Any Given Sunday: 49ers over Saints
by Andrew Healy
The interceptions have piled up in recent years for a quarterback that most of us (myself included) would put in the class just below Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. Here's the unfair stat question of the day: How many quarterbacks have thrown more interceptions in the last five years than Drew Brees? While you think about that one, consider the pass that Brees threw at the end of the first half against the 49ers.
On this play, the Saints snapped the ball quickly on second-and-2 from the 49ers' 22-yard line with 17 seconds left. Brees probably should have spent one of his two timeouts here because he was about to make the Bad Idea Decision of the Week.
Failing to recognize zone defenders was a problem for Brees against the 49ers in the NFC divisional playoffs three years ago, too. Late in the first quarter, his throw deep down the seam was intercepted by the single high safety for whom he failed to account.
While both throws were picked off by lurking zone defenders, the throw from Sunday's game is more representative of the defenses that have led to Brees's interceptions by leaving more men in coverage. No quarterback in football with at least 2,000 attempts since 2010 has faced fewer average pass rushers on his interceptions than Brees, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. On his 77 interceptions, Brees has faced an average of just 4.00 pass rushers. He has been blitzed on just 13 (17 percent) of those interceptions. Rather than blitzing, the better way to get Brees to throw picks has been to sit back.
On his non-interceptions, Brees has faced an average of 4.25 pass rushers. The difference between those two is smaller for Brees than any other quarterback. That negative number indicates that teams hoping to get an interception out of Brees should tend to keep more defenders back in coverage.
When teams do that, Brees has thrown quite a few picks. Only one player (Eli Manning) has thrown more interceptions than Brees' 77 since the start of the 2010 season. I said that was an unfair question before and it is, since Brees has thrown more than 250 more passes than any other quarterback during that time. Still, even his interception rate is roughly league average. For a quarterback who has the highest completion percentage in the league since 2010 and ranks fourth in adjusted net yards per attempt, Brees has thrown a striking number of picks.
Brees ranks just ninth out of the 13 quarterbacks on the list in interception rate, behind Joe Flacco, Matthew Stafford, and Tony Romo. Brees has thrown more interceptions than Brady and Rodgers combined on almost 1,800 fewer attempts. Brees is still great even despite the picks -- he has been in the top five quarterbacks by DVOA in five of the last six seasons, anyway -- but his propensity to make unnecessary throws into traffic is the flaw keeping him below the Rodgers/Manning class.
Vic Fangio Making Lemonade
The 49ers defense that held its own against Brees and the fourth-ranked offense has been held together by duct tape and paperclips this season. Just four of the players who started for the 49ers against the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game in January suited up on Sunday.
|LDT||Ray McDonald||Ray McDonald|
|NT||Glenn Dorsey||Ian Williams|
|RDT||Justin Smith||Justin Smith|
|OLB||Aldon Smith||Aaron Lynch|
|ILB||NaVorro Bowman||Chris Borland|
|ILB||Patrick Willis||Michael Wilhoite|
|OLB||Ahmad Brooks||Ahmad Brooks|
|CB||Carlos Rogers||Perrish Cox|
|CB||Tarell Brown||Chris Culliver|
|SS||Donte Whitner||Antoine Bethea|
|FS||Eric Reid||Eric Reid|
Only one position, strong safety, represents an upgrade over last year. Antoine Bethea, who got a first-quarter interception when he showed great explosion breaking on an out to Marques Colston, is an upgrade over Donte Whitner. Other than that, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio fielded a unit less talented than last year, particularly at linebacker. The 49ers were missing not just NaVorro Bowman, but the other half of the best inside linebacker combination in football, Patrick Willis, for the third straight game.
Despite missing all that talent, the 49ers' defense was the best unit on the field on Sunday in a game where all the other units were close to average.
Fangio's defense ranks eighth in the NFL by DVOA. With Bowman looking like he will return soon (though we now know that Willis will not be coming back), the 49ers' defense is poised to again be a top-five caliber unit as the playoffs approach.
This Week in Passive Coaching
For Sean Payton, one coaching decision stamped the aggressive seal of approval firmly on his forehead. The onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV helped win a game in which the Saints were clear underdogs by the betting line. It was a great call and the right call regardless of whether or not it had worked. And unlike Jeff Fisher, a passive coach who occasionally dons wolf's clothing to allow weird fakes in the kicking game, Payton has actually been relatively aggressive more generally, including on some important fourth-down calls.
But relatively aggressive in the coaching world generally means still not nearly ballsy enough. Payton's fourth-down timidity hurt the Saints on Sunday. Down 21-10 early in the third quarter, Payton punted on fourth-and-2 from his own 47-yard-line. The Saints had struggled on defense up to that point, making the decision to punt even worse, although most coaches would have made the same passive choice.
Early in the fourth quarter, Payton correctly went for it on fourth-and-inches from his own 33, down 21-17. On the next set of downs, Payton was faced with fourth-and-a-yard-and-a-half from his own 43. Here, he punted. The distance was a full yard longer, so going passive here is logically consistent with going for it four plays earlier. Still, full loss of kudos for the earlier aggressive call by going all unballsy four plays later.
Then, on the Saints' opening drive of overtime, they punted on fourth-and-2 from the 49ers' 43-yard line. Advanced NFL Stats' Win Probability Calculator agrees with the decision (if we give the Saints a 60 percent chance of converting, they have a 0.56 chance of winning by going for it, versus a 0.60 chance by punting). I think this might be one of those times the calculator doesn't quite work, and it's maybe even more that way given the Saints' strengths.
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The Saints have the fourth-best offense and the fourth-worst defense. They have Drew Brees, owner of the highest career completion percentage in NFL history. Instead of spreading the 49ers out, planning to throw but leaving the option to run against the right look, the Saints chose to put the game on the shoulders of their 29th-ranked defense. I instinctively don't like the call, but given what the calculator says, it's hard to criticize Payton for punting.
Week 10 Randomness: Anquan Boldin
Anquan Boldin drops very few passes. With the 49ers, Boldin had dropped five passes in two seasons coming into Sunday's game against the Saints, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Boldin had 136 catches over that time, giving him a drop rate of 3.5 percent. On average, other players have dropped the ball 6.8 percent of the time, about twice as often as Boldin.
On Sunday, Boldin dropped four passes, all in the second half. His worst drop was this third-and-15 pass in the third quarter, 35 yards down the field. I can't remember Boldin having a drop this bad.
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Boldin's day of the butterfingers is even more random than it seems at first glance. Taking Boldin's baseline drop rate to be 4 percent, he had about a .04 percent chance of dropping four of ten possible catches (Boldin had six catches to go with the drops). That chance goes up to 0.5 percent for a receiver with a drop rate of 8 percent. So a receiver who drops a little more than the league average is ten times more likely than Boldin to have a four-drop day on ten catch opportunities.
In the last three years, Aaron Dobson is the only other player to have four drops in a game, in a Week 2 game last year that featured a second-half monsoon. It's unusual when anyone has a four-drop day, but Anquan Boldin being the guy to follow Dobson -- indoors, no less -- is very random.