NFC Championship Preview 2020

San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle
San Francisco 49ers TE George Kittle
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

On the surface, the NFC Championship Game brings us a meeting between two 13-3 teams. But while the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers were equal this year in record, they were far from equal in most other metrics. San Francisco outscored its opponents by 169 points, Green Bay by only 63 points. In Football Outsiders' DVOA ratings, San Francisco ranked fifth for the year, more than 20 percentage points ahead of Green Bay which ranked tenth. The gap between the teams is even larger in our weighted ratings, which give more weight to games from the second half of the season and include last week's playoff performances.

And of course, these teams have already met on the football field this season, and they were far from equal there. San Francisco demolished the Packers 37-8 at Levi Stadium back in Week 12. By DVOA, this was Green Bay's worst offensive and defensive performance of the 2019 season. San Francisco averaged 7.5 yards per play compared to just 2.8 yards per play for Green Bay.

We can certainly learn some things about the matchup between these teams by looking back at the Week 12 game, but there's no guarantee that Sunday's contest will follow the same script as the first game between these teams. There are plenty of instances of teams playing multiple times in one season and having different results in the second matchup. The example I have given is from the 2010 season, when the Patriots beat the Jets 45-3 in Week 13 and then the Jets won 28-21 in the playoffs. Or would you prefer an example from the histories of the two teams involved in the NFC Championship Game? The 1981 San Francisco 49ers beat Dallas 45-14 in Week 6, then only beat them 28-27 in the NFC Championship Game thanks to "The Catch." Or, if you want a more recent example, the 2007 Packers beat the New York Giants 35-13 early in the season, then lost to the Giants in overtime in the NFC Championship Game.

Based on San Francisco's advantage throughout the entire season, our playoff odds simulator gives Green Bay about a 1 in 4 chance of pulling off an upset and advancing to Super Bowl LIV. What does Green Bay need to do to overcome the regular-season gap between these teams? What does San Francisco need to do to get another victory over the Packers, even if it is probably a closer one? Let's take a look at all the stats and figure it out.

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. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.

Green Bay at San Francisco

  GB SF
DVOA 7.7% (10) 27.9% (5)
WEI DVOA 3.3% (15) 30.9% (5)
Packers on Offense
  GB OFF SF DEF
DVOA 6.5% (8) -19.8% (2)
WEI DVOA 2.4% (11) -17.5% (4)
PASS 17.1% (11) -26.3% (2)
RUSH 8.3% (4) -12.1% (11)
49ers on Offense
  GB DEF SF OFF
DVOA -1.1% (15) 7.2% (7)
WEI DVOA -0.2% (17) 10.0% (7)
PASS -1.3% (10) 24.4% (8)
RUSH -0.8% (23) -0.5% (13)
Special Teams
  GB SF
DVOA 0.1% (18) 1.0% (12)

If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.

WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL

Aaron Rodgers had one of the best peaks of any quarterback in NFL history back in the earlier part of this decade, but he hasn't gotten that kind of production for years now. And so despite Rodgers' star charisma and impressive resume, the biggest gap between these teams according to DVOA ranks is between San Francisco's pass defense (second in the NFL) and the Green Bay pass offense (11th).

As suggested by these week-to-week graphs, both the Green Bay pass offense and the San Francisco pass defense declined significantly over the second half of the year but rebounded last week. Actually, "declined in the second half of the year" may not properly describe the Green Bay offense, which was a little bit above average in most games this season. In effect, their second half "decline" is the mostly the product of when they had their good and bad games, with the two best games coming in October and the two worst games coming in November.

Oh, but that game against the 49ers was really bad. Rodgers had only 104 passing yards against San Francisco in Week 12 and took five sacks. Rodgers couldn't hit anything deep against the 49ers defense that day, as all nine of his attempts of more than 10 air yards fell incomplete. Six were overthrown, two defensed, and one thrown away on purpose. San Francisco was 12th in DVOA against deep passes this year (16-plus air yards) and it's doubtful Rodgers will go a second whole game without connecting on at least one of those passes.

Better during the season was San Francisco's defense on shorter passes, up to 15 air yards. The 49ers ranked fourth in DVOA on short middle passes, eighth on short left passes, and third on short right passes (where Richard Sherman is). The 49ers can thank their strong linebacker coverage for a lot of that defense against short passes, as Derrik Klassen detailed in Film Room yesterday. Rodgers' 13.9% DVOA on short passes was about league average.

In the first meeting, the Packers clearly played "Keep Away from Richard Sherman." Will they do it again this week? Sports Info Solutions only charted one pass targeted at Sherman in the Week 12 game, a very early deep ball where Rodgers overthrew Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Rodgers threw a lot on Sherman's side, but those throws were heavily screen passes and dumpoffs to Jamaal Williams.

A short digression: Green Bay was one of the league's most frequent and best (31.5% DVOA, fourth) screen teams (combining both receiver and running back screens). But San Francisco faced a league-high 93 screens and had a -20.5% DVOA on these passes. In the Week 12 game, Green Bay ran 11 screen passes; they averaged just 3.9 yards per play but five of them earned first downs. (One of those was after Rodgers was pulled from the game late for Tim Boyle.) Five of the 12 targets for Davante Adams in Week 12 were screens, and a sixth was a jet sweep tap pass (Green Bay's only touchdown) which is practically a screen.

The Packers kept Adams away from Richard Sherman because Sherman is good. One clear strategy against the 49ers for much of the year was to attack the cornerback playing opposite Sherman. But that may not be as easy if the 49ers stick with Emmanuel Mosley instead of Akhello Witherspoon on the outside opposite Sherman. Based on SIS charting, Mosley allowed 6.3 yards per pass this year (14th) with 63% success rate (10th). Witherspoon allowed 7.8 yards per pass (48th) with 54% success rate (33rd).

Also excellent was Jimmie Ward in the slot, charted with just 5.4 yards allowed per pass and a 70% success rate in coverage. And San Francisco ranked second in DVOA against tight ends. In Week 12 they limited Green Bay tight ends to three catches for 15 yards, none for a first down.

The battle at the line of scrimmage on passing plays is a battle of strength against strength... or is it? There's evidence that perhaps the San Francisco pass rush isn't quite as generally advertised. San Francisco ranked only 13th in Sports Info Solutions' charting of pressure rate. Want a stat that comes from tracking instead of charting? San Francisco was also just 13th in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate.

On the other side, Green Bay ranked first in Pass Block Win Rate. They're lower in pressure rate allowed, tenth, partly because Rodgers tends to hold onto the ball trying to make something happen and thus makes his own pressure. Right guard Billy Turner is the weakness of the Packers' offensive line; SIS marked him with 32 blown blocks with no other Green Bay lineman above 18. And the Packers are in better shape for this game assuming right tackle Bryan Bulaga is over his illness and ready to play. Bulaga had to leave the Week 12 game early due to injury and his replacement, Alex Light, was a real problem. He was charted with seven blown blocks, three of which at least partially led to three of Rodgers' five sacks.

The 49ers' pass rush is back to full strength with the return of defensive end Dee Ford, but Ford may not be as important as sack numbers suggest.  Let's ignore the four snaps Ford played in Week 14; essentially, Ford was active in Weeks 1-11 and inactive for Weeks 12-17. (His first game out was the first 49ers-Packers game.) And in fact, the sack difference is pretty substantial. Using FO's adjusted sack rate (to adjust for situation and opponent), San Francisco went from 11.7% ASR with Ford to 5.3% ASR without him. Yet the 49ers pressure rate barely changed. In Weeks 1-11, the 49ers had a 30.6% pressure rate, which ranked 14th. In Weeks 12-17, their pressure rate went up slightly to 31.1%, but dropped in rank to 16th.

Packers do have an advantage when Aaron Jones runs the ball, sort of. Although Green Bay's running game ranks fourth and San Francisco's run defense 11th, Green Bay's positive DVOA running the ball is not as strong as San Francisco's negative DVOA against the run because passing is generally more efficient than rushing. Nevertheless, the "efficiency gap" between these units is smaller for rushing than it is for passing.

Aaron Jones only played 51% of snaps in Week 12, but he has played more than that in every week since and I think we can expect more Jones in this game as well. Jones also had just one target in Week 12, while Jamaal Williams had 7 catches for 35 yards. San Francisco is the league's No. 1 DVOA defense against running backs as receivers.

Like most NFL teams at this point, Green Bay primarily uses 11 personnel (62% of plays). The Packers are also much more efficient from this personnel group than larger personnel groups. The Packers had 19.2% DVOA when using 11 personnel, compared to -1.4% with 12 personnel (20% of plays) and 0.8% with 21 personnel (13% of plays). The gap is even larger when we're only talking about rushing plays (scrambles removed). The Packers had the highest rushing yards per carry average from 21 personnel because of one Aaron Jones 56-yard touchdown against Minnesota in Week 16, but overall the Packers were much stronger running out of 11 personnel (18.9% DVOA) compared to 12 personnel (-4.9% DVOA) and 21 personnel (-17.1% DVOA).

However, the 49ers were also stronger against runs from 11 personnel (-10.2% DVOA) than they were against runs from 12 personnel (5.9% DVOA). Surprisingly, the 49ers only faced 17 runs from 21 personnel all season, too small a sample for the DVOA to really matter.

One other thing to note is that Green Bay is not very good in short-yardage situations compared to the rest of the league. That doesn't make it smart to punt on fourth-and-1, but they converted less than other teams this year. Green Bay ranked 27th in short-yardage runs (57%) while the San Francisco defense was first preventing conversion on short-yardage runs (50%). Green Bay also converted just 9 of 16 passes on third/fourth down with 1-2 yards to go. 

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

Unlike Rodgers, Jimmy Garoppolo was very successful on his deeper passes back in Week 12. He didn't throw many of them, with only six passes that went at least 10 air yards and only two that went at least 16 air yards. But all six of these passes were complete. If you want the best summary of why this game isn't likely to be 37-8 again, this is it: Aaron Rodgers isn't going to go two whole games without hitting any passes downfield and Jimmy Garoppolo isn't going to go two whole games without missing any passes downfield.

There's a huge gap between the two main Green Bay cornerbacks and the 49ers took advantage of it. Jaire Alexander allowed 7.3 yards per pass (37th) with 60% success rate (15th). He usually is lined up on the offensive right. Kevin King allowed 9.9 yards per pass (83rd) with a 51% success rate (51st). He is usually lined up on the offensive left. The difference between the two corners is part of why Green Bay had the league's best defensive DVOA against passes to the short right but ranked 24th against passes to the short left. In the Week 12 game, Garoppolo only targeted Alexander once, an early dig route to Raheem Mostert lined up wide which Alexander defensed. On the other hand, King was the target on four of Garoppolo's six passes of 10 or more air yards -- and again, those were all completed.

Two of those deep passes targeting King were thrown to tight end George Kittle, coming out of play-action with only one wide receiver on the field. That left King covering Kittle as the widest receiver on the left side and that didn't go well. In King's defense, nobody from the Packers could cover Kittle all game: not King, not Adrian Amos, not Blake Martinez. Kittle finished 6-of-6 for 129 yards and a touchdown. For the season, the Packers were 24th covering tight ends. They allowed huge games to Darren Waller, Greg Olsen, Hunter Henry, and even Kaden Smith of the Giants. The Packers need to figure out a way to at least somewhat slow down Kittle if they want to win this game.

Five of Kittle's catches were on first down, emphasizing a big matchup disadvantage for the Packers. San Francisco ranked fifth in offensive DVOA this year on first down. Green Bay ranked 19th on defense on first down. In Week 12, San Francisco gained 10.8 yards per play on first down with 10 of 22 plays converting for a new series or scoring a touchdown (including four passes to Kittle). This matchup disadvantage exists on both passes and runs. On second and third down, the San Francisco offense and Green Bay defense are evenly matched.

As you may know, the 49ers use more different personnel groups on a regular basis than any other team in the league. Doing research for this article, I found that the 49ers were far less efficient when they used 12 personnel -- 4.8 yards per play compared to 6.5 yards otherwise. Upon further study, though, this was almost entirely due to Weeks 6-9 when fullback Kyle Juszczyk was injured and backup tight end Ross Dwelley was essentially playing as the fullback. For the rest of the season, San Francisco just didn't use 12 personnel very much -- only 34 plays over the second half of the year, for example.

Speaking of Juszczyk, Green Bay's defense was a little better against 21 personnel than against 11 or 12 personnel this year, but the difference is pretty small: -5.0% DVOA against 21 compared to 6.4% DVOA against 11 personnel and 9.8% DVOA against 12 personnel.

If the San Francisco pass rush presents a case of the eye test disagreeing with advanced stats, the San Francisco offensive line presents a case of the advanced stats disagreeing with each other. The 49ers ranked only 26th in ESPN's Pass Blown Win Rate, but they ranked fourth in pressure rate allowed according to SIS. This wasn't just a case of Garoppolo or the scheme preventing pressure: 66 different offensive linemen were listed by SIS with at least 20 blown blocks, and none of them were on the 49ers. The 49ers certainly have their hands full against the Packers pass rush, which ranked third in pressure rate and ninth in Pass Rush Win Rate.

The San Francisco offensive line did a reasonable job in the first game, especially considering they were without starting left tackle Joe Staley. Garoppolo took three sacks, but one was a coverage sack. SIS recorded only five other plays where Garoppolo was hurried. There was a stretch in the first quarter where Za'Darius Smith had pressures on three straight plays, but those were the only hurries he had in the ballgame. Smith, who was second in the league with 65 hurries this season, needs to get to Garoppolo a little bit more this week.

The Packers generally get their pressure with only four pass-rushers, blitzing just 17% of the time this season (29th in the NFL). That presents a contrast with how most defenses played against the 49ers, because Garoppolo was one of the most blitzed quarterbacks in the league this year. For the year, Garoppolo had 8.8 yards per pass against four pass-rushers compared to 8.0 against five or more. In the Week 12 game, the Packers blitzed Garoppolo eight times out of 23 dropbacks, higher than their usual rate. But he completed 6-of-7 passes with one sack for 8.9 net yards per pass.

The 49ers may not have the advantage in the trenches when it comes to the passing game, but they definitely have the advantage in the running game. San Francisco ranked eighth in adjusted line yards on offense, while the Packers were dead last in ALY on defense. In particular, the Packers were dead last in ALY against runs up the middle, although San Francisco's advantage came more on runs to the outside (both left and right). The difference wasn't just on steady gains, either. San Francisco was fifth in second-level yards per carry (yards from 5-10 past the line of scrimmage) and third in open-field yards per carry (yards over 10 past the line of scrimmage). Green Bay was 24th and 20th in these same metrics.

The 49ers have a three-headed rushing attack but our numbers are very clear on who was the best among these running backs during the 2019 regular season: Raheem Mostert.

San Francisco 49ers Running Backs, 2019
Player DVOA Rk Runs Yds TD Suc% Rk
R.Mostert 26.4% 1 137 772 8 53% 9
M.Breida -2.8% 24 123 623 1 46% 31
T.Coleman -15.9% 43 137 544 6 39% 44

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both San Francisco and Green Bay were close to average in overall special teams performance this year. Each team has one advantage in this game, although San Francisco's advantage is likely more "real." Their advantage comes when they have to punt, as the 49ers ranked seventh in net punting value this season. We have punter Mitch Wishnowsky as below-average in gross punt value but the 49ers' punt coverage team was excellent. The Packers were 28th in punt return value this season although they've been slightly above average since Tyler Ervin took over the job in Week 14. (Caveat here because that's even smaller sample size than usual for special teams.)

Green Bay's advantage comes in placekicking, where we had Mason Crosby as 6.9 points above average after adjusting for weather while Robbie Gould was 7.4 points below average. However, we know that 1) field goal kicking is very inconsistent from year to year; 2) Gould has good career numbers, which are probably more trustworthy than one-season numbers; and 3) Gould has positive value since he returned from a quad injury in Week 13. So it's hard to believe that the 49ers should really be trusting Gould any less than the Packers trust Crosby just because Gould missed a handful of kicks early in the season.

OUTLOOK

So many things went wrong for Green Bay in the first meeting of these two teams, and the Packers are unlikely to see as many things go wrong in the rematch. Although San Francisco had more penalties for the entire game, Green Bay had some particularly damaging penalties early in the game when the score was still close. Aaron Rodgers isn't going to have another game where he can't hit a pass more than 10 yards downfield. There was only one turnover in the entire game, but it was early, and San Francisco recovered it at the Packers' 2-yard line.

Other things that went wrong for Green Bay in the first game represent trends that have lasted all season long. The Packers spoiled a long drive by failing to convert on fourth-and-1, but they weren't very good on converting fourth-and-1 all season. The Packers got killed by George Kittle, but Kittle has played well all year and the Packers have had trouble with tight ends all year. And just as the Packers have strugged with the run all year, so too did they allow the 49ers to run for 6.4 yards per carry in the first half.

So what will Green Bay need to do to win this game? They'll need to somehow find a way to slow down Kittle. They'll need to do a better job stopping the San Francisco run to put Garoppolo in third-and-long. They'll need to bring more pass pressure, whether they blitz or use their usual four pass-rushers. They need to do a better job covering downfield passes, and Aaron Rodgers needs to do a better job completing those downfield passes. Get Davante Adams away from Richard Sherman and send him down the field instead of just throwing screens to him all day.

How much do we judge the Packers based on those three really bad games that they had this year? Isn't it better to judge them based on all the good wins they had? Here's the thing: take out each team's three worst games of the year and the San Francisco 49ers were still significantly better than the Green Bay Packers by DVOA (41.6% to 25.4%, to be exact). The 49ers were simply the better team this season, and they have the home-field advantage. The Packers are a good team and certainly can win this game, but it's more likely that the San Francisco 49ers are going to Super Bowl LIV.

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.

Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.

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 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). Weighted DVOA ratings include the playoffs.

Each team also gets two charts showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to offensive and defensive 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. Note that the defensive chart is reversed so upwards is a more negative defensive DVOA (which is better).

Comments

13 comments, Last at 19 Jan 2020, 4:09pm

2 49ers pressure rate

This article by pro football focus illuminates why their pass rush win rate may be low. They are only rushing 4 guys a lot so their expected win rate won't be as high. Per the article

"The 49ers blitz their opponent only 22% of the time, the fifth-lowest rate among NFL defenses. Therefore it’s no surprise them with a below-average expectation, especially early in the snap.

Three seconds into the snap, the 49ers generate pressure 9% more than expected, the highest rate in the league. They have also done just as well two and a half seconds into the snap, generating pressure 5% over expectation, second to only Pittsburgh. However, due to their relatively low expectation (28th), their pressure rate at that time is “only” the ninth-highest in the NFL"

https://www.pff.com/news/nfl-using-survival-curves-to-investigate-trench-warfare-in-the-nfc-championship-game

8 It’s good context but I…

It’s good context but I think the larger point remains the same: they don’t get pressure as often as their sack rate would suggest. Is it partially because they only rush 4 a lot of the time yes? But the result is still less pressure.

3 I'm hopeful that we'll get a…

I'm hopeful that we'll get a much better performance from the Packers offense than we did in Week 12 (I mean, they can't really play worse), and if that's the case I think GB can hang in there. But unless either or both units play their best game of the year, or Garoppolo blesses them with a few turnovers, it's going to be so hard to overcome all of the matchup advantages the 49ers have.

A few people, including Aaron here, have pointed out that some kinda-fluky things went against the Packers favor to help produce the blowout in the last game. The Packers defense was even playing well through about the mid-second quarter in spite of the poor position the offense had placed them in. But the 49ers blew the game open by exploiting things the Packers have struggled with all year: slashing run plays, a couple of explosive passes, heavily targeting the TE. There's nothing fluky about the formula the 49ers used to win that game on offense. It'll a very uphill climb for GB, but it's at least great to be able to watch them have a shot at redemption in the NFC Championship.

4 I don't expect the 49ers to…

I don't expect the 49ers to blast the packers offense into oblivion like last time. The line, which was thoroughly dominated, should be able to protect better this time around. Ultimately though, I think the packers will have some scoring drives but the 49er defense is way too talented to get beat up. I think the big part will be how much they can tilt field position. This matchup reminds me of division round in 06 with the Colts against the Ravens. 

 

To that end, its the other side of the ball that will determine the outcome. Jimmy G doesn't need to play well to win this game, he just needs to avoid the big mistake.  Hunt the Kittle mismatch the way KC did against Houston and run the ball. A game manager performance should be enough to get it done against GB. 

 

 

5 SF Pass Rush

Shocked to see the 49ers pressure stats come up closer to league average than elite--watching them every week, it felt like the defensive line especially when healthy dominated week in and week out.

You mention they faced the league high in screen passes--do those pass attempts count in the charting stats? It's nearly a fifth of the total pass attempts they faced, and would explain the disconnect between what my eyes and what the stats say (assuming pressures on screens are difficult to impossible). Further, what's their pressure rate on 3rd down passes or other obvious passing downs compared to other teams? I'm really curious to figure out why the media/my eyes said this was an elite unit and the stats suggest something totally different.

6 And yes, I know ASR and…

In reply to by Channing Merchandise

And yes, I know ASR and pressure rate is referenced in the article, however something about it doesn't quite gel. SF allowed by far the fewest air yards in the NFL this year and had the lowest depth of target according to PFR's advanced stats, and while I think the safeties are good they're not Earl Thomas so there must be another explanation.

This feels like a situation where offensive coordinators decided QBs had to immediately get the ball out of their hands due to perceiving the SF pass rush as dominant, and consequently the charting numbers see only a middling rush because they couldn't generate pressure on the passes behind the LOS.  Not really sure how you untangle that (maybe playcallers are seeing ghosts), but those charting stats I think should be questioned. 

7 This is called endongeity in…

This is called endongeity in economics. Behavior is altered based on expectations. Measuring it therefore becomes a stupendously difficult exercise. 

 

As an aside, I don't attempt to disentangle it, but I will be curious to see how the 49ers do once I get to run my rate of adjusted pressure stat on this year's teams. 

12 Kind of funny to see it…

Kind of funny to see it noted that GB/SF is the most-played playoff matchup of the last 25 years - 8 games I think. Up until that first playoff game in 1995, the Packers had been around for about 75 years and the Niners about 50, and I'm not sure they had ever played a particularly meaningful game against each other.