Gore back is a propensity for fumbles. His fumble on Sunday came in the fourth quarter and could have been extremely costly. That was the sixth time he put the ball on the ground this year, as many as the three elite backs mentioned above combined.
Gore may have exploded the past two weeks, but he has been running well all season. The big difference in the 49ers' current three-game win streak is the suddenly solid play of its defense. They have allowed only 30 points during the stretch after allowing more than 30 points in five of their first seven games.
A certain amount of skepticism is reasonable, given that the opponents were Minnesota, Detroit, and the Wallace-led Seahawks. At the same time, this improvement is so great compared to their previous level that it is worth considering if it is permanent.
The major personnel switch was the insertion of Ronald Fields at tackle. This move looked effective against the Seahawks, who had almost no success running up the middle. Fields is bracketed with solid defensive linemen in Marques Douglas and the estimable Bryant Young. Young is a known quantity, but Douglas was extremely active and difficult to block. Rookie sixth-round pick Melvin Oliver rounded out the defensive line and had a solid performance.
The secondary still lacks depth, but the apparently ageless Walt Harris made a fine play on his first interception. Sammy Davis, on the other hand, struggled when he was brought into the game. Teams are likely to spread San Francisco out in the future and attack their backup cornerbacks. They were protected against Seattle thanks to deep safety help and multiple looks that confused Wallace.
The emergence of Gore and improvement of the defense are nice stories, but the future of the 49ers rests on the development of Alex Smith. One and a half years into his career, he grades an incomplete. On Sunday, he was protected by short throws, many coming off of rollouts or bootlegs. The game plan featured a heavy dose of passes to his running backs and tight ends. He did complete one long pass to Antonio Bryant that was called back because of a holding penalty, but he actually underthrew his receiver where a better throw would have led to a touchdown.
Smith currently is an average quarterback based on our advanced statistics. That ranking is a bit disappointing based on his status as the first overall pick, but it is encouraging if we consider how bad he was a year ago. The good news is that he is only 22 years old, actually younger than Matt Leinart or Vince Young. Smith has never had great physical talents, but watching him on Sunday, it was easy to picture him developing into a quarterback much like Hasselbeck.
Sunday's win was certainly an important one for the 49ers, the kind of positive reinforcement the Mike Nolan regime needs. In the end, however, they beat a bad team whose record did not reflect its true ability. The current Seahawks with Wallace at quarterback are one of the ten worst teams in football. Even with Hasselbeck healthy, the problems on defense and in the running game make them average at best. To date, this team has played one very good half of football, the first half against the Giants way back in Week 3.
The Seahawks seemingly have only two difficult games the rest of the season, against Denver and San Diego. But, weren't the Vikings and the 49ers supposed to be easy games? Those two teams have combined for one other win against a winning team, Minnesota's victory over the Steve Smith-less Panthers. The Seahawks are not a good team, and they will be lucky to finish 9-7. Sadly, that is likely good enough for them to win their division.
The 49ers' arrival at 5-5 allows them to take the mantle from the Jets as the worst .500 team in football. Road games at St. Louis and New Orleans the next two week will test whether or not the improved defense is for real. Four road games out of six likely spell doom for any playoff dreams the 49ers may harbor. They are a combined 2-11 away from San Francisco the past two seasons. But as long as the defense does not return to giving up 30 points a game, this season has to be considered successful.
Each Tuesday in Any Given Sunday, Ned Macey looks at the most surprising result of the previous weekend. The NFL sells itself on the idea that any team can win any given game, but we use these surprises as a tool to explore what trends and subtle aspects of each team are revealed in a single game.
61 comments, Last at 23 Nov 2006, 1:18pm by Joel