Five different teams from last year's DVOA top eight rank in the bottom half of the league through four weeks of 2014. What can we learn from other teams with similar starts in the past?
21 Jan 2013
compiled by Rivers McCown
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails about the games that each of us are watching. We share information about the games that the rest of the group might not be watching, ask questions, and keep everyone else informed about which games they might want to tune into (if they can).
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Rivers McCown: Happy birthday, Danny.
Danny Tuccitto: Thanks, Rivers. Win or lose, it's a great gift to be in Atlanta for this one. (I so don't mean that at all. Niners lose and today sucks.)
Tom Gower: I'm not sure what exactly got him, the fake, the move, or what, but Dashon Goldson really got flat-footed on the Julio Jones touchdown to open the game. Also, three Falcons first downs, three Falcons runs, five total yards on first down.
Mike Kurtz: It is interesting that San Francisco deferred. I think they're hoping the crowd noise at the start of the second half will be easier to deal with than at the opening kickoff.
Tom Gower: Naturally, Atlanta come out throwing on first downs the next series. Breaking tendencies when your tendency is something that's not working is something I can get behind.
Danny Tuccitto: Not a good start for the Niners. One positive for them is that Vernon Davis was basically running alone through the middle of Atlanta's zone on the third-down pass Thomas DeCoud broke up. If they're going to let him do that, he could have a decent day.
Mike, the crowd noise on that first Niners drive was ridiculous. I've been to the Superdome for a 49ers road game -- admittedly, before the Payton/Drew Brees era -- but this is orders of magnitude louder.
Aaron Schatz: Cue the "where was this Atlanta defense in (fill in bad Atlanta game here)" comments. They've got everyone covered, it seems, and Corey Peters just beat Mike Iupati to sack Colin Kaepernick. Also, where's the zone read?
Ben Muth: Looks like San Francisco is going with a silent count even when Kaepernick is under center. That's crazy.
Falcons are doing a nice job of always sending three guys to contain the Smiths. Usually sliding towards them so the center can help, but mixing in a few chips from backs as well. I expect to see the 49ers to start blitzing the offense's right side soon.
Tom Gower: I know, this is Captain Obvious-level, but Jones has been awesome. The move on Goldson for the first touchdown, the ball he basically ripped away from Goldson (I think), and then that second touchdown catch. Heck, he even caught the ball (but didn't get his feet in) on the play he knocked over the security guard. I was with Playmaker Score in doubting him some coming out of Alabama. I was wrong.
Vince Verhei: The original version of Playmaker didn't like Jones because his touchdown total at Alabama was so low, but the new version accounts for Combine performance and receiving yardage, and Jones was excellent in those categories. I did a rush job on that piece for last year's book and didn't have time to look at everyone, but I think I'm going to start on it this year the week after the Super Bowl and try to get everyone in there.
Aaron Schatz: Lots of handchecking on that deep Jones touchdown, but it is hard to out-physical Julio Jones. Explain to me again why Alabama didn't throw to this guy more?
It's time to test that "San Francisco's offense is not built to come back from a big deficit" theory.
Vince Verhei: The real question is why they didn't throw to him in the red zone more. His yards-per-team-pass were excellent.
Danny Tuccitto: I don't know if Tarell Brown can cover any better than that. Also, this conditional phrase from the preview is haunting me right now: "...unless White or Jones has a legendary performance..." I'll go out on a limb, and say that six catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns six seconds into the second quarter qualifies as legendary.
Didn't put this in the preview because it's mostly small sample size theater (especially with Kaepernick), but SF's offense was 25th in DVOA when losing big (-21.3%), while ATL's D was third when winning big (-23.9%).
Mike Kurtz: I think it's way too early to start considering that sort of data. The second quarter just started.
Ben Muth: After running the ball twice in the first quarter, never on first down, San Francisco opens the second quarter with four straight runs, leading to their first two first downs of the game.
Danny Tuccitto: As I was saying ... Davis just ran free across the middle of Atlanta's zone again. This time, DeCoud wasn't close enough to make a play on the ball.
Mike Kurtz: I'd have to look at the play again, but it seems to me that Kroy Biermann was responsible for decking the runner/keeping the option inside, but he was worried about Kaepernick and not his assignment. That hesitation gave up the edge and the play was over.
From what I saw live.
Ben Muth: Feeling pretty good about myself right now, since I called that first 49ers touchdown play (Inverted Power Veer) on Twitter Thursday.
Rivers McCown: Atlanta's plan to not really cover Davis seems to be working out poorly in this quarter.
Aaron Schatz: Wait, wheel route? Are you sure? Did someone tell Stephen Nicholas? Because he's looking in the backfield for something else, apparently.
There really is no pass rush from San Francisco today. None. Barnwell's sitting next to me here, he thinks we're seeing Justin Smith still injured.
Mike Tanier: Well they did show them fiddling with Smith's brace a lot. Also note how well Jason Snelling and the fullback have blocked in the backfield against pass rushers.
Danny Tuccitto: From my vantage point, they've hurried Matt Ryan a few times. I would say the pass rush is under-performing, but it does at least exist.
Ben Muth: I'd say it's more that Ryan's first read seems to be open every play.
Mike Kurtz: And even if they aren't, they stick the catch.
Vince Verhei: Quick Reads alert! San Francisco gave up 6.1 yards per pass attempt this year. Only Pittsburgh (really!) was better. At halftime, Ryan is at 11.3 yards per pass.
Anyone else notice Atlanta going to a 3-4 when San Francisco uses a pistol?
Aaron Schatz: I think a lot of that is John Abraham standing up, but generally rushing the passer just like he usually does. That's been a big problem for us in game charting this year, as a number of teams that are generally considered 4-3 have used stand-up ends who are really ends and not outside linebackers, but look like outside linebackers.
Tom Gower: Yeah. It also hasn't been just on the pistol plays, as they did it on the drive to open the second half, when Kaepernick was under center, as well.
Ben Muth: Good thing the Falcons got the momentum back with that two-minute drill at the end of the first half. 49ers might have scored two touchdowns on that opening drive if they still had their first-half momentum.
Last week 49ers ran almost all their zone reads towards the weak side. This week they're much more balanced, running it towards the strength of the formation too to keep Atlanta honest.
Benjy Rose: Anyone else notice that the Alex Boone flinches offsides on nearly every offensive play? This is after he taps the center and either during or right after the center's head nod.
Rivers McCown: So we're not going to call obvious pushoffs by Atlanta receivers ... but we are going to drop the personal foul flag when someone grazes Kaepernick's helmet. Makes sense.
Mike Kurtz: He caused his helmet to move. That's going to get called every single time and it really, really shouldn't surprise anyone who writes about football.
Rivers McCown: Oh I'm not surprised. Just think it's a bad precedent.
Mike Kurtz: It's not so much precedent as it is explicitly laid out in the rules. Any contact to the helmet has to be extremely minor (lack any force) to not be a foul.
Ben Muth: Do people still not understand how the Zone Read works? I'm seeing people criticize the 49ers on Twitter for not calling more Kaepernick runs. Don't recall people criticizing Tom Osborne just because Tommy Frazier happened to pitch the ball.
Aaron Schatz: Part of it may be NFL fans who aren't used to the idea of the option.
49ers demonstrate why you go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1 without actually doing so. They fumble the ball on the 1, but get the ball back in really good field position, and just score the go-ahead touchdown on the next drive.
Danny Tuccitto: Niners (finally) take the lead with 8:23 left, and I'm showing zen-like self-control so as to not violate the no-cheering rule in the press box. You must have a ton of experience with this, Aaron. How do you deal?
Aaron Schatz: What you need is a calm acceptance that you can't control things on the field, and the ability to just smile wide and quietly. The harder thing to take is if your team blows it late.
Danny Tuccitto: I'll get back to you on that last part in about 20 minutes.
Rivers McCown: My plan is to just root for a team that will always disappoint me. Your mileage may vary.
Ben Muth: Bruce Miller seems to be having a really good game. Seems like he's always locked onto a Falcons linebacker.
Danny Tuccitto: After the Niners take the lead, they start getting even more pressure on Ryan, but he continues to throw dime after dime, and any inch of inaccuracy is made up for on the other end by Roddy White, Jones, and Tony Gonzalez. It's really impressive considering the stats regarding pressure vs. no pressure that I cited in the preview.
Mike, please explain how that Harry Douglas reception wasn't overturned ... FOR MY SANITY.
Mike Kurtz: The ball moved but his hand was under the ball and there's no evidence he used the ground to trap the ball and gain possession.
It's rough, but you can't overturn on that. Sorry Danny.
Aaron Schatz: I'll lean on the side of "not a catch" on Harry Douglas on the sideline but I do understand how it would not be overturned due to not having definite evidence. I thought the ball was jostling there, but I suppose you could say his hands were under it the whole time.
It was nice of the turf monster that attacked Carlos Rogers to also attack Douglas and keep him from scoring an easy touchdown, though.
Vince Verhei: Pereira actually got that one right, I think. There was a lack of conclusive evidence. Remember, the ball can touch the ground as long as he maintains control.
Wait, it's the two-minute warning already?! Man, that fourth quarter flew by.
Mike Kurtz: Atlanta in the red zone seems terrified of giving the ball back to San Francisco's offense. Which is kind of scary on both counts.
That said, they're playing to score a touchdown as time expires, and Atlanta's offense (running offense versus San Francisco's rushing defense) is just not good enough for this to be a good plan.
Aaron Schatz: Atlanta really took its time to try to prevent San Francisco from getting the ball back, but they didn't convert fourth-and-4. San Francisco had everyone covered. NaVorro Bowman was really physical with White in the middle of the field but I don't think that's illegal contact, I think that's safely within five yards.
We're also discussing here whether White might have not gotten the first down even if he had caught it. It looked like he came back a little bit to get the ball, much like Kevin Faulk in the Indianapolis-New England fourth-and-2 game, and a catch might have still ended up a yard short.
Mike Kurtz: The bigger play was immediately before, a sprint right that was very well-executed, but Ahmad Brooks made a great leap to knock the ball out. Outstanding play to force fourth down.
Tom Gower: Falcons receiver Drew Davis was blocking him (lined up in a bunch set) and couldn't keep his hands down.
Ben Muth: How do you take a delay of game after two timeouts?
Aaron Schatz: Well, everyone was waiting for a Kaepernick rookie mistake...
Vince Verhei: As Atlanta calls its last timeout, Joe Buck says Atlanta was forced to use its first timeout earlier when two receivers got confused. No, they CHOSE to use a timeout. They could have (and should have) just taken a delay-of-game penalty.
Tom Gower: Man, what a game. Interesting. The play where Ryan threw a pick, I really wonder why White fell down, whether he slipped, his legs got tangled, or Chris Culliver ran into him. Unless I missed it, FOX never showed a replay. Ryan's bobbled snap was just a bad play. I wonder if Gonzalez was as wide open as he thought he was on the fourth-down play. Why were the voids in Atlanta's zone that Vernon Davis found so big? was it the play-action drawing up the linebackers? One of the things Ryan did a good job of improving on this year was remaining calm and moving in the pocket. In the fourth quarter, it seemed like he was a bit skittish at times, bouncing around some, more like he looked in the past. I'm not sure how big a deal it was on his throws, which were for the most part very good and came out quickly, but it's something I noticed.
Aaron Schatz: Oh, and congrats Danny. It feels good I bet!
Danny Tuccitto: Can't say it didn't get a little dusty in here when the clock hit triple zeros. Niners come back from down 17 to advance to the Super Bowl on my birthday. Doesn't get much better than that.
Vince Verhei: Mike nailed it, I think, that Atlanta's plan was to win with a touchdown on the last play of regulation. I don't think (could be wrong) there was even a pass into the end zone on that last drive. There's two problems with that. First, your offense is not nearly efficient enough to think that you'll be able to pull that off. You've got to at least try for a big play, which was most of what you did right today. Second, if you believe your defense is crappy enough to blow a third fourth-quarter lead in eight days, well, I kind of think you deserve to lose.
Aaron Schatz: We also definitely answered the "Are the 49ers built to come back from a big deficit" question. If that big deficit all comes in the first half and they don't have to go to 100 percent passing, yeah, they can come back fine.
Andy Benoit: Early in the game, Ryan was as sharp as any quarterback could possibly be. The long touchdown strike to Jones was a fascinating play; it was one of the few occasions this season where San Francisco has gone to zone coverage. Goldson clearly wasn’t comfortable with the zone assignment. When the Niners went to their more customary two-man looks, the Falcons manufactured offense with bunch formations. They also incorporated play-action well, which is why they were willing to stick with their (mostly ineffective) run game.
The Niners’ pass-rush was mostly irrelevant thanks to Atlanta’s high volume of three-and five-step timing. When Ryan did go to a seven-step drop, the pressure tended to arrive. It was clear from the get-go that San Francisco could not handle Jones, White or Gonzalez. But the Niners were on the right end of the two turnovers and they got the huge pass deflection from Bowman to seal the game.
The Falcons did a good job eliminating Kaepernick’s runs. Problem was, it left them vulnerable against Frank Gore outside and on widened B-gaps out of the read-options. A clear "tell" in Niners play-calling: virtually every time Kaepernick made an adjustment at the line of scrimmage, it was a run play. That figures; San Francisco mostly tried to keep him with defined reads in the pass game (not a lot of reason to make pre-snap adjustments on pass plays that are defined reads). The Niners did a great job creating favorable one-on-one matchups for Davis. They did it with twin receiver sets opposite closed formations, so as to distort Atlanta’s zones.
Aaron Schatz: If you said "shades of the Super Bowl" after Wes Welker dove and narrowly missed a deep pass on third-and-2 on the Pats' first drive, you're ... just like pretty much everyone else.
Looks like the Ravens are moving Corey Graham around to cover Welker, but then leaving the outside cornerbacks on the outside no matter what. That's led to situations like Cary Williams covering Aaron Hernandez, or even Chykie Brown covering Michael Hoomanawanui
Ben Muth: Does Phil Simms really not understand what "stay on top" means for defensive backs?
Haloti Ngata has been better in the postseason then he was in the regular season this year. Not sure if he's just finally healthy or his off-and-on motor has just been more on than off in the playoffs. Whatever the reason, he's made a big difference.
Aaron Schatz: Patriots offense looks better than the results have been. They keep just missing plays, especially on third down, by inches. They got lucky on a third-and-2 though when the ball pinballed off the intended receiver and then into the hands of Paul Kruger, who couldn't hang on.
Mike Kurtz: Zoltan Mesko is apparently controlling a chess match. Of field position.
How does this I don't even
Aaron Schatz: Here is a summary of New England's touchdown drive in the second quarter.
Ravens: "Here is our nickel, please do not pass the ball."
Patriots: "OK, for the most part we're cool with that."
Ravens: "Now that you are on the goal line, we take it back, you can't run up the middle."
Patriots: "Alright then, we'll just put Welker and this ball where Graham has no chance to stop it."
Patriots make a mistake at the end of the first half when Tom Brady scrambles for a first down with 15 seconds left. He tries to line up the team instead of calling the final timeout, but it takes so long he has to call it anyway, which means they have to kick the field goal instead of having a shot or two at the end zone before needing to kick the field goal.
Danny Tuccitto: OK, so with less than a minute left in the first half, did I really just see Kruger in man coverage on Hernandez?
Then, a Brady scramble looks like he's trying to break up the double play with a spikes-up slide. If A.J. Pierzynski is watching, bet he just yelled at the TV, "Hey, I was ejected for less than that!"
Ben Muth: Brady's slide was pretty ridiculous. Ndamukong Suh liked it though.
Mike Kurtz: Now is the time to break expectations and throw on first down, guys. ... Guys?
Aaron Schatz: Great catch by Anquan Boldin to twist around and get the ball out of the air for 26 yards. This shows what happens when you are stuck playing your fourth corner. He had Marquice Cole all confused.
Ben Muth: Jim Caldwell saw Cam Cameron get fired for not giving it to Ray Rice and is determined not to go out like that at all costs. He is essentially the guy that sees a mugging and becomes an agoraphobic (had to look that up) so it never happens to him. This makes him a poor offensive coordinator.
Rivers McCown: Changing your offensive coordinator at midseason is the new market inefficiency.
Tom Gower: Coming into today's game, I did not expect the Patriots to punt inside the Baltimore 40 at all, let alone twice.
Aaron Schatz: Well, what do the rest of you feel about Belichick punting twice on fourth-and-long tonight from inside the Ravens' 40? Both times they were going against the wind, which I guess helps explain the decision to not go for the long field goal. And the second time, at least, they had the right play call on third down but Welker dropped it. I tend to get annoyed by punts that close in, but eight or nine yards is a long fourth down.
Here's the good piece that Chase Stuart wrote a few weeks ago about the issue of fourth-and-long in "no man's land"
Tom Gower: Yes, both times it was not short and going into the wind. Neither punt was close to clearly wrong, in my book.
Vince Verhei: Yes. He was damned either way, and they were able to pin Baltimore inside the 20, so it's not like the decisions backfired.
Mike Kurtz: On two plays, Simms has referenced the defenders as having the "perfect defense." Both plays were for 10-plus yards. Does Simms know what defense is? Is he confusing it with the offense?
Rivers McCown: As I did during Week 17's Texans-Colts game and again for this one, I urge you to utilize your SAP button when Phil Simms is involved.
Aaron Schatz: Long Baltimore drive makes it 14-13 in the middle of the third quarter after one of those Patriots punts. The Ravens finally go away from the run. Spread it out on every play, only ran once, I think, which was a draw to Bernard Pierce. Didn't even suggest run on other plays. Just pass, pass, pass. Arrington dropped a would-be Joe Flacco pick early on, but otherwise, pretty good drive for the Ravens.
When you want to take away the deep stuff, you usually have to leave the short middle open, and that's what's happening with the Pats defense in the third quarter.
Stevan Ridley fumble ... I thought he was down. I don't like how everything now gets called a recovery by the defense, and officials just hope that review will overturn their mistakes. I dunno, maybe that's just Pats homerism.
Mike Kurtz: It is, sorry Aaron. The ball hit his leg and he lost control before his posterior planted. Bang-bang play, but a good call.
Tom Gower: I thought he was down live and on the initial look, but a closer look at the replay made it clear to me the ball was out before he was down.
Vince Verhei: And Boldin gets another touchdown to put Baltimore up 28-13. New England, without Talib, can't cover anyone.
Sean McCormick: It's striking how much the no-huddle shotgun approach completely befuddled the New England defense. The rush dropped off, the tight ends were always open, the receivers started winning their match-ups, and the draw was suddenly very much in play. Surprising to see New England unable to adjust even for the second drive.
Aaron Schatz: Part of it is just that the Patriots were decidedly better at defending runs than passes this year. It was a huge gap.
Vince Verhei: You know, Baltimore's defensive game plan here seems remarkably similar to what the Giants used to beat New England in the Super Bowl last year: take away the deep ball, make your tackles on the short passes, and just wait for them to screw themselves with a dropped pass or penalty.
Ben Muth: Welker just ran a gorgeous out and up to beat Graham in the slot. Really pretty route that left Graham in the dust for a big gain.
And as I'm typing, Brady's pass is tipped at the line and intercepted.
Tom Gower: Results off tipped balls are random.
Aaron Schatz: Great play by Pernell McPhee there.
Aaron Schatz: I think I can sum things up here with three thoughts. This isn't everything -- I agree that Wilfork didn't have one of his better games -- but I think these are the main issues today.
First, the Pats acquired Talib for a reason. Bringing him in at midseason really helped plug a huge, gaping hole on the defense. Once he went out early in this game, that pushed Arrington outside, where he isn't as good, and put Cole in the game; he's lousy. The Patriots became the Patriots of October, and the Patriots of October were not Super Bowl favorites.
Second, that wouldn't have mattered if the Ravens didn't make it happen. The Ravens made it happen, especially once they realized that the Patriots were much better against the run than the pass and they spread it out. Flacco made the throws. It was one of his better games, but it isn't like Flacco never had good games until the 2012 postseason.
Third, even if the Ravens made mistakes and Talib had not gotten injured, you still have to deal with the fact that the Pats offense made mistakes. Some of them were good defense by Baltimore, but a lot were unforced errors, with bad throws and dropped passes, and then the very unlucky fumble.
Mike Kurtz: The Ravens also did a very good job getting pressure on Brady when he did try to go long, and he was feeling it. Near the end of the game (the play before the interception, I believe) you could see Brady throwing an intermediate route and trying to shield himself as he's throwing it against a defender that was clearly not going to get there. The best way to beat the Patriots has always been to unsettle Brady, and despite the rather unimpressive rush numbers on paper, the Ravens did a great job getting into his head.
Aaron Schatz: I don't think they really did until the end of the game, though. Certainly not in the first half, and not much in the third quarter either.
Danny Tuccitto: Saw a stat from ESPN last night that said Kaepernick led the league in lowest "inaccurate throw" percentage, which I confirmed in the charting for incompletions they gave us. I bring this up because, in answering the question, "How did the best offense in the NFL just score 13 points at home against a mediocre defense?" I can't help but focus on how many inaccurate throws Brady made tonight. I know there were several drops and batted balls, but I can't remember the last time I saw him miss so many open guys. Obviously, the game-ending interception was a glaring underthrow, but there were plenty of others that killed New England (IIRC, Shane Vereen would still be running if Brady didn't throw it behind him on a dumpoff with 11 minutes left).
Vince Verhei: You know who deserves a ton of credit for his team winning today, whose name hasn't been mentioned? Ozzie Newsome. He built the whole team. He's the one who drafted Ray Lewis, and he's been there ever since.
Andy Benoit: We spend so much time focusing on matchups and game-planning and whatnot that we occasionally forget about the impact that just playing fundamentally sound football can have. The Ravens didn’t do anything tricky or crafty, they just lined up and out-physicalled the Patriots. Their linebackers were very good against the underneath game. And the entire defense was as prepared for the hurry-up as they self-assuredly claimed they’d be. All season the Patriots have killed teams in the red zone with the hurry-up. Tonight, they were utterly out-executed in the red zone. Some of that was their own doing (see: Brady’s clock management at the end of the first half).
The game changed when Talib went down. The Patriots still played their man coverages, but the domino effect had them overmatched, particularly inside, where Cole had his hands full against Boldin. It was interesting that the Patriots chose to put Talib on Boldin and commit double-team help on the other side against Smith. Even without Talib, that strategy worked. Two of Baltimore’s ancillary weapons really stood out: Dennis Pitta, who outperformed linebackers and defensive backs alike, and Pierce. Pierce is a very tough runner outside. He has great change-of-direction that comes almost exclusively from his feet (most good runners get their COD from their hips).
The Patriots, you could argue, made this a bit too easy on Flacco. From what I can recall, we didn’t see a single blitz from them until late in the second half. New England’s four-man rush generated nothing. Credit Flacco and his receivers, though. They made the various individual plays that the game plan’s heavy dose of isolation patterns called for.
180 comments, Last at 01 Feb 2013, 10:34am by bengt