49ers-Bills Statistical Preview: In the Trenches

This week, the 49ers travel to the Eastern time zone to face the Bills. I've talked previously about how horrible the Niners have been in east-of-the-Mississippi games since Mike Nolan took the reins as head coach (1-12, outscored by 15.7 ppg), so there's no need to beat the proverbial dead horse here. I've also been discussing player stats the past few weeks, so it's probably time to change it up a little bit. Therefore, I'm instead going to focus this week's statistical preview on something that Niner fans have been complaining about for the past few seasons: their seeming deficiency on the offensive line.

How is this relevant to the Bills game? Well, it turns out that, according to the stats, the much-maligned 49er offensive line matches up pretty well against the Bills' defensive line. If you're the type of fan who thinks games are won in the trenches, and that 49er losses over the past few seasons have been due to their losses in said trenches, then you just might have reason for optimism this week. Optimism about the 49ers...wow, I really am changing it up this week!

"HE CAN TAKE HIS'N AND BEAT YOUR'N..." - BUM PHILLIPS

So far in my previews, I've introduced DYAR, and EYds to Niners Nation. Obviously, these stats don't do very much in the way of telling you how good (or bad) an offensive line is. And, in general, it's quite difficult to separate the performance of a team's offensive line from that of its quarterback or running backs. Nevertheless, I do need some kind of statistical evidence on which to base my argument. Two stats immediately come to mind: yards per carry as a measure of run blocking performance and sacks per attempt as a measure of pass blocking performance. Unfortunately, these two stats are woefully inadequate because they assume that all rushing yards and sacks are created equally, and that the credit/blame for those yards and sacks is shared equally between the running back/quarterback and his offensive line. By now, we know these assumptions to be untrue. For example, should a running back take any blame for a 5-yard loss? Not really. Almost always, a 5-yard loss is due to a missed blocking assignment.

Luckily, Football Outsiders has developed two stats, Adjusted Line Yards (ALY) and Adjusted Sack Rate (ASR), which adjust yards per carry and sacks per attempt based on credit/blame, as well as several other familiar factors (e.g., game situation and caliber of opponent).  Also, I should note that the methods used to compute ALY and ASR can also be used to measure defensive line performance. You can get a full explanation of the methods behind these stats, as well as their inherent caveats, here.

OK...With that said, here's the first question: Is the 49ers' offensive line as bad as it seems when it comes to run blocking? Below is a table of the 49ers' ALY, actual yards per carry, and success on short-yardage runs (power success) since the beginning of the Nolan era (NFL averages in parentheses):

Year

ALY Rank

ALY

Actual YPC

Power Success Rank

Power Success

2005

29

3.66

4.14 (4.07)

24

58.0% (64.0%)

2006

7

4.47

4.98 (4.19)

28

55.0% (64.0%)

2007

11

4.28

4.31 (4.17)

24

57.0% (63.0%)

2008

5

4.64

4.41 (4.20)

32

50.0% (67.0%)

After the jump, I'll tell you what these numbers mean for the Niners' run blocking performance, evaluate the pass blocking, compare the Niners' offensive line to the Bills' defensive line, identify two crucial game situations to watch for, and make my game prediction...

Actually, the answer to our first question is, "Not really." This year, the Niners' offensive line is in the top 5 with respect to run blocking, and has been no lower than 11th over the past three seasons. Furthermore, their ALY this season is almost a quarter of a yard higher than their actual yards per carry, meaning that the Niners' rushing yardage has been more dependent on a combination of good offensive line play, tough game situations, and tough defensive opponents. Of these, good offensive line play has been especially important because the Niners are only ranked a mediocre18th in their percentage of rushing yardage that occurs after the first 10 yards of a run (18.0%). Essentially, their offensive line is blocking successfully from 0-10 yards, but Frank Gore has not been as successful turning those runs into big-gainers.

The one glaring area in which the offensive line has failed to run block successfully has been on short-yardage running plays. The Niners have failed to rank higher than 24th since Nolan took over in 2005, and are dead last in the league this season. But, then again, we didn't need stats to tell us that (See "holes punched in wall during past 59 games").

Now, let's move on to the pass blocking question: Is the 49ers' offensive line as bad as it seems? Below is a table of the 49ers' ASR since the beginning of the Nolan era (NFL average in parentheses):

Year

ASR Rank

ASR

2005

31

10.1% (6.7%)

2006

24

7.0% (6.2%)

2007

32

10.3% (6.4%)

2008

29

10.0% (6.4%)

Here, the answer to our question is a resounding yes: the 49ers' offensive line has been no better than 24th in the league, and are 29th this season, at pass protection. Granted, the quarterback's ability to sense pressure, and get rid of the ball under said pressure, is important. However, when you're consistently as bad as they have been with different quarterbacks and different offensive coordinators, the offensive line has to take a greater share of the blame.

So we've come to the conclusion that the Niners' offensive line is very good at run blocking overall, horrible at run blocking in short yardage situations, and even worse at pass blocking. Also, we've found that Frank Gore isn't breaking off long runs. What does this mean for the Bills game? Well, it just so happens that the Bills' defensive line is as bad as the 49ers' offensive line in power success and ASR, and their overall run defense is susceptible to the big running play. Specifically, they are 24th in power success, 29th in ASR, and 22nd in their percentage of rushing yardage allowed that occurs after the first 10 yards of a run; all this despite being 9th in defensive ALY. Something tells me we might see a better-than-usual performance from the Niner offensive line this week.

49ERS-BILLS DVOA MATCHUP

Here's how the 49ers stack up against the Bills in terms of DVOA:

Team

Total DVOA

Rank

Offense

Rank

Defense

Rank

Special Teams

Rank

SF

-15.0%

26

-14.2%

28

7.1%

18

6.3%

2

BUF

-8.2%

23

-2.0%

23

13.9%

25

7.7%

1

What I suggest is that we all just close our eyes when we watch this game, and wait for Ron Pitts to say, "Andy Lee is back to punt," or "Here's Roscoe Parrish on the return." Other than on special teams, this game has the potential to be a real war of attrition. You know...a close encounter of the "last one to screw up loses" kind. Joking aside, this is the second game in a row where it looks like the 49ers actually have a realistic chance...ignoring that east-of-the-Mississippi thing of course. Their 6.8% overall disadvantage is very similar to the disadvantages they had going into the Patriots game (a 30-21 home loss) and the Cowboys game (a 35-22 road loss). With respect to the team units, the 49ers' defense has a 4.9% disadvantage against the Bills offense, while the 49ers' offense has practically met its doppelganger in the Bills defense. All in all, if the Niner defense can hold its own -- and that's a big if -- then this one should be an evenly-contested game.

THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS

The two SVW's to focus on during this week's 49ers-Bills matchup are detailed below:

Situation

SF Rank

BUF Rank

SF DEFENSE VS. BUF OFFENSE ON 2ND AND LONG

6

32

SF OFFENSE VS. BUF DEFENSE ON 3RD AND MID

27

1

As if last week's 2nd-and-long matchup wasn't favorable enough for the Niners' defense, they now get to face the cellar-dwelling Bills. One problem though: The Cowboys were ranked 18th on 1st down going into last week's game, while the Bills are ranked 4th going into this week's game. If the Niners' defense can perform on 1st down as well as they did against the Cowboys, then they should do really well on 2nd down against the Bills. Here's hoping against hope. Speaking of hope...

"WITH HIGH HOPE FOR THE FUTURE, NO PREDICTION IS VENTURED." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN

Thus far I'm 4-0 picking the winner of 49er games. I haven't been great on the scores, but 4-0 is 4-0. OK, that's enough self-aggrandizement for now. So, given the statistical matchup between the 49ers and Bills, and considering the weather conditions and game location, here's my prediction for this week's game:

San Francisco 49ers

17

Buffalo Bills

28

 

**ALY and ASR statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.

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