NFC Conference Championship Preview
by Danny Tuccitto
This game is either a football stats geek's dream or nightmare depending on how much said stats geek likes to live on the edge. (Implied odds predict he doesn't.) Similar to their matchup against the Packers last weekend, the Giants once again find themselves on the road going up against a team that's both better and more consistent per DVOA. Going into the Green Bay game, the conventional wisdom was that New York was "peaking at the right time," and had already showed during the regular season that they could hang in until the very end against that opponent. Here we are one week -- and one Giants upset -- later, with essentially the same narrative.
Essentially, what we have here is a situation in which the vast majority of indicators in New York's favor are of the small-sample variety, whereas the large-sample data clearly favors their opponent. That's the nightmare from a prediction standpoint. Are the last four weeks a better measure of New York's "true" ability than the previous 14? The answer to that question will go a long way toward deciding this year's NFC Champion.
Before getting into the statistical matchup details, let's address one widely cited reason for New York's recent (and predicted) success: a return to health. It's certainly true that the Giants have gotten gradually healthier as the season's worn on, both on offense and on defense, but logic dictates that only one of those healed starters -- defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- could possibly have had an impact, given that (a) Hakeem Nicks, Ahmad Bradshaw, Justin Tuck, and Michael Boley had been back for at least a month prior to the Giants' magical Week 16 turnaround game versus the Jets; (b) Kenny Phillips only missed Week 14; and (c) Mario Manningham's Week 17 return occurred long after he had been relegated to No. 3 wide receiver behind Victor Cruz.
So did Umenyiora's return in Week 17 kickstart a dormant pass rush? The answer, not surprisingly, is a bit complicated. If you look at the difference between the Giants defensive Adjusted Sack Rate in games he played and games he missed, the absence of Umenyiora turned the season-long equivalent of a No. 1 pass rush (8.8 percent) into a mediocre pass rush (6.5 percent). This was perhaps no more evident than in the final game of the season; with Umenyiora back for the first time in a month, New York posted an off-the-charts 14.4 percent ASR against Dallas. What makes things a bit complicated is that, in the Giants' two playoff games, the defense has only posted ASRs of 5.9 percent and 4.0 percent. So, the obvious question becomes, "If Umenyiora's presence in the lineup is so important, what's up with the past two weeks, and how can we possibly say it's mattered much in their playoff victories?"
Well, there's always the idea that sacks aren't the only way a defense gets pressure; there's also hurries. Let's look at hurries, then. In the regular-season games we've charted so far, New York hurried the opposing quarterback on about 15 percent of pass plays. In the two playoff games, both of which are fully charted, New York's hurry rate is three percent lower. Go figure.
The moral of this story, as I alluded to at the top, is that deciphering the Giants late-season run, and projecting it forward to Sunday's game is all about whether we should look at their full-season body of work, or cherry-pick specific pieces in the art gallery. I'm not one to live on the edge, so the rest of this preview relies on the former.
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. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted. Game charting data is still incomplete, but represents most of the regular season.
New York Giants at San Francisco
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WHEN THE GIANTS HAVE THE BALL
As I'm wont to do, let's start with what New York does from a personnel and formation standpoint. They're fairly basic, and about seven out of every 10 offensive snaps are in the standard 1RB/3WR/1TE (38 percent) or 2RB/2WR/1TE (32 percent) sets. This tendency was dialed up to eight when they played the 49ers in Week 10, employing these two personnel groups 79 percent of the time. In terms of offensive success rates, their best bet in these formations is passing from 2/2/1 (55 percent). In this week's matchup, that's a good thing, because it's an area in which the 49ers defense struggles.
Of course, where San Francisco really struggles -- relatively speaking -- is when offenses use four or more wide receivers, but New York only does so about 6 percent of the time. However, if they were to open it up a bit more, it might pay dividends. For instance, in the Week 10 game, New York went four-wide four times, and all four plays were successful. On two of them, running back D.J. Ware was split out wide, so perhaps doing the same thing with Ahmad Bradshaw instead might be one way they take advantage of him actually playing in this game.
Speaking of which, another thing that stood out from the earlier matchup was how much the Giants ran the ball despite Bradshaw's absence and the 49ers being a much better run defense than pass defense. For the season, New York's passed the ball on about 60 percent of plays. Against San Francisco, they threw it on 52 percent of plays. Perhaps it was game planning opposite of tendency or perhaps it was disbelief in the 49ers run defense at the time, but at this point it would blow my mind if New York runs it as much this week because -- there's no nice way to put this -- the season stats say it's a horrific matchup for them.
Where to begin? Well, there's the general idea that, according to Adjusted Line Yards, the No. 28 offensive line is going against the No. 4 defensive line. If Bradshaw or Brandon Jacobs happen to make it past the defensive line, they probably won't get much further given that the Giants, 29th in both second-level yards and open-field yards, are up against the No. 1 defense in both categories. Furthermore, on those crucial short-yardage running plays, New York is also at a huge disadvantage against San Francisco (27th versus first). Literally the only run-related stat I could find that favors the Giants is that they run toward right tackle with the ninth-highest frequency in the league, and the 49ers are 26th in defending runs in that direction. Alas, the Giants may run that way a lot, but they're actually really bad at it (also 26th in ALY).
One other little wrinkle in the Giants running game that they used more than anticipated in Week 10 was a handoff in shotgun. Strategically, it made perfect sense: Force the Niners into nickel, and then run from a shotgun formation that you use more than all but 10 NFL teams. The problem, however, was that the Giants are No. 24 in shotgun run DVOA, and the 49ers have the fifth-best DVOA defending shotgun runs -- presumably because of what I mentioned in last week's preview about Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman both remaining on the field in nickel.
That brings us back to the Giants pass offense, which, if the previous two paragraphs are any indication, they should rely heavily on this Sunday. In contrast to their shotgun running woes, they're No. 4 in shotgun passing, and the 49ers, although it's not a massive dropoff, are worse against shotgun passes than shotgun runs.
And where should New York go with those shotgun passes? The same place they went on one of their two shotgun touchdowns in Week 10: The direction of nickel cornerback Chris Culliver. Culliver had a strong rookie year, but game charting gives him a lower success rate than either Carlos Rogers (64 percent) or Tarell Brown (55 percent). For much of the first game, the 49ers used Culliver on the outside covering Manningham, with Rogers covering Victor Cruz in the slot.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
If the Giants ran the ball more than (at least I) anticipated in Week 10, the 49ers unexpectedly passed it just as much. For the season, San Francisco had a pass-run ratio of 54 percent, but it rose all the way to 65 percent in that game, and they were winning for most of it to boot. Much of the unexpected passing came on first down, which took advantage of both their run-first reputation, and New York's No. 23 first-down pass defense.
Last week, I mentioned how successfully dealing with the absence of Delanie Walker was something the 49ers would have to do to win. Their answer, of course, was to throw the ball to Vernon Davis. Walker is in line to play for the first time since Week 16, and it's perhaps even more crucial that he does suit up this week. That's because where the 49ers game plan in Week 10 really took advantage of perception was their use of a 1RB/2WR/2TE formation, which -- unbeknownst to many -- they actually throw out of two-thirds of the time. This exploited the fact that the Giants' defensive success rate against 1-2-2 drops from 71 percent against run to 49 percent against pass.
Interestingly, the Giants treated it as a passing formation, lining up with five or more defensive backs on 12 of the 14 plays in which San Francisco used it. Unfortunately for New York, it wasn't of much avail to them, especially on passes to Davis and Walker. Specifically, in 1-2-2, the 49ers threw the ball their way five times, with four successful plays, two first downs, and a touchdown.
As was the case against New Orleans, however, whether or not all this passing works this week depends on whether the 49ers offensive line can keep Alex Smith upright. On the surface, the Giants and their No. 10 ASR present more of a problem against a 49ers pass-protection unit that ranks 25th. However, there are a couple of nuances here. First, as I alluded to in the introduction, their 15 percent hurry rate means that, although it's certainly true that the Giants get a lot of sacks, it's also true that their pass rush is quintessentially boom-or-bust. For comparison, the 49ers' hurry rate on defense is 25 percent.
Second, and entirely contrary to the conventional wisdom, the Giants rush four 63 percent of the time, which is only 19th-most in the league. Furthermore, their defensive success rate when rushing four is ninth-worst. Rather, what New York does more than most teams is big blitz: They're ranked ninth in frequency of six-or-more rushers. This means that, despite all the talk this week of New York's ability to get a rush from their front-four, San Francisco finds itself in the same they-blitz-and-we're-not-good-at-blitz-pickup scenario they were in against the Saints.
What we're likely to see from the 49ers in terms of counteracting the blitz is a lot of break-contain runs from Alex Smith. There are three indicators here. First is that, last week, Aaron Rodgers scrambled seven times for 66 yards, with all but one of those runs resulting in a successful play for Green Bay's offense. Second is that the 49ers penultimate touchdown against the Saints showed that they have no problem putting designed quarterback runs into their offensive game plan. Third, in Week 10, Smith himself scrambled 3 times for 30 yards, including a 14-yarder with under a minute to go in the first half, which put San Francisco in field goal range.
If Jim Harbaugh really is the mad scientist many believe him to be from an offensive game planning standpoint, I wouldn't be surprised if we also see a lot more running from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter as well. Here's why. In addition to San Francisco's favorable matchup on first-down passes, they actually have an even more favorable one on first-down runs: seventh-best offense versus seventh-worst defense. Furthermore, the 49ers are No. 9 in frequency of runs to the outside left of the formation, and the Giants defense is No. 26 in that run direction. Lastly, and this is purely subjective on my part, it just seems perfectly set up given what's on tape -- and in game charts -- from that Week 10 contest.
Overall, San Francisco had the second-best special teams DVOA in the league this year, and New York's was 16th. Among the individual unit matchups, things are pretty even when the Giants are kicking and punting. On 49ers kicks and punts, San Francisco has a distinct advantage. On kickoffs, they were sixth in net expected points added, and the Giants kickoff return team was 23rd. On punts, it's even more lopsided, with the 49ers ranking third, and the Giants 29th.
In Week 10, kickoffs didn't play much of a role given that most ended in touchbacks. With 15-mile-per-hour winds in the forecast for Sunday, that'll probably repeat itself, which nullifies the potential advantage New York might have gained with kickoff returner Ted Ginn likely out due to injury. Therefore, if this game gets affected by special teams, it'll likely be due to Andy Lee's ability to pin New York deep in its own territory with regularity.
Although most should know this by now, full disclosure: I'm a 49ers fan. It's not a secret. When I set out to research the matchups in this game -- both in spreadsheets and on film -- I tried my best to be objective. In the aggregate, these teams are pretty evenly matched. However, when splitting things out according to DVOA and game-charting, the 49ers come out with an advantage far more often than the Giants do. Not even mentioned above is that the home-field advantage of the 49ers defense is seventh-biggest in the league this season, and that, if New York jumps out to an early lead, the No. 1 offense when losing big will be trying to comeback against the worst defense in the NFL at protecting a big lead. Really, as I said at the outset, the outcome of this game depends on whether or not you believe the New York Giants from Weeks 16 to 19 are the "true" New York Giants, or whether what appears to be "peaking at the right time" is just the random variation inherent in small samples. If the small-sample Giants show up, this game might be another instant classic in Candlestick. But if the large-sample Giants show up, the consistent-as-the-sunrise 49ers will be the team representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLVI.
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. There are separate charts for offense and defense for each team.