Week 11 Statistical Matchup Review: 49ers @ Packers

AUTHOR'S NOTE: I totally forgot to mention when I laid out the new schedule last week that I'll be posting a matchup review article every Tuesday. So, basically, my posting schedule will have you getting sick of me in no time. Just wanted to warn you.

Welcome to the first installment of my weekly matchup review articles in 2009. As I said last week, the format of these posts should be familiar to you if you were around last season. If not, the basic idea of this post is to look back at Sunday's (or Thursday's or Monday's) game, and see how the 49ers did in each of the key matchups I identified prior to the game.

Despite what some might think, I'm not an insider at Football Outsiders (FO), so I don't have access to the exact equation for DVOA or any of their other stats. Therefore, in my matchup review, I won't be saying, "Here's what DVOA said going into the game, and here's their actual DVOA for this matchup during the game." Instead, I simply look back at the play-by-play, aggregate the raw numbers for each matchup, consider the specific game situations that might have affected the numbers, and offer a quasi-objective evaluation of the Niners' performance in the matchups.

So, with the aims and methods revealed, it's time to review the matchups.

TEAM MATCHUP # 2: SF OFFENSE VS. GB DEFENSE ON 3RD AND LONG

For the moment, I'm going to ignore Team Matchup #1 (i.e., SF OFF's in-season trend vs. GB DEF's in-season trend) because I'll actually be able to give you the DVOA stats on that one once FO posts them this afternoon. So instead, I'll begin with Team Matchup #2. As you'll recall (See here if you don't), my bottom line about Team Matchup #2 was that the 49ers' OFF needed to perform a lot better than expected on 3rd & long because (a) they've sucked at it this season, and (b) GB's DEF has been awesome at it. Specifically, GB's DEF had a mind-blowing 119.3% DVOA advantage going into the game. So how did the Niners do? Based on the play-by-play, below is a table showing the game time, field position, play, and result of every 3rd & long the 49ers' OFF faced on Sunday (successful plays are in bold):

Distance

Yardline

Quarter

Time Left

Score

Type of Play

Direction

Play

Yards

7

SF 19

1

1:43

SF 3 - GB 6

Pass

NA

Smith sacked

-2

7

SF 23

2

11:25

SF 3 - GB 6

Pass

Short Right

Incomplete to Bruce

0

19

SF11

2

8:08

SF 3 - GB 13

Pass

Short Right

Complete to Crabtree

6

9

SF 20

2

2:00

SF 3 - GB 20

Pass

Short Left

Complete to Davis

4

10

GB 36

3

12:12

SF 3 - GB 23

Pass

Short Left

Complete to Hill

8

20

GB 38

3

7:35

SF 3 - GB 23

Pass

Deep Left

Complete to Crabtree

38TD

8

SF 14

3

2:29

SF 10 - GB 23

Pass

Short Right

Incomplete to Davis

0

10

GB 24

4

10:42

SF 10 - GB 30

Pass

Deep Middle

Complete to Davis

24TD

After the jump, I'll discuss why this table means one of two people needs a stern talking-to, and I'll review the rest of the matchups...

Just to remind you, a 3rd-down play is only considered successful if it achieves a 1st down. For this reason, 3rd & long plays tend to be particularly unsuccessful, so the 49ers' 25% success rate isn't actually all that bad. And given that they scored 2 TDs on 3rd & long, I'd say their performance in this matchup was, on the surface, better than expected. However, there are two below-the-suface patterns in the table that help uncover why their success in this matchup didn't end up helping the 49ers actually win the game.

First, you'll notice that both successful plays came in the 2nd half while losing by 20 points. As Mike Singletary hinted at during his Monday press conference, and contrary to Brian "I can't bring myself to say Michael Crabtree didn't drop it, no matter what the video evidence shows" Billick's assertion during the game, it's simply easier to have success on OFF while on the wrong side of a 2nd-half blowout than it is otherwise. Maybe, as Billick pointed out, GB wasn't playing a true prevent DEF at the time, but, I'm sorry, only the very best teams/players maintain high motivation/focus when they have that big of a lead that late in the game (See 2007 Week 8: Patriots 52, Redskins 7). Packer coaches may not have been calling passive defensive formations, but that doesn't mean Packer players weren't playing passive defense. So, given the score and game time when the 2 TDs occurred, I have to discount their impact on the overall evaluation. Therefore, the Niner OFF's grade on 3rd & long goes from something like a C to a D; still better than expected, but not a lot better. And, as I said in the preview, they needed to play a lot better than expected on 3rd & long in order to have a good chance of winning the game.

The second devil in the details is something of a pet peeve for me. Namely, their only 2 successful plays coincided with the only 2 times Alex Smith actually threw a 3rd & long pass beyond the first down marker: all 6 failures were to "short" routes, whereas the 2 successes were to "deep" routes. Now, I'm not going to affix 100% of the blame on Jimmy Raye for this. He could easily be calling 3rd & long plays with medium-to-deep primary receivers, only to have Smith - for whatever reason - check down to shorter secondary receivers when actually executing the play. Only people with access to the play calls, a candid Alex Smith, and the coach's game film -- people otherwise known as members of the 49ers roster and coaching staff - would know exactly on whom the blame lays. Nevertheless, blaming people isn't going to change anything. What matters most is that the 2009 49ers OFF is currently burdened with either (a) an offensive coordinator who has a tendency to call for short routes on 3rd & long, or (b) a QB who has a tendency to throw short passes on 3rd & long.  So either one, or both, have to be dealt with going forward. Otherwise, we'll be seeing a lot more of this ineptitude on 3rd & long.

TEAM MATCHUP # 3: SF OFFENSE VS. GB DEFENSE IN THE FIRST QUARTER

Only two words necessary here: Nailed it! OK, one self-aggrandizing statement from me isn't fair to you, so I'll actually go to the trouble of discussing something that honestly requires no more discussion than those two words.

By now, you probably already know the overall 1st quarter stats: 54 rushing yards, 0 passing yards, 1 sack allowed for -2 yards. Here are some more advanced stats for you:

  • 6.5 yards per play including Frank Gore's 42-yard run, 1.7 yards per play omitting Gore's run
  • 2 successful plays from scrimmage, 6 unsuccessful plays
  • Time of possession: 3 minutes, 37 seconds
  • Smith's QB rating for the 1st quarter: 39.6

All in all, that's not playing OFF in a way that overcomes your matchup disadvantage. Yeah, you can say that the score was only 6-3 Packers at the end of the 1st quarter, and that Gore's run should mean more than what I'm allowing, but neither of these things overshadows the clear slow-starting trend for the Niner OFF. Neither can overshadow the fact that the 49ers are averaging only 3.6 points per game in the 1st quarter, and have scored 0 points in the 1st quarter - that would be 4 times - more often than they've scored 7 or more - that would be 3 times.

I've said it before and I'll say it until I'm six feet under. Good teams regularly take an early lead on their opponents, and early leads on the road are huge. Of course, you might say, "Well, it's not like the Niners aren't trying to score in the 1st quarter." On the contrary, I'd actually say they are, in fact, not trying as hard as they should be to score in the 1st quarter. Don't believe me? Here is the play selection for the 1st quarter against GB: pass short right, run up the middle, run up the middle, end around, run up the middle, run up the middle, pass short right, pass play but sacked.

Here's the problem, fellow Niner fans. Our beloved team seems to have a game strategy that's in diametric opposition to game theory, statistical research, and Bill Walsh, all of which suggest that passing the ball is more successful than running the ball, and therefore that teams should pass the ball early to get a lead, but then run the ball late to preserve the lead. Want a perfect example of this utterly-obvious, yet often-ignored winning strategy? Look no further than Sunday's opponent.

The Packers threw the ball on 2 of their first 3 plays, and on 10 of their first 17 plays in the 1st quarter; a slight skew towards passing the ball resulted in a 3-point lead at the end of the 1st. Did they start running it to preserve the lead at that point? Quite the opposite: a Patriots-esque 24 of GB's 26 plays from scrimmage in the 2nd quarter were passes, with the 24 passes coming from one 14-consecutive-passes stretch and another 10-consecutive-passes stretch to end the half. What happened? A 3-point lead ballooned to a 20-point lead in a matter of 15 minutes.

So, to recap, 34 of GB's 45 plays in the 1st half were passes (they had 2 running plays to finish the 1st quarter that I didn't mention above), and they ended up with a 20-point lead going into the locker room. Meanwhile, throughout the 2nd quarter, the Niners continued to run up the middle and throw short passes, which led to a 20-point halftime deficit. Hopefully, you get the idea: pass early to take a lead.

Now for the endgame. In the 3rd quarter, 6 of GB's 14 plays were runs; not run-heavy, but definitely less pass-heavy than their 1st half imbalance. And in the 4th quarter, low and behold 9 of the Packers' 15 non-kneel-down plays were runs. Putting these together, GB's play selection during the 2nd half was 52% run, as compared to their 1st-half play selection, which was 76% pass.

I use the Packers as an example, not to distort general evidence by citing an exceptional anecdote, but rather because the anecdote is fresh in our memories and summarily fits the general evidence. The fact of the matter is that, as long as the 49ers come out running the ball up the middle and throwing short passes in the 1st half, they're not going to build the kind of early lead that a running back like Gore and a DEF like theirs are perfectly suited to preserve. Furthermore, as the Packers example shows, a 3-point lead in the 1st quarter does not represent grounds to shift into lead-preserving, run-baby-run mode. Look no further than to their losses against the Vikings, Titans, and Colts to see how much a slim first-half lead is not a lead at all.

My point here is that, rather than starting each game with a series of up-the-middle runs and short passes, the 49ers need to instead pass the ball frequently during the first half, and continue to pass - preferably down the field - until they've built a comfortable lead. Then, holding a comfortable lead in the 2nd half, that's when Gore should become the focal point of the offense. Unfortunately, Jimmy Raye, and I suppose Mike Singletary, seem to think winning means doing the opposite. Unlike the 49ers' problems on 3rd & long, I do blame Raye/Singletary 100% for this one because they're the ones that put in the game plan and author the 15-play script. I'm sorry, but, when the script isn't working, it's time to start editing on the fly. A screenplay with a lot of early action, climaxing in a massive butt-kicking, and ending with an uneventful dénouement is what the studio execs are looking for.

TEAM MATCHUP # 4: SF OFFENSIVE LINE VS. GB DEFENSIVE FRONT 7 ON UP-THE-MIDDLE RUNS

In detailing this disadvantage for the 49ers' OL in their matchup with the Packers' defensive front 7, I cited each unit's Stuffed Rate and Up-The-Middle ALY. So how did the Niners' OL fare on Sunday in these two areas?

Well, in terms of having their runs stopped for zero or negative yardage, SF's OL had 2 such plays on 8 RB carries, for a Stuffed Rate of 25%, which nailed the expected rate right on the nose (Aside: Where's the dude who says stats can't predict anything?). Therefore, on this stat, we'd have to say the OL didn't overcome its disadvantage.

With respect to C/G ALY, the Niners' OL contributed 13 unadjusted line yards on 5 RB carries, good for a magical average of 2.6 unadjusted line yards per carry. Of course, they were going against the 8th-best defensive front 7 in the NFL, so we can kind of adjust this upward in our minds to something around 3.0 to 3.5. Oh wait, that hits the expected number on the nose again (Aside: C'mon, show yourself Mr. Stats Naysayer!). So again, the OL didn't overcome it's disadvantage.

All in all, my overall view on this matchup is that the 49ers' OL didn't overperform they way that they needed to going into the game, but the game played out in such a manner that they really didn't need to overperform in the first place. Indeed, when a team only has 8 RB carries in a game, it's kind of obvious that the run-blocking performance of their OL was not a major factor in the result of that game.

TEAM MATCHUP # 5: SF DEFENSIVE FRONT 7 VS. GB OFFENSIVE LINE ON LEFT-SIDE RUNS

In the preview post, my bottom line for this matchup was that the 49ers had a general advantage when GB runs to the left side of their formation, but especially when they run to the outside left (GB OL ALY = 2.87 yards per RB carry; SF defensive front 7 ALY = 2.71 yards per carry).

In Sunday's game, the defensive front 7's Unadjusted ALY on left-side runs was 2.62 yards overall, and their Unadjusted ALY on GB runs to the outside left was 2.43 yards per RB carry. Given that I'm not privy to FO's opponent adjustments, we just have to wing it here, and say that we probably need to adjust these raw numbers upward just a little because the Packers' OL was near the bottom of the league on such runs going into the game. Doing so leads to the conclusion that the Niners', once again, played about as well as expected in the left-end/left-side run-stopping matchup.

Unfortunately, like the 3rd & long matchup, left-end run-stopping on Sunday was another case of the Niners' devil being in the details. Specifically, GB's two longest RB carries during the game were both on runs to the outside left, and they both came at the most inopportune times. The first was a 26-yard carry by Ryan Grant on his first outside-left run of the game, and the second was a back-breaking 21-yard Grant carry with 2:51 left in the game, which allowed GB to salt away the game for all intents and purposes. So basically, the Niners' defensive front 7 took a favorable matchup, and turned it into a non-trivial contributor to the loss. On this week of Thanksgiving, a good analogy for the Niners performance in this matchup is screwing up the turkey. After 57 minutes in the oven, the 49ers had a beautiful, juicy bird, but those last 3 minutes of cooking time ended up turning it into bad eats, and having their fans reaching for the sweet potato casserole.

PLAYER MATCHUP # 1: VERNON DAVIS VS. GB PASS DEF

Going into the game, I wanted to see whether the Niners' OFF would be able to "impose its will" in the passing game by getting the ball to Vernon Davis despite GB's prowess when it comes to defending TEs. Of course, just looking at the stat line (12 targets, 9 yards per target, 18 yards per catch, 3 FDs, 1 TD), you'd have to say VD exceeded expectations overall. However, going inside the numbers, you realize that SF's utilization of VD did not resemble "imposing its will" in the slightest. That's because 11 of VD's 12 targets came during the 2nd half. Furthermore, VD did not have a pass thrown his way until there were 2 minutes left in the 1st half.  In other words, SF's OFF basically ignored VD for the first 28 minutes of game time.

I'm not going to beat the proverbial dead horse here, but this is not winning football. Not even attempting to get the ball to a player who's #3 among TEs in targets for nearly the entire first half is an epic fail from a strategic standpoint; an epic fail that compounds the OFF's previously described epic fail with respect to 1st-half passing.

The sickening thing is that, once they started throwing the ball to VD in the 2nd half, he was incredibly productive. To me, that's the most frustrating part of watching this OFF. It's like they stubbornly implement their short pass and up-the-middle run game plan until they're (un)comfortably behind in the game, then the light comes on and they play efficient NFL OFF, only to revert back to their Hostlerian game plan to start the following game. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Despite what Mike "aw shucks, I don't know what you're talking about" Singletary might be saying during his Monday press conferences, I have to believe that the coaching staff notices this pattern. It goes without saying that they know more about football than I (or any other sentient Niner fan) do. So the question that needs to be asked is not, "Mike, why don't you use the spread more?" Rather, it's, "Mike, why do you play OFF backwards?" or, "Mike, why does Jimmy Raye only call an NFL-caliber offense when the score forces him to?" I hate to break the news to Mike, but it's not only the players who don't show up for all 60 minutes of the game; it's also the aptly named "offensive" coaching staff. Matt Barrows seems to agree with me on this point.

PLAYER MATCHUP # 2: DONALD DRIVER VS. SF PASS DEF

I said going into the game that SF's pass DEF needed to either prevent Driver's catches from hurting them in crucial situations or prevent him from catching the ball in the first place. His stat line for the game (8 targets, 5 yards per target, 8 yards per catch, 2 FDs, 0 TDs) suggests they succeeded in limiting the damage. What makes their performance against Driver even better was that none of his targets came on 3rd down or in the red zone. In other words, they played a perfect game when it came to preventing Driver from touching the ball in crucial situations.

Unfortunately, stopping Driver doesn't mean much when you decide not to cover his counterpart, Greg Jennings, in general, but specifically in crucial situations. Overall, Jennings had 7 targets, for 18 yards per target, 25.2 yards per catch, 3 FDs, and 1 TD. That's pretty bad pass DEF from the Niners against an opponent's #1 WR. However, what's worse is that 4 of Jennings' 7 targets came on 3rd down, with these targets resulting in 3 catches for 3 FDs. So, in the end, their perfect performance against Driver was offset by their nearly (im)perfect performance against Jennings.

BOTTOM LINE

Based on their performance during Sunday's game, here are the main matchup-related reasons why the 49ers lost to the Packers:

  1. The OFF didn't overcome their disadvantage on 3rd & long because they didn't actually throw the ball beyond the 1st-down marker until the game was basically out of reach.
  2. Their OFF once again came out of the locker room with a Hostlerian play-calling philosophy during the 1st quarter.
  3. When it actually mattered, the defensive front 7 failed to exploit their advantage on GB runs to the outside left.
  4. The OFF didn't throw the ball to their high-target TE during the first 28 minutes of the game.
  5. Their pass DEF offset a highly efficient performance against Driver with a highly inefficient performance against Jennings.

Coming up tomorrow, an evaluation of how the Niners played against the Packers according to Singletary's Formula for Success.

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

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