49ers in Motion, Titans Under Pressure
NFL Divisional - Looking for stats and insights about the San Francisco 49ers offense, the Tennessee Titans defense, Travis Kelce's playoff accomplishments, or Tom Brady's Tom Bradyness? You have come to the right place.
San Francisco 49ers in Motion
It should come as no surprise that the 49ers use presnap motion more than any NFL team. But it's worth taking a look at the numbers to see just how large a role motion plays in their offensive philosophy.
Let's examine the Sports Info Solution breakdowns for pass attempts on plays with presnap motion. We'll use adjusted net yards per attempt as our evaluative metric here, because it gets the job done.
The Chiefs attempted 161 more passes than the 49ers, so it's not surprising to see them ahead of San Francisco here; the tide will shift when we display the rushing data. The 49ers attempted just 163 passing plays (including sacks and scrambles) without presnap motion, by far the lowest figure in the NFL, though they averaged a credible 7.3 ANY/A on those plays.
The 49ers' 7.6 adjusted net yards per attempt ranked sixth in the NFL. The Seahawks led the NFL with 8.3 ANY/A on plays with presnap motion but executed a league-low 154 pass plays (including sacks and scrambles) using the tactic. That's either a coaching quality control issue, a statistical artifact (a handful of Russell Wilson bombs skewing the data), or both. The Buccaneers finished second in this category, followed by the Cowboys, Colts, Broncos, and 49ers, with the Bills seventh. The Dolphins sent players in motion all the time to hide the fact that their offense was one long RPO pass into the flat. The Jets ... you know.
Now for the rushing data:
The NFL rushing average for 2021 was 4.3 yards per carry. Seeing so many run-heavy teams eclipse that figure on the leaderboard above endorses the value of presnap motion as a rushing tactic. The 49ers averaged just 3.3 yards per carry on a league-low 110 rushes without presnap motion. The clearly rely on motion to mass blockers to the play side, pull defenders away, break tendencies, or simply disguise some otherwise routine handoffs.
For the curious: the Eagles led the league with 370 rushes and 104.6 rushing yards per game without presnap motion, while the Seahawks (them again) led the league with 5.3 yards per carry without motion.
To flip to the other side of the ball, Packers opponents averaged 6.4 yards per attempt (not adjusted) on passing plays with presnap motion, the third-best figure in the NFL. Packers opponents recorded a passer rating of just 88.5 using such tactics, the ninth-lowest figure in the league. On the other hand, opponents averaged 4.7 yards per rush using presnap motion against the Packers, the sixth-highest total in the NFL. That's a poor average but not a sign that their defense is headed for another 285-rushing yard meltdown. Matt LaFleur is a coaching cousin of Kyle Shanahan, of course, and the Packers defense has now been practicing against a variation of the 49ers scheme for three years.
Walkthrough shies away from most discussions of presnap motion because they are superficial—we're talking about a diverse battery of tactics as if they all serve the same purpose—and because motion is often erroneously used as an evaluative tool instead of a descriptive one. Shanahan isn't a genius because he sends receivers in motion before the snap, and the Seahawks didn't fail simply because they were too static, just as tons of motion didn't help the Dolphins much on offense and static formations did not hurt the Eagles running game. But the 49ers motion data does reveal one of the things that makes them difficult to defend by creating unique challenges for the defense. The Packers defense will spend a lot of time before the snap adjusting and diagnosing instead of just getting ready to attack. How they handle those adjustments may decide who advances in the playoffs.
Travis Kelce Climbs the Ladder
At the rate Travis Kelce is going, the Chiefs' All-Pro tight end could soon be fourth on the all-time playoff receiving yardage list and third on the all-time reception list. Not for tight ends, mind you, but for everyone.
Kelce is currently tied with Hines Ward and Wes Welker for fifth on the all-time postseason list with 88 receptions. His five catches on Sunday moved him past Andre Reed and Michael Irvin. Kelce is currently 12th on the all-time receiving yardage list. His 108 yards on Sunday moved him past Steve Smith, Anquan Boldin, John Stallworth, and Art Monk. The company Kelce keeps grows more elite with every playoff appearance.
Kelce averaged 5.8 catches and 70.3 yards per game this season. Extrapolate that production through the Super Bowl (settle down, Bills fans, we're just fiddling with hypotheticals here) and Kelce will pass Drew Pearson, Paul Warfield, Fred Biletnikoff, Ward, Reed, Reggie Wayne, and Cliff Branch on the yardage list, with only Michael Irvin, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Jerry Rice ahead of him. That same extrapolation would move Kelce past Wayne on the receptions list, where he will joust with Gronk (perhaps in the greatest tight end Super Bowl of all time!), with only Edelman and Rice ahead of him.
Walkthrough loves postseason leaderboards because they are often compendiums of the accomplishments of all-time great players of yesteryear. Warfield and Biletnikoff have plunged out of sight on most all-time receiving lists because of changes to the schedule and to the rules, but they still get to cling to the top 20 in postseason yardage because of their work on the old-timey Dolphins and Raiders. Edelman's playoff and Super Bowl heroics would be Hall of Fame-worthy if anything else about his career had been Hall of Fame-worthy; Ward is similar, but with better regular seasons and less impressive postseasons. Branch's heroics will probably finally land him in Canton in a few weeks.
Gronk may be the greatest tight end of all time, particularly when his blocking is factored into the discussion, but of course his playoff production is also a product of Tom Brady's success and The Patriots Way to a not-quite-insignificant degree. Kelce caught 23 postseason passes for 294 yards and one touchdown from Alex Smith. He wouldn't crack any top-10 postseason lists without Patrick Mahomes, but he would likely have cracked the top 50 in receiving yards (which, incidentally, Stefon Diggs just cracked).
Tyreek Hill is also moving up the receiving yardage leaderboard: he currently ranks 25th all-time with 853 receiving yards. With 100 more yards, Hill can move past Hall of Famers Cris Carter, Marvin Harrison, and Lynn Swann, plus Larry Fitzgerald and Antonio Brown, and wedge himself between Deion Branch and Randy Moss. Branch's position on the list really hammers home the Brady factor.
We'll wrap with the fact that Patrick Mahomes ranks 23rd on the all-time postseason passing yardage list; Walkthrough cannot decide if that's a shockingly high or shocking low figure. Mahomes passed Matt Ryan on Sunday and will almost certainly stay ahead of him forever. Matt Hasselbeck, Roger Staubach, and Eli Manning will be in Mahomes' rearview mirror by halftime on Sunday night, with Warren Moon, Philip Rivers, and Joe Flacco in his sights.
Yes, Flacco still has more postseason passing yards than Mahomes and will retire with more than Eli Manning. Flacco also has 25 postseason touchdown passes to Mahomes' 22 and Eli's 18. Only a spoilsport would suggest that this factoid should be used against Eli in any "he belongs in the Hall of Fame because of Super Bowls" conversation.
The Chiefs' assault on the all-time postseason leaderboards will only be possible if they get past the Bills, who looked like the 1992 Cowboys' big brothers on Saturday. But while the Bills defense ranks first at stopping opponents' No. 1 receivers, No. 2 receivers, and "other" wide receivers, they rank a modest 13th at stopping tight ends. That's probably a "the ball's gotta go somewhere" statistical split, not a weakness. But it's also a sign that Kelce is going to get plenty of targets.
Brady in a Hurry
Tom Brady's ability to beat opponents with tempo ceased to be a novel talking point at least 10 years ago. But the Buccaneers' victory over the Eagles in the wild-card round illustrated just how lethal the Buccaneers' up-tempo offense can be with Brady at the helm. The Eagles pass rush had little hope of getting home, Brady deftly attacked every soft spot in the underneath coverage, and the Eagles run defense looked like it was caught off guard a few times.
The Buccaneers offense ranked fourth in seconds-per-play during the regular season according to our metrics, but of course that rate is distorted by how often the Bucs spent their fourth quarters just munching the clock. The Bucs ranked first in seconds per play in the first half and second to the Cowboys in seconds per play in neutral situations.
Brady's time-to-throw against the Eagles last Sunday was 2.17 seconds, the fastest figure of any playoff quarterback, (per Next Gen Stats). When the Buccaneers lost to the Rams in Week 3, Brady's time-to-throw was a still-speedy 2.54 seconds. The Buccaneers trailed heavily for most of the second half of that game, and time-to-throw rates probably increase when a quarterback is playing from behind and forced to stand in the pocket longer and wait for longer pass plays to develop.
The Rams defense ranked 30th in situation-neutral seconds per play during the regular season (meaning that offenses tended to move slowly against them). Defenses do have some measure of control over the offense's pace. If nothing else, they can disrupt a hurry-up offense by forcing sacks and incompletions. The Rams' defensive pace stats may also be influenced by facing the chelonian 49ers twice, though the Cardinals were more of an up-tempo team, and the Seahawks did not actually possess the football at any time this year.
In summary, the Buccaneers will try to dictate the pace of Sunday's game, if for no other reason than to keep Aaron Donald and Von Miller from making Bradyburgers. The Buccaneers should win if they succeed. If they fail, well, the Rams defense looked ready to feast on Monday night.
We Love the Tennessee Titans!
Just because DVOA hates the Tennessee Titans, it doesn't mean that Football Outsiders hates the Titans.
DVOA looks at a team that got blown out by the Cardinals and beaten by the Jets and Texans but defeated the Rams, Bills, and Chiefs; does its best to reconcile the peaks and valleys; and concludes that the Titans are a high-variance, slightly below average team. DVOA knows nothing of injuries or pandemics. It also doesn't line-item veto the results it dislikes or emphasize the results it prefers. That's what makes DVOA so reliable, within the system's limits.
Football Outsiders knows that Derrick Henry is returning and that the Titans coped with injury rashes at multiple positions at different times during the season, so we have no problem saying "yes, but" to our own methods, within reason. Yes, but the Titans are better than their metrics suggest rolls off the tongue easily. Yes, but the Titans are really better than the Bills or Chiefs, despite those early-season victories, is a much tougher sell.
The Titans finished 15th in points scored and 17th in net yards gained. They finished sixth in points allowed and 12th in net yards allowed. Their turnover differential is -3. That's the raw statistical profile of a one-and-done wild-card team, not the top seed in the AFC. DVOA isn't saying anything that traditional stats aren't saying about the Titans: beyond the standings, they look like a so-so team.
But in the name of making peace with Titans fans, and perhaps a Nashville radio personality or two, Walkthrough went on a treasure hunt to find some metrics that make the Titans look good. Here is what we turned up.
Strength of Schedule: Here is how the Titans compare to the other surviving playoff teams, per Football Outsiders' own strength-of-schedule rankings:
We think of the AFC South as a cakewalk, but the Titans faced the third-hardest schedule of the surviving teams. They also faced a harder schedule than the eliminated Eagles, Cowboys, and Patriots. The Jaguars and Texans may be pushovers, but the Colts were not, and of course the Titans also faced the Bills, Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, and 49ers this year.
Note the Bengals' unimpressive strength of schedule. Again, we think of the AFC North as a slaughterhouse. But the Ravens were a M*A*S*H unit, the Steelers a Scooby-Doo villain, and the Browns (who swept the Bengals, though the second game was essentially meaningless) a one-trick pony. The Bengals also got to feast on a few Lions, Jets, and Bears. The Titans are more battle-tested than their upcoming opponent. Should they prevail, and the Bills beat the Chiefs, they will also be more battle-tested than their next one.
Missed Tackles: Now here's a stat that doesn't need much explanation! Per Pro Football Reference, here are the regular-season leaders in fewest missed tackles:
Missed tackles are largely a function of tackle opportunities, which are largely a function of the number of plays opponents run against a defense. Opponents executed 1,039 plays against the Titans, tied with the Broncos (and one behind the Patriots) for the seventh-lowest number of plays in the NFL during the regular season. So while Matt Vrabel and Shane Bowen make sure that the lads know how to break down and wrap, there's something else going on with the Titans defense.
Opponent's Time of Possession: Our opponent's time of possession per drive metrics reveal that opponents do not run many plays against the Titans because they do not possess the ball for very long:
The Titans allow 5.92 plays per drive (ninth overall) for 31.4 yards per drive (12th) and 1.95 points per drive (19th). None of those numbers are overwhelming, but the quick time of possession reveals that the Titans do a fine job starving out drives. Two conventional statistics reveal why: the Titans allow just 3.9 yards per rush (fourth-best in the NFL) and a 62.9% completion rate (seventh-best in the league). Stop the run well, force some incompletions, stifle some drives, get the ball back, keep close games manageable.
The Titans also have a knack for intercepting passes on the first play of an opponent's drive: they did it against the Bills, Rams, Chiefs, Colts, 49ers, and Dolphins, and they may have done it against some of their cupcake opponents, too. (Who honestly cares?) Generating first-play interceptions don't sound like a sustainable skill, but they definitely contribute to the Titans defense's ability to get the ball back quickly.
Pressure-to-Blitz Ratio:The Titans rarely blitz: just 19.8% of the time on passing plays, the fifth-lowest rate in the year, per Pro Football Reference. They also don't generate much pass pressure: their 24.0% pressure rate ranks 21st in the NFL. But what if we divided their number of pressures by their number of blitzes to create a quick 'n' dirty measure of how much bang the Titans are getting for their pass rush buck? Here is what we get:
This little mini-metric would have been a useful illustration of one of the things Maxx Crosby, Yannick Ngakoue, and the Raiders did really well! Oh well, too late. But pressure-to-blitz ratio is at least an interesting indicator of the quality of a team's base pass rush. Vrabel/Bowen can send Harold Landry, Denico Autry, Jeffery Simmons, and either DaQuan Jones or Bud Dupree after the quarterback, often with a little bit of stunting or subterfuge, and apply a reasonable amount of pressure while keeping seven defenders in coverage.
All of these indicators are talking me out of a Bengals upset: the Titans will be able to create pressure, prevent YAC in the Bengals screen game, and get the ball back quickly, possibly with the help of a turnover or two. Henry's return will surely help a smidge. The Titans play well against quality competition and are at home. And while DVOA dislikes the Titans, weighted DVOA really sneers at the Bengals.
After that? Who knows. Let's save that dilemma for next week.