Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
16 Oct 2012
by Rivers McCown
The San Francisco 49ers have perhaps the most polarizing offense in the NFL. Merrill Hoge has recently called them the best offense in the league on NFL Matchup, and our own Andy Benoit claims that no coach gets more from less than Jim Harbaugh. Alex Smith has improved greatly, but he's still more system quarterback than star. San Francisco has a talented offensive line, but nobody that's an obvious Pro Bowler. They spent to bring in Randy Moss and Mario Manningham ... but their best offensive weapon is still tight end Vernon Davis.
San Francisco has built a highly-adaptable offense that is able to take advantage of their opponent's biggest weaknesses. On Sunday, they didn't do that. The 49ers ran quite a bit of read-option in this game, even using it at times with Smith rather than Colin Kaepernick. The Giants have not put together a sterling year on defense so far, but the one team that they successfully shut down this year was Carolina: another team that runs a lot of read-option. Essentially, they took that highly-adaptable offense and tried to attack a Giants strength rather than a weakness.
After the game, Jim Harbaugh admitted that the plan wasn't well-conceived, saying "The plan wasn't the best plan. And we'll work to make a good one this week. Wasn't a great day for any of us."
Benoit also pointed out that Smith's success was built by first-down passes, where he could deal with base personnel and (often) play-action. On first-down passes, Smith netted -11 passing DYAR. On all other downs, he accumulated -105 DYAR. Of course, a big part of that is that Smith was harassed all day by the Giants defensive line, which sacked him four times (and Kaepernick twice) and forced multiple poor throws, but that sort of reinforces his main point. The 49ers don't have the kind of offense that can win a game single-handedly when they aren't schemed correctly, and Sunday's game plan was anything but a perfect one.
Well, Dewey didn't defeat anybody on Sunday. This was a thorough ass-kicking on the scoreboard, and it's a thorough ass-kicking in the eyes of VOA as well.
|Team||OFF VOA||DEF VOA||ST VOA||TOTAL VOA|
The 49ers had a positive DVOA in all five of their previous games this year, and were over 40% in four of those. This game ... not so much.
If you want to see a squad that is actually under-performing for the 49ers, look at their special teams unit. The coverage teams have been lacking this year despite fine distance from Andy Lee on punts and David Akers on kickoffs. By our metrics, the 49ers have given opponents 5.8 points worth of field position on kick returns (30th in NFL) and 4.1 points on punt returns (28th). Akers has also been exceptionally shaky on field goals. After his 1-of-3 performance Sunday that included misses from 43 and 52 yards, he's hit just 11-of-16 on the season. History tells us that Akers' field-goal performance will likely regress towards the mean -- but the coverage teams aren't guaranteed to.
Again, there aren't usually many extreme moments in game theory when a team gets slapped around like San Francisco does. But, for the sake of being thorough...
On third-and-10 with about 24 seconds left in the first half from the San Francisco 30, Eli Manning delivered a pass just short of the sticks to Victor Cruz, who bobbled it, but ultimately made the catch in bounds with about 15 seconds to play. No biggie, they were in field-goal distance anyway. Well, the problem was that Giants head coach Tom Coughlin immediately used one of his two timeouts. By immediately, I mean with 15 seconds left.
After Lawrence Tynes' field-goal attempt was blocked, the Niners got a quick 36-yard gain on a Kaepernick pass to Manningham, only to watch Akers push his aforementioned 52-yarder wide. Those three plays didn't wind up costing the Giants anything, but that was poor clock management by Coughlin considering it was fourth down and New York had nothing to gain if a poor snap occurred. The 49ers nearly got into halftime down just four points, and it was all because Coughlin jumped the gun on the timeout.
When I was just beginning my research on this game, the one thing that jumped out to me was the sack count. As mentioned earlier, Smith was sacked four times and hurried on many other throws. Manning was sacked zero times in this game, and I'd argue that he faced only slightly less pressure than Smith.
The Giants offensive line had a nice game, but that mostly came in the second half, when they were opening big alleys for Ahmad Bradshaw and (later) David Wilson. The 49ers defense was able to turn up the heat on Manning pretty effectively. While Manning did not have his best game, and almost threw a pick-six to Carlos Rogers, he also kept the Giants from most of the negative-yardage plays that help fuel great defenses.
There is one throw in particular that stood out to me, and it came when the game was still in doubt:
Second-and-8 from the San Francisco 31. The Giants come out with an offset I-Formation, and the 49ers are in their base 3-4. The Giants are up 7-3, with 5:22 left in the half.
The 49ers send two linebackers right up the gut, and New York has only Henry Hynoski stationed to get up the middle (he's not going to pick up his block anyway), so Manning is going to get pressure right in his face.
Manning has a few open options, but because of the placement of the linebackers, he's going to have to execute a throw off his back foot and still get enough on it to stick it in a tight space.
It's a bit of a wobbler, but he finds Martellus Bennett and puts it in a place in this zone where only Bennett can catch it.
The one area that has been most responsible for Manning's rise to one of the better quarterbacks in the game, whether you want to get into the whole "definition of elite" argument or not, is his pocket presence. He probably doesn't have this throw in him in 2009, and he definitely didn't when he was still breaking in during his first couple of seasons.
The contrast between these two teams could not be starker than it is at quarterback, as Smith spent a lot of his day running from pass rushers rather than standing and delivering. It wasn't the only reason that San Francisco lost, but it was a pretty big factor.
26 comments, Last at 28 Oct 2012, 8:37pm by CL