Before I begin the matchup review, I just want to make a little bit of an editorial comment that seems pretty relevant in lieu of the past couple of weeks...
Some of you have been kind enough to give me kudos for practically writing a game recap before the game was even played the last 2 weeks. For sure, I've looked like Nostradamus with a blogging platform. However, I have to tell you, I'm reluctant to take much credit because it was the stats - not my wisdom - that resulted in my admittedly eerie accuracy.
What I will take credit for - and this is where I'd like to editorialize - is understanding that the stats, by themselves, are meaningless without proper application. Like "guns don't kill people, people kill people," the same can be said for statistics: "stats don't lie to people, people lie to people." Keep in mind that, each week, I'm looking at about 135 statistical matchups for the Niner game, almost all of which suggest one team has an advantage over the other. For instance, I could have easily told you last week that the Niners had an advantage on DEF given that JAX's OFF DVOA between the 40s was ranked 23rd, whereas SF's DEF DVOA between the 40s was ranked 5th. But what meaning would that have had? I'd say pretty much none. Sure they're two stats that are saying something, but what practical importance would they have had on the game as it was played? How could the 49ers have possibly exploited that matchup? By forcing JAX's OFF into the middle of the field? I mean, what's the DEF going to do? Let JAX gain yards when backed up deep in their own end just so they get them into their sweet spot?
So my point here is that the key to statistical analysis is in the practical application. The stats are just numbers; it takes the interpretation of a human being to prevent them from becoming lies. In general, interpretation is about looking at the stats, and seeing how applicable they are to the real world. In football, it's about viewing stats through the lens of Xs and Os, player skill sets, game plans, and everything else one would consider non-statistical.
In the context of game matchups, interpretation is about looking at each individual statistical matchup, and then determining whether there's a likelihood that a given pattern is going to have an effect on the actual game we're previewing. It's about detecting patterns of advantageous and disadvantageous matchups, asking oneself whether each team's wins and losses have been characterized by a given pattern, and asking oneself whether each team has the players and coaching style to exploit/nullify a given pattern.
This is what I try to do here on NN: give you the stats, give you my opinions based on the stats, and give you the non-statistical reasons why I don't think I'm hitting you with statistical smoke and mirrors.
With that said, let's begin with the 49ers-Jaguars matchup review...
After the jump, I'll write a tribute to myself chock-full of pats on the back and I-told-you-so's. Wait, no, um, inner voice, inner voice...What I meant was, I'll review the matchups...
TEAM MATCHUP # 2: PASSING IN THE RED ZONE
Before the game, I told you that the 49ers' OFF had a 111.8% DVOA advantage if they passed in the red zone, and the 49ers' DEF had a 156.6% advantage if the Jaguars passed in the red zone. Therefore, they needed to pass the ball in the red zone, and put JAX in passing situations if they reached the red zone. So how'd they do?
The Niners' OFF had 9 total snaps inside the red zone. Of these 9, they passed the ball 8 times, or about 90% of the time. Sounds like they followed my instructions. Of their 8 red zone passing plays, 5 were unsuccessful; but, of the 3 that were successful, 2 went for TDs. In other words, the 49ers scored a TD once every 4 times they threw the ball in the red zone. Taken together, I'd say both the frequency and success of their red zone passing suggests they indeed exploited their advantageous matchup against the Jaguars.
Meanwhile, JAX's OFF also had 9 snaps inside the red zone (none of which came during the first half, by the way). Overall, only 2 of these 9 plays, or 22.2%, were successful. However, both of their successful red zone plays came on runs, meaning that their success rate on red zone passing plays was 0%! Indeed, JAX's OFF totaled -2 yards, -26 net yards, 2 sacks allowed, and 2 fumbles when they passed the ball in the red zone. To say that the Niners' DEF exploited their advantage in this matchup would be putting it unbelievably mildly.
TEAM MATCHUP # 3: SHORT-YARDAGE RUNNING
In contrast to their red zone passing advantage on both sides of the ball, I mentioned before the game that the 49ers had a matchup disadvantage on both sides of the ball when it came to short-yardage running. Therefore, my remedy was that the OFF needed to pass the ball in short-yardage situations, and the DEF needed to keep JAX out of short-yardage situations.
Watching the game, there were 3 plays that made me say, "Wow, the 49ers are destroying the Jags today." All 3 had to do with this matchup:
- On 4th and 1 from the JAX 37, Alex Smith hits Vernon Davis for a 30-yard completion.
- On 3rd and 1 from the SF 13, Maurice Jones-Drew runs for -1 yards.
- On the very next play, 4th and 2 from the SF 14, Justin Smith and Parys Haralson sack David Garrard, who fumbles.
So, the Niners' OFF nullified their disadvantage by passing the ball on 4th and 1, the Niners' DEF played better than expected by stopping MJD, which induced the Jags' into make a strategy-defying, matchup-ignoring decision (i.e., passing the ball) on the next play. When a team is exploiting their advantages and preventing the other team from exploiting theirs, it's a recipe for a blowout, and that's what we saw on Sunday.
PLAYER MATCHUP # 1: FRANK GORE VS. JAX PASS DEF
For this matchup, I noted that Frank Gore is one of the best pass-catching RBs in the league this year, and JAX's DEF is one of the worst at defending passes to RBs. Therefore, what I wanted to see was Jimmy Raye involving Gore heavily in the passing game.
It didn't take long for JR to make me happy: on the first play of the game, Smith completed a pass to Gore for 7 yards. Then, on the 2nd play, they threw it to Gore again! In case you're not counting, that's two plays, and two passes to Gore. In fact, 3 of Smith's first 4 passes, and 6 of his first 9, were to Gore! All in all, Gore was targeted on 10 of Smith's 41 passes, which means a full 25% of the passing game involved throws to Gore. Seriously, kudos to JR for reading my matchup preview.
Now, some of you might say, "Well, Gore only 2 yards per carry and 3 yards per target, so they couldn't have done that great in this matchup. Of course, you'd be right: only 2 of his 10 targets resulted in successful plays. However, in line with what I said in the intro, simply throwing the ball to Gore was what the pattern of stats (i.e., Gore's receiving advantage, JAX's run DEF DVOA, the OL's horrible ALY, SF's increased use of the shotgun, etc.), as well as Gore's skill set dictated that they should have done. Not to mention the fact that Gore lone TD in the game was of the receiving variety. So, there were both statistical and non-statistical ways that throwing the ball to Gore might have improved the 49ers chances of winning, and they did, in fact, score points using this strategy. Therefore, once again, I think they hammered a key matchup.
I'll keep these short and bullet-point style:
- The 49ers had a matchup disadvantage against JAX in their nemesis, 1st-quarter OFF. I said they might have trouble again starting the game well. Turns out they did: 4.25 yards per play, 0 TDs in the 1st quarter.
- JAX's DEF had been really bad when losing. I said this might offset how bad SF's OFF is while winning. Turns out it did: only 4.48 yards per play while winning, but 2 TDs to offset it.
- JAX's DEF had been the worst in the league against shotgun OFF. I said the 49ers might want to use more shotgun. Turns out they did: 55.7% of their offensive plays were in shotgun, as compared to 40.0% going into the game.
Based on their performance in the key matchups during Sunday's game, here are the main reasons why the 49ers beat the
- They passed the freaking ball!
- They passed the freaking ball in 3rd & short situations!
- They made JAX pass the freaking ball in 3rd & short situations!
- They passed the freaking ball to Frank Gore!
- They passed the freaking ball from the shotgun!
Weird, that really looks familiar. Oh, right. It's what my before-the-fact interpretation of the stats said they needed to do to win. Like I said, no self-congratulaions in this post. ;-)
p.s. In the preview post, I threatened to apply for the 49ers' soon-to-be-vacant offensive coordinator position if they didn't throw the ball at least 40 times against the Jaguars. I'm seriously beginning to believe JR actually did read that post: SF threw it exactly 41 times, just enough to save his job...and keep me in mine.
*DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.