Christian McCaffrey a Nightmare Matchup for Seahawks

San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey
San Francisco 49ers RB Christian McCaffrey
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Wild Card - The Seattle Seahawks were not supposed to be here. Trading away the best quarterback in your franchise's history signals a rebuild, not a contending season—especially when you don't have a young prospect waiting in the wings. A quarterback competition between Drew Lock and Geno Smith seemed appropriate for Seattle's chances, because it looked like they would need a LockSmith to break into the NFC playoff field. But then Smith turned in the best season of his career, becoming a viable Comeback Player of the Year candidate. A hot start to the season gave them enough cushion for a post-Germany trip hangover, and a win over the Rams on the last day of the season was enough for them to slip into the playoffs as the seventh seed. Compared to preseason expectations, this has already been a massively successful year for Seattle.

However, to quote Pete Carroll, they are unfortunately playing the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers were supposed to be here, but not like this—this was Trey Lance's year to shine, to show why the team used three first-round picks to grab the unpolished athlete from North Dakota State. And when Lance went down with a broken ankle, it was time for the return of Jimmy Garoppolo, the veteran who had led San Francisco to a Super Bowl and multiple NFC Championship Games. Instead, it's Mr. Irrelevant himself, Brock Purdy, under center … and with him in place, the 49ers have become the hottest team in football—first in weighted DVOA, on a 10-game winning streak, and looking about as close to unstoppable as a team can be at this point of the season.

They sure seemed unstoppable the first two times Seattle had to play them, at any rate. San Francisco comfortably beat Seattle in each of their first two matchups this season, holding the Seahawks offense out of the end zone entirely in Week 2 and only giving up a garbage-time touchdown in Week 15. The Seahawks are 9.5-point underdogs and are not expected to be the first seventh seed to win a playoff game. That being said, stranger things have happened, and Carroll's squads have historically caused Kyle Shanahan teams no end of trouble; he has an 8-4 record against the wunderkind from the Bay. Can he scheme up one of the largest upsets of the season, or will the 49ers extend their longest win streak since 1997?

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.

  SEA SF
DVOA 5.8% (10) 27.6% (2)
WEI DVOA 4.1% (15) 38.6% (1)
Seahawks on Offense
  SEA OFF SF DEF
DVOA 4.8% (14) -14.1% (1)
WEI DVOA 0.1% (16) -13.3% (2)
PASS 24.1% (8) -8.0% (5)
RUSH -9.5% (23) -23.6% (2)
49ers on Offense
  SEA DEF SF OFF
DVOA 2.9% (21) 13.2% (6)
WEI DVOA 1.3% (20) 23.2% (2)
PASS 3.8% (17) 35.% (3)
RUSH 1.9% (25) -0.5% (13)
Special Teams
  SEA SF
DVOA 3.9% (4) 0.2% (15)

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

WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL

SEA Week-to-Week DVOA

Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. So for exhibit A, let's look at Geno Smith's passing chart from the Week 15 49ers-Seahawks game.

That massive void up the middle is brought to you by Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, whose combined reputation and coverage skills have made the middle of the field a no-go area for passing offenses all year long. They are two of the top 10 coverage linebackers in the league, and they make everyone else on San Francisco's job easier by limiting the sorts of routes opponents can run. The 49ers' -29.0% DVOA against passes to the short middle of the field is second-best, and only six teams were challenged less frequently up the middle. It's simply not worth the effort for most teams to try to challenge these linebackers.

Interestingly, the same is not true on deep passes. The 49ers have a DVOA of 60.3% in the deep middle, 25th in the league, and they're not that much better along the boundaries. This is partially due to injuries at the cornerback position, with Deommodore Lenoir being the third option across from Charvarius Ward, and partially because as good as Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson have been at safety, they do have a tendency to sneak up to make a big play, leaving receivers one-on-one deep. As a result, they have given up 50 deep passes this season, second-most among the playoff teams.

If you look at the full-season stats, that would seem to be something Seattle could take advantage of. Smith was sixth in deep-pass DVOA over the course of the season, so a few deep shots over the top to DK Metcalf or Tyler Lockett would seem to be there for the taking. But that's an artifact of Smith's hot start; he has cooled significantly since then. Since Week 6, Smith's deep pass DVOA has fallen to 44.7%, 24th among qualified passers. For a month and a half—and, really, until the Week 10 trip to Germany—Smith was playing like one of the best quarterbacks in football. Since then, things have gone dramatically downhill. He has gone from a top-five passer in the first half of the season to just outside of the bottom 10 over the back half. That still adds up to a career year for Smith and a well-deserved opportunity to be the starter for the short-term future in Seattle, but between inaccurate passes and poor decisions, he hasn't been the same player over the back half of the season.

Then again, neither has the Seattle offense as a whole. We don't want to imply they lost their offense in some checked baggage in Germany, because it has been a gradual decline over the course of the year, but the pre- and post-Week 10 splits are stark indeed. Seattle's offensive DVOA drops from 12.2% to -3.0%; their passing DVOA falls from 32.7% to 15.5%, and their rushing DVOA falls from -1.1% to -19.4%, 27th in the league. All the issues are compounding one another. They're losing the push at the line of scrimmage in the run game; Kenneth Walker is second-to-last in success rate among qualified backs. That keeps Seattle in second- and third-and-long situations, forcing them into obvious passing downs, and Smith has had a bad tendency to force the ball into coverage to try to make plays happen, leading to turnovers and failed drives. That means the Seahawks try to fall back on their running game again to take the pressure off, and the cycle just continues.

To beat San Francisco, the Seahawks have to stay on schedule. In their two games against the 49ers this season, Seattle had an average of 9.6 yards to go on third down. That's bad! That's what happens when you have 30 plays on first and second down that either gain zero yards, lose yards, or result in a turnover. The 49ers' defense drops to 23rd against the pass on third downs, but a lot of their failures came in short yardage. The 49ers are still sixth in defensive DVOA on third-and-long, and the Seahawks have lived in third-and-long against the 49ers. That cannot happen again if Seattle wants to pull the upset.

Avoiding that is much easier said and done when you consider San Francisco's pass rush. The 49ers lead the league with 177 quarterback hits. They're fifth in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate. Nick Bosa leads the league in sacks, pressures, and quarterback knockdowns. And they did a bunch of this without the interior of their defensive line healthy. Arik Armstead's return in Week 13 saw the 49ers' defensive DVOA rise about 5%, and now Javon Kinlaw has worked his way back to the lineup as well. This spells trouble for Seattle. Seattle may be eighth in Pass Block Win Rate, but that's mostly due to strong seasons from their rookie tackles, Charles Cross and Abraham Lucas. On the interior, Austin Blythe and Gabe Jackson have combined for 54 blown blocks this season. The pressure is coming right up the middle.

Seattle has started using Jake Curhan as a sixth lineman in recent weeks to try to blunt pass rushes, and they're probably going to have to hold their running backs back more to absorb some of the pressure that San Francisco is going to dial up. Their best chance, though, might be getting the ball out quickly, Smith's time to throw fell from 2.9 seconds in the first matchup to 2.7 in Week 15, and it might need to fall again. San Francisco is only 13th in coverage against tight ends, and Noah Fant did have the one touchdown against the 49ers in Week 15. Maybe a quick passing game can help the Seahawks get an early score and prevent the massive leads San Francisco has been able to generate in their past two matchups. If they can avoid getting raced off the field, perhaps Seattle can continue to hang in and run their offense. If they end up having to play catchup, they are going to have a long Saturday afternoon.

WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL

SF Week-to-Week DVOA

Are Brock Purdy's 49ers better than Jimmy Garoppolo's? Yes, because they have Christian McCaffrey.

It's hard to talk about the 49ers' offense as a whole because of the key personnel changes they have had to deal with this season. That's the quarterback injuries, sending them from Lance to Garoppolo to Purdy, as well as the midseason trade that brought McCaffrey into the fold. The best version of the 49ers' offense was the one that had Garoppolo and McCaffrey working together, with a slight drop-off in the passing game happening when they turned things over to the seventh-round rookie.

49ers Offensive DVOA Splits
Players Weeks Total DVOA Pass DVOA Rush DVOA
Garoppolo 2-12 14.8% 41.9% -6.6%
Jimmy G - CMC 2-7 3.0% 24.3% -15.3%
Jimmy G + CMC 8-12 32.2% 72.7% 4.4%
McCaffrey 8-18 26.3% 53.9% 9.6%
Purdy 13-18 22.5% 42.2% 13.0%

This is complicated some by the absence of Deebo Samuel and the return of Elijah Mitchell and whatnot, but it shouldn't be surprising that the 49ers were slightly more effective with this year's passing DVOA leader than with the last pick in the draft. The fact that they were only slightly more effective is the surprising part.

Purdy didn't quite qualify for our passing leaderboards, falling 19 pass plays short of the minimum. If he had, his 21.5% DVOA would have been the sixth highest for a rookie on record, behind only Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, Dak Prescott, and Deshaun Watson. And while the system clearly helps, he's not the first rookie to get to play in a good system. Seventh-round rookies are not supposed to play like this; we keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it's just not happening.

Purdy and Garoppolo have near-identical on-target pass percentages, per Sports Info Solutions' charting, and 88.3% of Purdy's throws have been deemed catchable, compared to Garoppolo's rate of 85.5%. He doesn't have the same timing Garoppolo displayed with his years of experience in the offence, but he brings an aspect to the position that Garoppolo never displayed: movement. Purdy can dodge pressure in the pocket, scrambling and making plays on the move. We have haven't seen that from a Shanahan offense since the RGIII years in Washington; it's part of what he was looking for when he traded up for Lance. No longer does protection have to be perfect for the offense to hum. Instead of Garoppolo caving under pressure, Purdy gives the chance for positive yardage.

Purdy's shocking competence has kept the 49ers in contention, but it's the midseason addition of McCaffrey that vaulted the 49ers from 15th in offensive DVOA to first after his arrival. Three picks is a high price to pay for a running back, especially on a team that has already used plenty of draft capital at the position and is still missing picks from the Lance trade. And, as a runner, McCaffrey is not worth it; the 49ers actually have a higher DVOA when rushing with Elijah Mitchell or Jordan Mason, and nearly the same with Jeff Wilson. McCaffrey's a good rusher, but the 49ers' run game is strong enough that you can plug anyone back there and get solid results.

(Well, almost anyone. Sorry, Tyrion Davis-Price.)

But McCaffrey is the best receiving back in football, bar none—first in both yards and DYAR. McCaffrey is another matchup nightmare for defenses; he can line up and run a full route tree from wide receiver positions as well as from the backfield. Shanahan has never had that before, and the bells and whistles he has been pulling since McCaffrey joined the team shows just how long he has been waiting to scheme up plays for a receiving back of this caliber. The presence of both McCaffrey and Samuel in the same lineup means that no matter what personnel a defense puts on the field, they're going to be at a matchup disadvantage. And no coach is better at moving players around to create those disadvantages than Shanahan. Only the Dolphins use more pre-snap motion than the 49ers do; only the Chiefs join the two with motion on at least 65% of their snaps. Playing against this offense requires constant communication between defenders as the skill position players swap roles before the ball is snapped. Giving Shanahan an extra chess piece like this is frankly unfair.

This is where we should mention that the Seahawks are 30th in pass DVOA against running backs. McCaffrey against Cody Barton or Jonathan Abram is a nightmare. They're also 27th against tight ends, which is a problem when dealing with George Kittle, and 30th against second wide receivers. Hey, at least Tariq Woolen can be counted on when the chips are down!

The Seahawks also allow the fourth-most YAC in the league, which is not ideal against the 49ers. San Francisco boasts four of the top 16 players in YAC+ this season in McCaffrey, Kittle, Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk. And we're talking gross numbers, not per-catch figures where Samuel ranks first and the others are all in the top 10 at their position. All four players have enough volume to climb to the top of the leaderboards despite sharing one football. There are certainly better receiving corps in the playoffs. You can make arguments for Travis Kelce or Dallas Goedert over Kittle; you can argue for Austin Ekeler over McCaffrey as a pass-catching running back. But no team in football can trot out eligible receivers that go from one to five like the 49ers can. As our Derrik Klassen puts it, the team's explosive play potential can go nuclear.

How can Seattle respond? They tried running a lot of zone in the Week 15 matchups to avoid one-on-one matchups, but the 49ers responded by sending three receivers to three different levels on the side where Seattle only had two defensive backs in coverage. That directly led to a couple of huge plays where Kittle just got lost in the secondary, resulting in big chunk gains. Still, it's probably their best shot rather than trying to match up guy-for-guy with the 49ers' weapons; more disciplined coverage plus some sloppy weather from the expected rain could cut down on San Francisco's big-play potential. The 49ers also drop to 21st in the red zone, where their YAC-based attack has less room to work. If Seattle can avoid giving up the huge plays, they could at least stall San Francisco's offense enough to make this a game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Seattle has a significant advantage on special teams. They're second on kickoffs, fifth on field goals, and seventh on punts. Jason Myers has been near-perfect, missing just three field goals all year long and going 6-for-6 on kicks of 50 yards or more. If the game is tight down to the wire, you'd much rather have Myers going out in the slop than Robbie Gould; the 49ers rank just 26th on field goals and extra points this season as Gould has missed four kicks from 40 yards or more.

If you are looking for a special teams battle, it'll be Seahawks punter Michael Dickson against 49ers returner Ray-Ray McCloud: strength versus strength. Dickson and the Seahawks are second in net yards per punt at 44.3; McCloud is third in yards per punt return at 10.8.

OUTLOOK

Conventional wisdom says that it's hard to beat a team three times in the same season. This is somewhat overblown; teams looking for the sweep are 14-9 overall since the merger and 12-6 when they're the higher-seeded home team. But weird things do happen in divisional matchups, and the Seahawks have a tendency to play very, very weird games.

But the only reason this isn't our most confident pick of the week is due to the quarterback situation in Miami. The 49ers are the better team by a significant margin. They're in better form, they match up specifically well against Seattle's weaknesses, and we have already seen them handle Seattle quite easily twice this season. As 9.5-point underdogs, a Seattle win would be the second-biggest playoff upset of the past decade by Vegas' reckoning. Stranger things have happened, but all signs point to San Francisco winning this one fairly comfortably.

 

 

 

 

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).

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. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.

Comments

8 comments, Last at 14 Jan 2023, 7:49am

#1 by Sixknots // Jan 13, 2023 - 12:56pm

The one thing that may play a big role in this game is that it is likely to be played in a downpour.

Points: 2

#3 by burbman // Jan 13, 2023 - 3:10pm

...and IIRC, Levi's Stadium is a grass field...

 

This could become a real slopfest, not sure who that favors.

Points: 0

#4 by bravehoptoad // Jan 13, 2023 - 7:23pm

Judging by the way the 49ers played in a slopfest in Game 1 earlier this season? Not the home team.

Points: 0

#5 by Chuckc // Jan 13, 2023 - 7:50pm

One of the local reporters said that the rain didn't seem to bother Purdy much in practice. Could be a big difference between how he handles it vs how Trey Lance did.

Points: 0

#6 by KnotMe // Jan 13, 2023 - 9:15pm

because it looked like they would need a LockSmith to break into the NFC playoff field. 

Been holding onto that one for a while, eh?

This is why they made the CMC trade. I'm just amazed it worked. 

Points: 1

#7 by Bryan Knowles // Jan 13, 2023 - 11:27pm

The biggest disappoint of the entire season may be the Seahawks' passing situation being good, and therefore that joke not being relevant.

Points: 0

#8 by coboney // Jan 14, 2023 - 7:49am

When the CMC trade happened I was sure it was a mistake - love McCaffrey but it felt like Shanny was over-investing in yet another RB for an upgrade that wouldn't have a big impact on the offense as it has done well with a variety of backs.

 

I'm happy to have been proven wrong

Points: 0

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