Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

17 Jan 2014

2014 NFC Championship Preview

by Aaron Schatz

Well, here it is, the game we've all been waiting for. OK, to be more accurate, the second game of the doubleheader we've all been waiting for. However, the feeling that this Seattle-San Francisco NFC Championship matchup was always destined somewhat obscures the fact that this matchup, based on Football Outsiders from the regular season, is not really that even. Seattle was one of the best teams we've ever measured in DVOA history. San Francisco was a very good team, tied for sixth in total DVOA this season, but when you add in the usual estimate of home-field advantage you end up with a gap of more than 40 percentage points worth of DVOA. That's even true after we consider the fact that San Francisco got healthier near the end of the season -- the 49ers had a higher weighted DVOA than total DVOA, but so did the Seahawks.

This game preview follows our usual playoff format of "when Team X has the ball, when Team Y has the ball," but before we get to that, I wanted to talk about one way in which it doesn't matter which team has the ball because these two teams are so ridiculously similar. Both defenses are very good when blitzing, but neither defense blitzes very much, which is fine, because both quarterbacks excel against the blitz. These stats all come courtesty of ESPN Stats & Information:

2013 Regular-Season Performance by Pass Rush
  Defensive Success Rate Yards per Play Frequency
Unit 3-4 5 6+ DB Blitz 3-4 5 6+ DB Blitz 3-4 5 6+ DB Blitz
SF OFF 59% 53% 54% 51% 6.6 7.0 8.8 9.3 61% 28% 11% 8.2%
SEA DEF 59% 61% 72% 71% 5.2 5.4 3.1 7.2 72% 23% 4% 4.3%
SEA OFF 57% 47% 56% 42% 6.7 7.9 8.2 9.8 58% 32% 10% 9.8%
SF DEF 57% 61% 71% 63% 5.9 5.6 2.6 5.8 81% 17% 2% 4.1%
NFL AVG 55% 57% 58% 59% 6.4 6.2 6.0 5.9 68% 24% 8% 11.3%
"DB Blitz" includes any play with a defensive back rushing the passer, no matter the number of total pass rushers.
Success Rates here are from the defense's perspective.

Another item that doesn't really fall into the category of either offense vs. defense matchup, specifically: with all the discussion about Seattle's home-field advantage, I thought the actual home/road splits for these teams in 2013 were quite interesting. Research has generally shown that the actual size of home-field advantage tends to be inconsistent from year to year, but that overall, most teams really generally have the same home-field advantage: something around seven to eight percentage points of DVOA on both offense and defense. Over the last decade, at least, the home-field advantages in the NFC West have been a bit bigger than those of the rest of the league.

Now take a look at the numbers for 2013. Seattle does come out with a stronger home-field advantage than average, but it actually isn't that much stronger. The Seahawks were the top defense in the league both at home and on the road, and a top-ten offense both at home and on the road. Meanwhile, San Francisco was actually a better team on the road in 2013, even though these numbers include that 29-3 Seahawks stomping back in September. The 49ers had the same offensive DVOA at home and on the road, and a slightly better defensive DVOA.

OFFENSE DEFENSE
  Home Rk Road Rk Home Rk Road Rk
Seattle 15.5% 7 3.4% 10 -32.9% 1 -19.5% 1
San Francisco 9.0% 12 9.1% 6 -2.4% 16 -6.8% 5

The point of this digression is not that San Francisco can neutralize Seattle's home-field advantage, but just that it may not be as important (or as consistent) as the prevailing narrative suggests.

Throughout this preview, I may call back to look at how San Francisco and Seattle played each other six weeks ago, when the 49ers won 19-17 at Candlestick Park. It's my opinion that the Week 2 game is too long ago, and was too one-sided, to tell us much about what strategies these teams might use against each other on Sunday.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 90 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA, which includes the playoffs, and where otherwise noted.

For this week and for the Super Bowl, we've got two different week-to-week charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.

San Francisco at Seattle

49ers on Offense
SF OFF SEA DEF
DVOA 9.1% (8) -25.8% (1)
WEI DVOA 10.1% (8) -28.5% (1)
PASS 31.8% (4) -34.3% (1)
RUSH 2.2% (14) -15.1% (8)
RED ZONE 15.8% (8) -70.5% (1)

Seahawks on Offense
SEA OFF SF DEF
DVOA 9.4% (7) -4.6% (13)
WEI DVOA 8.0% (10) -5.2% (12)
PASS 27.7% (8) -2.1% (10)
RUSH 6.2% (7) -8.1% (14)
RED ZONE -1.2% (20) 10.1% (20)

Special Teams
SF SEA
DVOA 3.7% (7) 4.8% (5)
SF kickoff +10.0 (3) -3.7 (22)
SEA kickoff -4.5 (25) +5.6 (7)
SF punts +10.7 (3) +7.2 (6)
SEA punts -3.6 (20) +10.4 (4)
FG/XP +5.9 (6) +4.4 (8)

All readers can click here for in-game discussion on our message boards. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

The San Francisco 49ers offense really only had three particularly poor games this season: Week 2 against Seattle, Week 10 against Carolina, and Week 11 in New Orleans. Of course, that's nothing compared to the consistency of the Seattle defense, which had just one bad game all year. Even in that game, Week 9 against Tampa Bay, the defense turned things around by the fourth quarter to help the team win in overtime.

The Seahawks ranked eighth in defensive DVOA against the run, which is pretty good, but that can't even compare to the ridiculous quality of the pass defense. The Seahawks had the fifth best defense in the history of DVOA, going back to 1989. They ranked seventh or better against all five categories of receivers, including third against tight ends and second against running backs. The pass defense gets even better in the most important situations, leading the league with -78.9% DVOA against the pass on third or fourth down and -104.1% DVOA agaisnt the pass in the red zone.

How intimidating is the Seattle pass defense? The Seahawks faced a shotgun formation on only 45 percent of plays this year, which was actually the lowest rate in the league, even though Seattle opponents were almost always playing from behind. That's okay with the Seahawks, though. They were the No. 1 defense in the league against shotgun plays and against non-shotgun plays. (In Week 14, San Francisco ran 18 of 64 plays, or 28 percent, from shotgun, significantly lower than the 45 percent they used shotgun for the entire season.)

As I noted in last week's Divisional round preview, Defensive Player of the Year candidate Earl Thomas really shuts down those deep seam plays. Seattle allowed a total of eight pass attempts all year listed as "deep middle." That's not eight receptions. That's eight passes, period, two of which were actually caught (Houston tight end Garrett Graham for 31 yards in Week 4 and Atlanta's Roddy White for 20 yards in Week 10). Every other team had at least 16 deep middle passes against them, with the NFL average being 25.5.

That defense against the seam plays is one reason the Seahawks have an excellent track record for shutting down Vernon Davis, at least as a receiver. Including the two playoff games, San Francisco has thrown 22 "deep middle" passes this season. Thirteen of those were to Vernon Davis. In his last four games against Seattle, Davis has six catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. That's a nice day for Davis. It's not a nice four days.

What about Vernon Davis on shorter passes? Last week when I previewed Seattle's game with New Orleans, I pointed out that "short middle" passes actually seemed to be a relative weakness for Seattle. That makes some sense when you consider the way Pete Carroll stacks guys at the line and combine that with the press corners on the outside/Cover-3 elsewhere that Chris Brown wrote about at Grantland yesterday.  The Seahawks actually ranked just 13th in DVOA on passes to the short middle, 21st with 7.8 yards allowed per pass, and 26th with a 73 percent catch rate allowed.

This week I went to look a bit closer and the results are a bit shocking. The NFL play-by-play defines "short middle" passes as passes that go up to 15 yards through the air, but of course that's a pretty wide variety of passes. I split them up into passes of up to five yards, passes of 6-10 yards, and passes of 11-15 yards. And it turns out that while the Seahawks were money against deep middle passes, they got crushed by passes in the middle of the field that went 11-15 yards through the air. Of course, that's "crushed" with a nice sample size caveat. There were 11 of these passes. Carson Palmer threw one of them in Week 16 and got picked off in the end zone by Kam Chancellor. The other 10 were all completed, and then on top of that, Seattle gave up two first downs with pass interference on passes of this length.

That's crazy. That has to be a fluke, right?

Yes, of course it is. It looks like a one-year fluke. I checked 2012, and while Seattle once again didn't face many deep middle passes -- 15, which was the lowest figure in the league just as in 2013 -- the Seahawks allowed a 60 percent catch rate on both passes of 11-15 yards over the middle and passes of 16+ yards over the middle.

But while the extreme crazy record of giving up passes of 11-15 air yards was a fluke, it is still true that Seattle was also surprisingly average against passes of single-digit air yards that were thrown in the middle of the field. And it just so happens that San Francisco's passing game was excellent at throwing passes in the short middle of the field this season. The 49ers didn't do it that much -- only 15 percent of their passes were listed as short middle, one of the lowest rates in the NFL -- but they led the league in DVOA on these passes, about 50 percentage points ahead of the average offense. Perhaps Vernon Davis may finally have his big day against Seattle after all.

Seattle ranks just 12th against the pass on first down, then improves to rank as the best pass defense in the league on both second and third down. San Francisco's pass offense has particularly quirky down splits: fifth on first down, declining to 19th on second down, and then ranking as the best in the league on third down.

Perhaps you are wondering: What happens when the best third-down pass offense in the league faces the best third-down pass defense in the league in the playoffs? I tweeted about this a couple days ago, and folks on Twitter were wondering the same thing, so Scott Kacsmar went and looked it up for me. First of all, this is only the third playoff game since 1989 where the No. 1 pass offense on third down is taking on the No. 1 pass defense on third down. The other two: 2000 Saints (defense, won) vs. the 2000 Rams (offense) and the 2003 Ravens (defense) vs. the 2003 Titans (offense, won). There have been 40 playoff matchups where one offense and the other defense were both in the top five for third downs, and in those games the teams with the top third-down offense are 22-18, which basically teaches us nothing.

Although... Scott then looked at the actual difference in third-down DVOA between the top-five pass offense and the top-five pass defense. When the offense was at least 15 percentage points better than the defense, the offensive team was 13-7. When the defensive team was similarly better than the offensive team, the defensive team was 7-4. These are small samples, but at least they show in the more extreme cases that the superior unit on third downs wins out more often than not. The Seahawks' third-down defensive passing DVOA is 11.4% better than San Francisco's third-down offensive passing DVOA, which would be the fourth-largest difference in favor of the defense out of the 41 games being looked at here.

Seattle's cornerback charting stats this year are actually shockingly unimpressive, but that's more likely saying something about the imperfection of trying to chart cornerbacks more than its saying something about the Seattle corners being overrated. The best plays a cornerback makes are usually the ones we're not going to chart because he prevents a pass from even being thrown. Given that and the general year-to-year inconsistency of cornerback stats, the difference between being ranked 15th and being ranked 35th isn't really that significant. (What's significant is the difference between ranking 15th and ranking, say, 85th.) Charting that we've collected so far puts Richard Sherman in the 30s (out of 96 cornerbacks) in both Success Rate (57 percent) and yards per pass (6.9). We have Byron Maxwell listed with 6.8 yards per pass, which ranks 36th, but he does rank a bit lower with a 51 percent Success Rate (60th). Walter Thurmond comes out in the top ten for both Success Rate and yards per pass, but that's in part because he tends to cover such short passes as Seattle's nickelback. The average yards through the air on a pass listed with Thurmond in coverage was just 6.7, the lowest figure for any cornerback with at least 32 passes charted so far.

Given the quality of the Seattle defense, perhaps we're thinking that the 49ers should just concentrate on running the ball. Except, as we've pointed out numerous times this season, the 49ers aren't as good at running the ball as you might think. San Francisco and Seattle are the only two teams that ran on over half their offensive plays this season, but the 49ers' offensive line blocking really struggled. San Francisco finished just 29th in Adjusted Line Yards. They finished much higher in DVOA (14th) for two reasons: runs by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a few long highlight runs by Frank Gore. The 49ers ranked fifth in Open Field Yards per Carry.

By the way, remember last year in the playoffs when the 49ers blew the Packers away with zone reads? The 49ers averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on zone reads this year, the lowest average for any team that used the play more than ten times.* For bonus points, the Seahawks led the league by allowing the fewest yards per carry on zone reads, although the sample size was quite small (57 yards on 22 carries, or 2.6 yards per). If there is a particular weakness in Seattle defensive front against the run, it comes on runs listed as right end, where the Seahawks rank 24th in Adjusted Line Yards. Perhaps the way to prevent 323-pound Red Bryant from destroying your running play is to just run wide around him.

Giving some hope to the underdog 49ers is that this matchup is one of inconsistency vs. inconsistency. As great as the Seattle defense was, it ranked 27th in variance. The San Francisco offense was 25th.

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

First of all, there's no reason here to dwell on what the Seahawks are missing with Percy Harvin ruled out for this game. The Seahawks only had Harvin for parts of two games this season anyway, so his presence isn't really reflected in any of the stats we'll be analyzing.

As with San Francisco, three specific games stand out as failures for the Seattle offense this year: Week 4 against Houston, the first St. Louis game in Week 8, and the upset by Arizona at Qwest Field in Week 16. When looking at those three games to try to figure out what tied them together, two ideas stood out:

  • In two of those games, Week 4 and Week 16, Seattle still had positive DVOA running the ball. In all three, the Seahawks were awful passing the ball. There's no doubt that the run matters heavily to the Seattle offense, and as noted earlier, the Seahawks run the ball more than half the time. But this suggests that they can't slip by on the shoulders of Marshawn Lynch if Russell Wilson is not getting the job done.
  • Each of these games saw a dominating game by a member of the opposing defensive line: J.J. Watt, Robert Quinn, and Calais Campbell. The defensive player having that dominating game this week doesn't necessarily have to be a lineman -- it could be Aldon Smith, perhaps -- but it reminds us that the offensive line is the clear weakness of the Seattle offense. The Seahawks were dead last in the league on Adjusted Sack Rush on offense at 9.6 percent. Things got better when Russell Okung came back in Week 11, but there are still holes here. The Seahawks are now starting seventh-round rookie Micah Bowie at left guard, for example, because rotating Paul McQuistan and James Carpenter didn't really cut it. Carpenter was actually a healthy scratch against New Orleans last week.

One problem with the offensive line is that it produces a lot of penalty yardage. The Seahawks didn't just lead the league in penalties because their defense plays it close and physical. Only Oakland had more offensive penalties (including declined and offsetting). The Seahawks were seventh with 22 offensive holding calls (that's on offense only, not special teams) and tied for fourth with 21 false starts. The offensive line problems are also a good explanation for the biggest situational weakness of the Seattle offense: third-and-long, where the Seahawks ranked just 26th in offensive DVOA. You need to give the quarterback time to convert on third-and-long, and the Seattle offensive line just isn't very good at that. (And as we noted earlier on, you don't need to send extra pass rushers to overwhelm these blockers, which means you can leave extra guys in coverage to prevent Russell Wilson from hitting a hot read or scrambling all the way to the sticks.)

Although San Francisco's defense wasn't particularly weak on third-and-long, it wasn't particularly strong either, ranking 15th. That's just the start of a nice long list of ways in which the San Francisco defense was not as strong as you think it was this year. The 49ers are promoted as a defensive juggernaut, and they are not one. They have six-sevenths of an awfully sweet front seven, and a couple of nice safeties, but the cornerbacks are really no better than average and nose tackle is a gaping hole. Even when we look only at games with Aldon Smith in the lineup, the 49ers were nowhere near the powerful defense that the Seahawks were. Strange as it is to say, the overall production seems to be a little less than the sum of the parts.

One example of this is that San Francisco was horrendous against pass plays on first downs. The 49ers were third in pass defense on second down and seventh on third/fourth down, but 27th on first downs. The good news is that the first-down gains San Francisco allowed tended to not be of the double-digit variety, and their first-down pass defense did improve over the course of the season. Here's a look at San Francisco's pass defense on first down before and after their Week 9 bye, with the "after" section including the two playoff games. (The table says Week 1-9 even though San Francisco didn't play in Week 9 because the ranks given are based on what other teams did in those nine weeks.)

San Francisco Pass Defense on First Downs, 2013
Weeks DVOA Rk Yd/Play Rk FD/TD Pct Rk
Weeks 1-9 43.2% 28 7.20 20 27.6% 9
Weeks 10-19 5.2% 13 5.86 9 24.3% 8


One part of the problem for San Francisco was a lack of takeaways on first-down passing plays. The average NFL team had 1.14 turnovers per game on first-down pass plays. (For "turnovers" here, I'm counting both fumbles kept and lost but not Hail Mary throws.) The 49ers had only six in 18 games: five picks, including Newton last week, and an Aaron Rodgers sack-fumble that the Packers themselves recovered in the Wild Card game. Another part of the issue seems to be that the 49ers are perfectly fine giving up yardage chunks on first down when they are playing with a lead, which would seem to dovetail with Danny Tuccitto's criticism of Jim Harbaugh's philosophy when it comes to playing with a lead. They tend to stay in their 3-4 base defense and give up a lot of mid-length gains, which is why their yards allowed per play (especially in the first half of the season) ranks so much worse than first downs allowed.

Seattle's pass offense, by the way, ranked ninth in DVOA on first downs. It was comparatively at its best on second down, where it ranked third. Despite all the use of the read option, the Seahawks are in many ways a very old-school offense: they run a lot and set up play-action for downfield pass plays. Seattle ranked third in the NFL with 24 percent of its pass plays (not counting those without an intended receiver) going 16 or more yards through the air. And Seattle used play-action on 34 percent of pass plays, which led the league according to ESPN Stats & Information.* They gained 8.5 yards per pass on these plays, fourth in the NFL and first in the NFC. Continuing in our theme of San Francisco's defense being good but not spectcular, the 49ers defense allowed 6.6 yards per pass on these plays, tenth in the NFL. (The NFL average was 7.3 yards per pass.)*

When the Seahawks do go deep, they go deep down the sidelines. Remember the stat from the first section of this preview about Seattle opponents only throwing eight "deep middle" passes all year? The Seattle offense has a stat even more extreme. The Seahawks threw only two deep middle passes all season. TWO. One was to Golden Tate in Week 15 on the road, and the other to Doug Baldwin in Week 16 at home, and both were incomplete. However, when it came to deep passes marked left or right, the Seahawks had the best offensive DVOA in the entire NFL. When Sidney Rice went down, they didn't miss a beat, adjusting by sending Doug Baldwin and Jermaine "stop confusing me with former NBA star Jerome Kersey" Kearse deep more often.

The FO game charting stats suggest that if you want to go deep, you should go after Tramaine Brock and Carlos Rogers more often than Tarell Brown. All three 49ers corners have the same Success Rate in charting collected so far, 52 percent, but Brown has 6.4 yards per pass allowed (25th out of 92 corners) compared to 7.4 for Rogers (49th) and 7.6 for Brock (55th).

We hear a lot of blah-blah about teams that use the run to set up the pass, but with the Seahawks, this really is how the offense works. And the Seahawks also use the run for its own sake, and because it's extra fun to watch Marshawn Lynch knock people over. As with passing splits, the San Francisco defense was not as impressive against the run as you might think, ranking just 14th in run defense DVOA.

Seattle's running game, however, was also not as impressive as you might think, especially in the most important situations. For example, the Seahawks ranked 17th in run offense DVOA on third and fourth down. They were 10th in run offense DVOA in the red zone, but had problems when they got down to the goal line. Despite the presence of Sir Beast Mode, the Seahawks were dead last in short-yardage running, converting just 49 percent of such runs. That's very likely an issue related to the offensive line problems. It makes you think it will be almost impossible for the Seahawks to get short-yardage pickups against the 49ers after considering what they did to Carolina last week... but what the 49ers did last week wasn't what you think they did, and it bears no resemblence to how they played most of the year.

During the regular season, the 49ers ranked 18th allowing conversions on 66 percent of short-yardage runs (1-2 yards to go on either third down, fourth down, or at the goal line). And if you look at the red zone as a whole, the 49ers run defense was horrible allowing a league-worst run defense DVOA of 44.4%. Even last week, San Francisco's huge red-zone stands against Carolina were based on a couple of huge game-turning plays right at the goal line, but they gave up yardage that put the Panthers into position to not convert those runs. Near the end of the first quarter, Carolina had three straight successful runs in the red zone -- 11 yards on first-and-10 from the 17, three yards on first-and-goal from the 6, and two yards on second-and-goal from the 3 -- before they got stuffed from the 1 on two straight attempts. Then when they got the ball near the goal line again in the second quarter, Carolina again had two successful runs -- four yards on second-and-1 at the 11, then six yards on first-and-goal from the 7 -- but couldn't get in the end zone because Newton got zero yards trying to scramble on second down from the 1, and Mike Tolbert lost a yard on third down from the 1.

Yes, the 49ers made an important goal-line adjustment after the Wild Card win, with defensive coordinator Vic Fangio moving from a 6-2 defense at the goal line to a 5-3 that added Ahmad Brooks playing betwen NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis -- but it is still really, really, really unlikely that San Francisco would stop four different plays from the 1-yard line in consecutive weeks when they had not stopped a play from the 1-yard line during the entire 2013 regular season.

Looking at the running game in general, rather than in the red zone specifically, we can see that the Seattle running game should be able to strike well up the middle:

Adjusted Line Yards, Seattle O vs. San Francisco D, 2013
Unit L End Rk L Tkl Rk Mid/Gd Rk R Tkl Rk R End Rk
SEA OFF 3.80 12 4.52 7 3.82 19 4.14 12 4.13 8
SF DEF 3.36 9 4.06 18 4.36 29 3.90 17 3.18 7

If they're true to their usual tendencies, Seattle's runs will often be going right at Justin Smith. Although this is in some way an issue of how the official scorers at Qwest Field mark things, Seattle led the league with 25 percent of their running back carries being listed as left tackle. Even if you look at road games only, Seattle would lead the league with 20.2 percent of running back carries coming as "left tackle." (New England was the only other team at 20 percent.) However, the Seahawks had only 37 percent of running back carries listed as middle or guard, 30th in the NFL. Only Dallas and Washington were lower.

One problem with Adjusted Line Yards, I will note, is that I created the statistic long before the arrival of the zone-read option to the NFL, and so those numbers only include running back carries. When the Seahawks run outside, they're probably going zone read, and that should be another advantage. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Seahawks ran 101 zone reads during the regular season, fourth in the NFL, and gained 4.79 yards per carry.* The San Francisco defense allowed an average of 4.55 yards on zone reads, 11th in the league.*

SPECIAL TEAMS

This is an area where both teams are strong, and in similar ways. Both teams are were excellent this season on field goals, kickoffs and punts. The difference is in returns, and while Seattle was the better team during the season, San Francisco might actually have a small advantage based on who is getting used as a returner at this point. Seattle got very strong punt returns from Golden Tate, but used a mess of people on kickoff returns, none of whom were very good. We'll have to see if Percy Harvin is healthy enough to play, and if Seattle would then use him on kick returns in this game. Most of San Francisco's negative value on kickoff and punt returns comes from Kyle Williams, who was cut at midseason. LaMichael James has taken over both roles and has positive value in both.

OUTLOOK

I've been driving the Seahawks bandwagon for two years, so I'm not stopping now. Seattle was the No. 1 team in DVOA in 2012. I picked them to win the Super Bowl in the preseason, and then they went out and led the league in DVOA again. They get the home-field advantage, and one Arizona win a few weeks ago doesn't suddenly neutralize the fact that Seattle has had the strongest home-field advantage in the NFL over the last decade. The difference between these two teams is on defense; the 49ers may have better-known names but the Seahawks give the better all-around defensive performance. Maybe their players are less known because Richard Sherman is so busy sucking up all the media oxygen on that side of the locker room and it leaves nothing for guys like Bobby Wagner and Red Bryant.

This isn't to say that the 49ers can't win this game. The Seattle defense seems well-constructed to neutralize the San Francisco offense, but Sherman can't cover both Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. Both the receivers and tight ends should be able to get open in the middle of the field at times if they can stay in front of Earl Thomas. The 49ers running game can get yardage against the Seattle defense if they block like they did last week against Carolina and not like they did for most of the regular season. On the other side of the ball, there's certainly reason to believe that the 49ers' pass rush can overwhelm the Seattle blockers, which just leaves it up to the safeties and linebackers to track down Russell Wilson if he gets out of the pocket. You can see the storyline for a San Francisco upset here. It's just not as likely as a Seattle win. And for all the talk about that other game and legacies, it's very likely that whichever team wins this game will be the favorite for this year's Super Bowl.


STATS EXPLAINED

DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.

SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.

Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).

Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. For the Conference championships and the Super Bowl, there are two charts for each team, one for offense and one for defense. Because defensive DVOA is opposite of offensive DVOA, the defensive charts are flipped upside-down; thus, the higher dots still represent better games.

Posted by: Aaron Schatz on 17 Jan 2014

45 comments, Last at 22 Jan 2014, 3:58pm by LionInAZ

Comments

1
by Perfundle :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 7:21pm

"The 49ers averaged just 3.5 yards per carry on zone reads this year, the lowest average for any team that used the play more than ten times."

I know I saw a lot of failed zone-read plays in their two early losses when Crabtree, Manningham and Davis were out, so perhaps defenses were simply disrespecting the remaining 49ers receiving corps and crowding the line to stop these zone-reads.

5
by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 9:42pm

What you say is true; teams were stacking the box and it's much more difficult to run the zone read against a loaded front but we've still been crap at it after getting Crabtree back.

8
by Perfundle :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 4:40am

Well, failed read-option runs by Gore is probably explained by the overall lack of run-blocking from SF this year. As for Kaepernick keepers, which should be outside runs that don't involve the OL, I remember him looking to pass it on some of those, which is something Wilson rarely does. I'm not sure if Kaepernick is only faking the read-option on those passes, or if he's incorporating a second read into the play, but if it's the latter, then that would mean he's making a second read in his runs as well, which delays the play by a bit and could explain their struggles. I've noticed that in Seattle's read-option plays, Wilson makes the decision very quickly, sometimes not even waiting for the unblocked defender to make a move.

10
by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 10:37am

I don't really remember Kap looking to pass much off the R/O, it's something that's crying out for an attempt as most teams are crashing the edge when they see that motion from the niners.

To be frank, the niners really haven't run it that much this year, usually in bursts against an opponent where they've seen something in the film that suggests it should work, ie. versus Tennessee's 4-3.

12
by Boo-urns (not verified) :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 12:43pm

I don't think this is correct. I haven't seen us run it much, but when we have it seems like it's been an automatic 5+ yard gain, such as the 7 yard run by Gore in the Panthers game or the 7-8 yard run and slide by Kaep when he kept it.

2
by Will Allen :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 7:30pm

To beat the Seahawks in Seattle, you need to keep them under 20 points, it seems to me. That's quite the challenge, but manageable,IF you don't turn the ball over, AND don't have three and outs deep in your own territory. It wouldn't shock me to see the Niners win, but I'm not expecting it.

Seahawks fans should hope to see the Broncos instead of the Patriots, it seems to me.

3
by willybhu :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 8:32pm

I agree. As a Seahawks fan, I'm much more scared of Belichik, Brady, and that line, than I am of Peyton and all of his receivers. I'm not sure how to back this up, because nothing the Pats have done this year has made any sense, but that's exactly why I'd rather play the Broncos than the Pats.

That said, I think the 49er's are definitely the toughest team we could have faced coming out of the NFC, even more so than Carolina, and I'm just glad we're playing them at home.

4
by bravehoptoad :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 9:04pm

Most people seem to like the 49ers better than their advanced stats -- DVOA has them 5th, Burke has them 6th, etc. I wonder why?

Oooh...just one more win...just a couple more points...and this game would be at Candlestick instead of the CLink. Oooh. But the exact opposite was true last year, right?

11
by Adam B (not verified) :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 12:22pm

I love the comment from Colin Cowherd that "4 more points and SF ends the season on a 13 game winning streak" so that's why he picks them this weekend over the hawks.

Of course, 5 less points and SF misses the playoffs entirely.

13
by Will Allen :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 12:51pm

On those occasions when I hear Cowherd, I am prompted to wonder if the idiocy isn't a deliberate attempt to attract idiot listeners.

40
by tuluse :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 5:53pm

Cowherd seems like a legitimate idiot to me. I do like this example though because Cowherd is so close to realizing an interesting point and applying correctly but the logic is all wrong. The correct logic is "a few random things can happen that totally change the results of a game".

6
by Karl Cuba :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 9:56pm

There are a couple of things I'd love to know, if you can humour me:

I think that a member of your staff pointed out that the 49er defense was very poor when ahead by more than a touchdown (back to the conservative theory again; up by a score, go to the prevent D), what was it like if you take those numbers out?

Secondly, when I carry out a DVOA bodge job to assess the team the niners have right now and cobble together the offense with Crabtree, the defense with Aldon Smith and the special teams with LaMichael James, I end up with a total DVOA of about 35% (18%/9%/7%~ish (I removed GB because of awful weather and the return of Aaron Rodgers being unaccounted for in your opponent adjustments.)). Is this even vaguely accurate?

Thirdly, can you tell whether the weakness in the run defense up the middle is from the base 3-4, the 4-2 nickel or a combination of both?

On a wider query, does DVOA give the same rating to a hypothetical eight yard completion on 1st and 10 inbounds and out of bounds?

Great article though.

9
by Geo1 (not verified) :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 10:10am

Karl hits on an interesting issue. There appear to be 2 9er defenses: the good, stout defense when the score is close and the bad, lax defense that squanders leads. Given that the game is projected to be close, does this mean that those "bad" defensive numbers are less relevant? Perhaps. But it also suggests the 9ers won't keep a 14 point lead for long if they were lucky enough to get one. Looking at differences in opponent rushing TDs compared to previous years suggests a large dropoff at nose guard.

7
by KK Probs (not verified) :: Fri, 01/17/2014 - 10:55pm

It's a great point and very well made that these two teams, who appear to be two of the more uniquely constructed and coached teams in the NFL, are actually very similar to each other.

14
by Fernando (not verified) :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 12:52pm

Jerome Kearse was never an NBA star...

15
by Boo-urns (not verified) :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 12:57pm

DVOA and Outsiders have consistently been underrating the 49ers under Harbaugh, so it's not surprising to see this happen again. I think these two teams, at this point in time, are basically equal (hence the 19-17 win by the 49ers in the recent matchup at Candlestick, which actually was slightly more one-sided than that score, insofar as SF seemed to be moving the ball pretty well in that game but coming away w/ TOs or FGs).

Difference in my mind is that Seattle has a very limited WR corps (no Rice or Harvin), which means that SF can disrespect the passing game, whereas SF is at relatively full strength (Boldin, a decently healthy Crabtree, Davis), which means that SF can test that passing D (particularly on those shorter routes described here). Changes in personnel mean that this game is much closer than their historical performance. Also, we know that Harbaugh et al. play conservative in less meaningful games and save some tricks for big games, which DVOA can't account for, so we ought to expect some wrinkles there as well.

All of which is to say (DVOA consistently underpredicting future performance of Harbaugh 49ers, personnel changes, coaching "surprise" tactics) that I think these teams are actually quite closely matched, and this will be a great game. I pick the 49ers in a squeaker. Why? Because Chris Brown of SmartFootball just did a big piece on the Seattle D, and if you've been paying attention since last year, he's got a 100% track record in doing big pieces on playoff teams right before they lose.

16
by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 1:33pm

No no no no no, you have to be more careful than that! You have to suggest that DVOA has been doing a good job and then politely suggest ways it could be doing an even better job or you'll awake the FOMBC. (And if the curse is listening, I'm sure he didn't mean it, he loves DVOA and it's little babies: DYAR, ASR, ALY and SACKseer. We're good right?)

17
by Hurt Bones :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 2:43pm

You can't put the FOMBC genie back in the bottle.

25
by Karl Cuba :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 8:19pm

You can try, I've been counteracting Nick Bradley's nonsense for several weeks. We're in the NFC Championship game; I'm a step away from sacrificing chicken blood, making a Dick Sherman voodoo doll and sacrificing a virgin atop the Aztec Temple of the Moon (a lack of virgins willing to travel in north London is a bit of a problem.).

27
by Sixknots :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 12:42am

There are virgins in London? So that's where they've gone...Hmmmm.

Doesn't make sense...why would they go to London?

28
by Karl Cuba :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 1:24am

OK, you seek out the innocent, I'm all about the niner win.

38
by Andrew Potter :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 9:59am

You can find anything in London if you know where to look.

41
by LionInAZ :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 8:01pm

It's just more expensive. London allowance and all that.

18
by Perfundle :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 3:59pm

"which actually was slightly more one-sided than that score, insofar as SF seemed to be moving the ball pretty well in that game but coming away w/ TOs or FGs"

Is this why the two teams had the same yardage outside of Gore's long run, and Seattle actually had a higher yards-per-play average even with that run? As for red-zone performance, I guess you can say that every Seahawks game was better for the opponent than the score suggested, because they keep coming away with TOs or FGs. Or maybe this is something that Seattle simply excels at?

21
by jacobk :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 6:11pm

It reminds me of Barnwell's analysis before the Seahawks-Saints game: if you take away all of Seattle's big plays and pretend the Saints got a lot of big plays that they didn't, that Monday night game was actually pretty close. Much like how the Week 2 game was pretty close if you ignore the fourth quarter scoring (because scoring in the fourth quarter doesn't count, I guess).

I'm a little puzzled by how the media analyst types seem completely comfortable ignoring both advanced stats and the shellacking SF took the last time they were in Seattle. Usually they pick one or the other ("Guys, I wanna tell you something right now: I don't care what the numbers say, Colin Kaepernick just can not get it done in Seattle, guys."). Also puzzling is how San Francisco is sizzling hot with a 23 point per game output in the playoffs, while Seattle's offense is sputtering.

I've also noticed a bit of a pattern in the coverage where Seahawks' opponents retroactively decrease in quality once they're defeated. The Saints were a trendy upset pick (They want revenge! They've learned how to win on the road! They can run the ball and play defense! It's hard to beat the same team twice! Drew Brees!). Then the Seahawks win a game where their second half lead was never less than 8 points, and we discover that New Orleans can't win on the road and/or had terrible in game decision making, and that certainly beating them is less impressive than beating Carolina.

I can only hope that I will get to spend the next two weeks reading analysis about how the Seahawks' sputtering attack only beat San Francisco by two touchdowns because the 49ers were tired from being on the road for so long, Colin Kaepernick can't read the field like Brady/Manning, and "everybody knows" they can't win in Seattle.

23
by Kaepernicus :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 7:05pm

Shellacking? Beating a team 5-0 at half with a redzone pick and a holding safety isn't a shellacking. Kyle Williams and Bruce Miller were the top two receivers in that game and Kaepernick has improved dramatically since then. Keep the confidence up though I think Seattle will win only because they are at home and playing a team that has been on the road 5 of 6 weeks. If the Niners don't turn it over they win. That AZ game was a lot bigger than people think. Historically dominant teams should never lose a game with four picks on the other QB at home. Kaepernick has been significantly better in the last 6 games than Wilson.

24
by jacobk :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 7:14pm

My understanding is that the points scored after halftime also count. Unless you want to go with the idea that the Seahawks just blew out the Saints 16-0 while the 49ers struggled to beat the Panthers 13-10.

I think that both teams are good, the Seahawks are a little better, and the game could go either way. What baffles me is the idea that a lot of the talking heads are pushing that the 49ers are clearly the better team and/or that the Seahawks are "sputtering" on offense.

The only thing that makes me feel like it's a mortal lock is that Simmons picked the 49ers.

31
by bravehoptoad :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 12:19pm

I'm a little puzzled by how the media analyst types seem completely comfortable ignoring both advanced stats and the shellacking SF took the last time they were in Seattle.

Me, too. S.F. has a better reputation than either advanced stats or their actual results tell. It's puzzling.

I'm buying that S.F. has ~30% chance to win the game according to Burke. A blowout by Seattle wouldn't be shocking. A blowout by S.F. would.

20
by coltrane23 :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 5:59pm

You're not wrong about the Seattle WR corps being limited, but it's the same WR corps that torched New Orleans the week before very nearly helping the team steal a win in SF. Neither Harvin nor Rice were available for that game at the 'Stick. I firmly believe that if Earl Thomas hadn't overrun the play to give up a 50+ yard run to Gore, Seattle would have won that game 17-16.

Of course he did, so here we are. I can't wait for the game tomorrow: the two best wire-to-wire teams in the NFC squaring off. That seems to be a very rare occurrence.

30
by Kaepernicus :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 11:09am

And if Whitner hadn't had an epic fail on that deep crossing route tight end play the Seahawks get beat 19-10. Come on man. Hanging onto petty things like that is what makes Niners fans remember this is our 15th Championship game. We have had some of our greatest teams get their hearts ripped out by inferior opponents, 1990 Giants and Brett Fing Favre always. This could be a close niner win or a Seattle blowout who knows. But Seattle fans need to know what it is like to watch an inferior team beat you on the biggest stage, ok 05 and last year are true, which is something Steve Young/Niners fans have seen repeatedly for 30 years. I have no problem losing this game to a team that has a historically great defense at home but just remember nothing is a lock, d*****t! 87 Niners why? This is just friendly advice from an often burned and rewarded fanbase. 98 Atlanta, 11 Giants and 12 Ravens I hate you. Simmons would be proud of that backhanded compliment.

33
by Perfundle :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 3:46pm

"Hanging onto petty things like that"

No, not really. The poster was responding to the original assertion that Seattle's receiving corps sucks. And yet, Wilson had a higher DVOA that day than Kaepernick, so it clearly doesn't suck that much.

34
by coltrane23 :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 12:03am

Yup, they're not as good as Denver's WR corps for sure, but they're usually good enough to win the game when called upon.

35
by Will Allen :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 12:30am

The scored 23 points at home, on two short fields, and a 40 yard td run. Their receivers are usually good enough to win a game because their defense is terrific, so they don't have to do a tremendous amount.

36
by Perfundle :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 12:52am

To be fair, Wilson missed them a few times when they were open, and he doesn't throw many check downs for some reason. Either that or there aren't check downs built into the play, but I find that hard to believe. He was awful against the blitz today, which is highly unusual of him.

42
by coltrane23 :: Tue, 01/21/2014 - 11:42am

Yeah, to my eyes Wilson hasn't looked *good* against the blitz since lighting up NO back in December. He has looked extremely hesitant to pull the trigger lately and has mostly been "functional." I wonder how much of that is a product of coaching him not to take big risks, leaning instead on the running game and defense, but he definitely missed some open looks on Sunday even when he decided to throw it. Fortunately, he hit enough of them to make the difference in the game, but he looked a lot better earlier this season.

That said, his receivers (which started this mini-discussion) are OK without Harvin. Golden Tate and Baldwin both play well as #2/#3, and Kearse does a nice job as a blocking WR and as a 4th option, but I'd really like to see what this team could do with a legit #1 receiver who can stay on the field for 16 games. Then again, lots of teams could say that.

43
by Perfundle :: Tue, 01/21/2014 - 7:05pm

You also have to consider the difficulty they have of getting a #1 receiver. It's not going to come through the free agent route, because no #1 receiver wants to come to Seattle to see Wilson hand it off on half of their plays, and have to master unglamorous tasks like blocking, without getting exorbitant money (which Rice and Harvin both got), and Seattle doesn't have any cap space to pay them. As for through the draft, their draft position is horrible with them being so good every year, and OL seems to be a more pressing need anyway. It's one thing to grab hidden gems in other positions like CB, but tall #1 receivers tend to get taken very early.

19
by knarsu3 :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 4:54pm

"Given that and the general year-to-year inconsistency of cornerback stats"

Have you guys done the study on this? I'd be interested to see the results. I think from looking at the top 10 tables each year, it's pretty obvious but it'd be interesting to see just how much inconsistency there is.

22
by Kaepernicus :: Sat, 01/18/2014 - 7:04pm

As good as Wilson is he has two huge flaws that should be exploited: fumbles from holding the ball too long and he is comically inept passing over the middle. That makes Bowman/Willis blitzes up the middle deadly ala the Dansby/Washington method used by AZ to beat them. Biggest issue with adopting that game plan is we don't have Patrick Peterson to shut down Baldwin all game. Also everyone brings up the damning fact that the big Gore play masked poor play the rest of the day, has everyone forgot the huge blown coverage backup TE play that accounted for 40 of Seattle's total 260 yards? I feel like the advanced stats community is giving Seattle a pass on some really significant flaws. Personally last years team was a ton scarier than this one. Lynch is the key you stop him you have a good chance of winning. SF can beat you in more ways but Seattle executes their one-dimensional game plan better than anyone. Regression to the mean could be huge in this game, SF has gone from historically great offensive line last year to terrible this year with the exact same personnel. If the huge improvement continues this week as well as a return to average for fumble luck and the Niners could win this AZ style 17-10. Then I remember it is in Seattle and drink a lot more beer. But there is definitely a chance and that is all we need. Also KC Joyner picked us to win the Superbowl so Seattle will probably win by 20 while Wilson throws for 42 yards and recovers all 4 of his fumbles and Kaepernick loses all three of his.

26
by Sixknots :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 12:38am

Interesting...the "advanced stat community" as a slight perjorative and "regression to the mean" as an arguement in the same paragraph.

That's OK, you have valid arguements for your points. By about 7:00 PT tomorrow, you will either be a fan of a vanquished foe or a fan of a team that I am rooting for to wim the SuperBowl.

29
by Perfundle :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 5:30am

"he is comically inept passing over the middle"

I have no idea how you can be so sure of this when Fahey's graph showed that he almost never even attempts passes over the middle.

"Also everyone brings up the damning fact that the big Gore play masked poor play the rest of the day, has everyone forgot the huge blown coverage backup TE play that accounted for 40 of Seattle's total 260 yards?"

Well, I didn't bring it up to show that it masked poor play, because the rest of the game was a pretty typical day against the Seahawks defense. My point was that the final score pretty accurately reflected the closeness of the game.

"Personally last years team was a ton scarier than this one"

Last year's defense had a lot more issues than this one.

"as well as a return to average for fumble luck"

http://www.teamrankings.com/nfl/stat/fumble-recovery-pct
San Francisco has been better at recovering fumbles than Seattle.

32
by Geo1 (not verified) :: Sun, 01/19/2014 - 2:07pm

Many comments seem to be asking, "won't the averages change if you throw out outliers either at the top OR the bottom of the distribution?" The answer of course is yes. Mathematically it has to be true, but why throw out information. If you are conqeceerned about the influence of outliers, one could construct a trimmed mean DVOA where you take, ,out the top 5 percent of positive AND negative contributors. You can't just cherry pick to give yourself hope. Well, you can, but then why bother with analytics. If you say the 9ers lost to NO on a bad roughing call, then you also have to acknowledge that the beat ATL on a freak, lucky play. I read the analytics as saying, when a team with a season like SF plays a team like Seattle in Seattle, then Seattle will win 2 out 3 times. I find that pretty hard to argue with.

37
by Anonymoos (not verified) :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 5:28am

The last six playoff games (or more?) were won by the higher DVOA team, so it looks likes 100%, without any outliers to throw out.

39
by Karl Cuba :: Mon, 01/20/2014 - 1:42pm

SF-CAR

44
by Geo1 (not verified) :: Wed, 01/22/2014 - 2:08am

Many comments seem to be asking, "won't the averages change if you throw out outliers either at the top OR the bottom of the distribution?" The answer of course is yes. Mathematically it has to be true, but why throw out information. If you are conqeceerned about the influence of outliers, one could construct a trimmed mean DVOA where you take, ,out the top 5 percent of positive AND negative contributors. You can't just cherry pick to give yourself hope. Well, you can, but then why bother with analytics. If you say the 9ers lost to NO on a bad roughing call, then you also have to acknowledge that the beat ATL on a freak, lucky play. I read the analytics as saying, when a team with a season like SF plays a team like Seattle in Seattle, then Seattle will win 2 out 3 times. I find that pretty hard to argue with.

45
by LionInAZ :: Wed, 01/22/2014 - 3:58pm

The problem with outliers is that they are typically flukes (or measurement errors in science). If the outliers distort an underlying trend, retaining them actually reduces the information content of the sample.