The theme for today's matchup review post, similar to the theme of recent 49er teams, is "what could have been." In 2006, the Niners beat the division-leading Seahawks to pull within 1 game of the division lead at 5-5. They had a pretty favorable stretch of upcoming games against the 4-6 Rams, 6-4 Saints, and 4-6 Packers, and we got all excited. Unfortunately, they proceeded to lose all 3 of those games, only to beat the Seahawks again in Week 15 to revive our hopes once more. What happens next? As the Seahawks are in the midst of losing to the 12-2 Chargers, the Niners lay an absolute egg against the 4-10 (!!!) Cardinals to kick us in the junk one more time for good measure.
Sound familiar? This season, the Niners have brought out their junk-kicking boots once again, with their wins coming when they're seemingly out of the playoff picture, and their losses coming when they're firmly within the picture frame. This Sunday's loss was, ala the Cardinals' game in 2006, the final for-good-measure display of their junk-kicking skills.
What does this have to do with the matchup review? Well, as you'll see, this was a game that the 49ers should have won easily. The loss defied more than just statistics; it defied logic altogether. Some matchup results ended up in perfect accordance with what they needed to accomplish, and yet they still lost. In other matchups, they turned stone-cold, lead-pipe advantages into performances befitting the Keystone Kops. All in all, if you want to understand the anatomy of a kick in the junk, this Sunday's matchup with the Seahawks helps explain why 49er teams of recent vintage have continually given us their best Sisyphus impression.
Ladies and gentlemen, grab your barf bags as I present this week's statistical matchup review alternately titled, How to Lose Games and Influence Digestion.
TEAM MATCHUP #1: SEAHAWKS DEFENSIVE TREND
Before the game, I displayed a chart showing that, without fail, the Seahawks' wins and losses through 11 games had a 1-to-1 dependency on their DEF DVOA for the game: above average = Seahawks win; below average = Seahawks loss. Well, wouldn't you know it, but the 49ers decided to play the role of bedside nurse once again, giving their opponent exactly what ails them. In the case of the SEA game, it turns out that the Niners lost despite SEA having a below-average Game DEF DVOA of 24.5%; their 3rd-worst Game DEF DVOA of the season!
So basically, the Seahawks DEF sucked just about as bad as they were supposed to suck (if not worse), and yet the 49ers couldn't do what every other team that's encountered said death-spiraling Seahawk DEF has done: win the damn game. What makes matters even worse - and more odds-defying - is that the Niners' had an above-average Game OFF DVOA of 9.5%; their 3rd-best Game OFF DVOA of the season! Oh, and by the way, just for kicks, they also had an above-average Game DEF DVOA of -8.1%. Tell most any NFL team that they're going to have one of their best days on OFF, and their 4-7 opponent, whose losses occur when they play bad DEF, is going to have one of their worst days on DEF, and that team is going to tell you that an ass-whooping is what they're about to dish out. Behold the (2006 and) 2009 49ers: not most any NFL team.
After the jump, I'll make you reach for the Pepto...
TEAM MATCHUP #2: 1ST-DOWN DEFENSE
Here's another case of the odds-defying game result. Just to remind you, the first part of the equation in this matchup had to do with the 49ers's DEF having a massive advantage over the Seahawks' OFF in passing situations on 2nd down. The second part was that, given this advantage, the Niners' DEF needed to constantly put SEA's OFF in such situations by holding them to 3 yards or less on 1st down.
Interesting stat #1: SEA had 3 successful plays out of 11 passing plays on 2nd & long (27.3%); as compared to a 50% success rate on 2nd & long runs. 49ers exploit advantage? Check. Interesting stat #2: When the Niners' DEF stopped SEA's OFF for 3 yards or less on their first 1st down of a drive, such drives ended with Punt, Fumble, Punt, Punt, TD, Half, Punt, Punt, Punt. 49ers exploit advantage? Check.
Interesting stat #3: On the lone TD drive in the previous list, the 49ers' DEF gave up 2 of the Seahawks' 3 successful 2nd-down passing plays in the entire game. 49ers blow advantage? Check. Interesting stat #4: When the Niners' DEF didn't stop SEA's OFF for 3 yards or less on their first 1st down of a drive, such drives ended with TD, Punt, Punt, Punt, FG, Punt, FG. 49ers blow advantage? Check.
Interesting stat #5: Before Arnaz Battle's fumble, SF's DEF was 4 for 4 (i.e., a perfect 100% success rate) in holding SEA's OFF to 3 yards or less on 1st down. 49ers exploit advantage? Check. Interesting stat #6: After Battle's fumble, SF's DEF was 13 for 25 (i.e., a lackluster 52% success rate) in holding SEA's OFF to 3 yards or less on 1st down. Battle blows DEF's advantage? Check.
So, my point here is that the matchup played out exactly as expected. When Matt Hasselbeck and company passed the ball on 2nd & long, it worked in the 49ers' favor. Otherwise, it didn't. When the Niners' DEF started a drive by putting SEA into 2nd & long, it ultimately worked in the 49ers' favor on the drive. Otherwise, it didn't. When the coaching staff wasn't calling ridiculous special teams plays, and pinning their hopes on the tandem of "Human Roster Exemption" and "Worst WR-Signing of 2009," it worked in the Niner DEF's favor. Otherwise, it didn't.
The fact of the matter is, however, that this matchup worked out in the 49ers' favor far more than it didn't, and yet, they still lost the game. Why? How about 3 matchup-defying epic fails: a 15-yard gain on 2nd & 8, a 25-yard gain on 2nd & 7, and a 32-yard gain on 1st & 10. The first 2 came on SEA's 2nd TD drive (if you want to call the 1st one "a drive"), and the third came on SEA's final game-winning drive. Interesting stat #7: 3 epic matchup fails = 49ers loss.
TEAM MATCHUP #3: PASS DEFENSE IN THE RED ZONE
Do I really have to say much about this one? The Niners' DEF had a 167.9% (!!!) DVOA advantage if/when SEA threw red zone passes, and was coming off a game in which the dropped the hammer on the Jaguars' similarly disadvantaged OFF in this exact game situation. So much for that, I guess: Both of SEA's TDs came on red zone passes. Nice job, guys. Revised interesting stat # 7: 5 epic fails = 49ers loss.
PLAYER MATCHUP # 1: FRANK GORE VS. SEA PASS DEF
Remember how, in last week's matchup review, I lauded the 49ers' coaching staff for exploiting Frank Gore's advantage against JAX's DEF in the passing game? Remember how I mentioned that he was the target for 25% of Alex Smith's passes in the JAX game, and how Smith threw 6 of his first 9 passes to Gore? After looking at the SEA-game play-by-play, they're resigned to remain exactly that: memories.
Against the Seahawks, Gore was the target of a Smith pass only 7 times, or only 15.5% of Smith's 45-pass total. What's worse is that, after being the target of Smith's 3rd pass of the game, Gore did not have a ball thrown his way for 14 straight passes! A certain pearl of 1980s pop culture comes to mind here: Hello? McFly?
This one is definitely on the coaches. How do you go into a game against the 26th-ranked pass DEF vs. RBs, and throw Gore the ball like he's Roger Craig, but then go into the following game against the #27 pass DEF vs. RBs, and throw him the ball like he's Billy Bajema? It makes absolutely no sense to me. The worst part is that 4 of Gore's 5 catches ended up being successful plays for the Niners' OFF. Hello? McFly? Re-revised interesting stat #7: 5 epic fails and 1 coaching fail = 49ers loss.
SF 1st-quarter OFF vs. SEA 1st-quarter DEF...Enough of the epic failing; let's go back to the "lose despite epic success" theme. I don't need to give you the play-by-play for you to know that the Niners's OFF shot, roasted, and ate the Seahawks DEF during the 1st quarter. If not for one of the worst non-calls I've ever seen, the Niners would have been up 14-0 only 8:35 into the game. And, to me, 14-0 is meaningfully different than 7-0. To an NFL team, being down by 7 in the 1st quarter means "only one score away." But, to a 4-7 NFL team like the Seahawks, only 2 weeks removed from receiving a 35-9 beatdown at the hands of the Vikings, being down by 14 midway through the 1st quarter means "I can't wait to clean out my locker and get the hell out of here."
I don't care what anyone says, but the fact that the 49ers' 1st-quarter dominance on offense didn't end up helping them win the game is something you can pin squarely on the backs of the inept officiating tandem that saw no evil on that play. Of course, were you at all surprised that (non-)call went the other way? Remember, the alternate title of this movie is How to Lose Games and Influence Digestion. Getting that call isn't in the script.
SF Shotgun OFF vs. SEA Shotgun DEF...One more epic coaching fail for you guys before I'm done. Before the game, I mentioned how SEA's DEF is 6th-worst in the NFL when it comes to efficiency on plays when the opposing OFF lines up in shotgun. As was the case in the Jags game, the Niners needed more shotgun. It turns out they used even more shotgun OFF against SEA (62.1% of all plays) than they did against JAX (55.7%). The coaches are fine so far.
Where the epic coaching fail begins is related to something I've been talking about for weeks: the benefit of shotgun to the running game. Against the Seahawks, the 49ers' OFF had a 44.4% play success rate from the shotgun formation, and a 36.4% play success rate when Smith lined up under center; so, yeah, we know already, shotgun is more efficient overall.
The interesting things about the SEA game are (a) the pass OFF was slightly more efficient under center (50.0%) than they were in shotgun (46.9% success rate), and (b) the run OFF was a pathetic 0 for 7 (success rate = 0.0%) on running plays in non-shotgun formations!!!
Why? Hmm. Might the former have something to do with the fact that 7 of Gore's 9 carries were on non-shotgun plays? Might somebody be telegraphing their passing plays? Might the entire world know that, when the 49ers line up in shotgun, they're going to pass the ball? Might it be a little less difficult to defend the pass when a team knows it's coming? Hmm. And might the latter have something to do with the fact that, against SEA, the Niners were 6 times as likely to run the ball when under center than when in shotgun? Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, except for one drive in which they mysteriously exhumed their Gore-up-the-middle-three-times-then-punt OFF, all of Gore's runs came on 1st down? Hmm.
Hopefully, you're getting my point for the 100th time. One of the main reasons I cited for shotgun being useful for the 49ers and their inept OL is that it allows an OFF to disguise their play-calls. If you run out of shotgun efficiently, it will be nearly impossible for the DEF to know when you're going to run because the norm for NFL DEF's is to defend pass first against shotgun. DEFs defending pass first = easier blocking for the OL on running plays.
So, one of the main benefits of shotgun is disguise. But here we have a game in which the coaching staff (read Jimmy Raye) somehow was able to force his telegraphing nature into an offense specifically designed to avoid telegraphing. Want to know what one SEA defensive coach said to the others? It goes like this: "Hey guys, when Smith is in shotgun, they're passing. But if he's under center on 1st down, they're running." Amazing. When a nerdy, armchair DC like me can figure this out, it means that the Niners' OC (and the rest of the offensive coaches) committed an epic fail.
Re-re-revised interesting stat #7: 5 epic fails and 2 coaching fails = 49ers loss.
Aside from specific epic fails, here are the main matchup-related reasons why the 49ers lost to the Seahawks:
- They did something no other team had done against SEA this season: Lose despite their OFF utterly dominating SEA's DEF.
- Battle's fumble gave SEA's OFF life after the Niners' DEF was utterly dominating them on 1st down.
- A blown PI call nullified the Niner OFF's utter domination of SEA's DEF in the 1st quarter.
- Total matchup meltdown in red zone pass DEF, the initial catalyst of which was Battle's fumble putting the pass DEF in a position to fail.
- Poor gameplanning by the offensive coaches rendered Gore relatively nonexistent in the passing game.
- Poor "self-scouting" by the offensive coaches rendered the 49ers' run and pass tendencies transparent, which thereby nullified their massive shotgun advantage.
The first sentence of my SF/SEA matchup preview was, "Unlike last week, a win today is going to be a team effort." It turns out I was exactly right from a matchup perspective: losing these matchups was a total team effort. Offensive players contributed to the matchup fails (e.g., Gore fumble), defensive players contributed to the matchup fails (e.g., red zone pass DEF fails), and a special teams player (who should be taking the next "special" bus out of town) even found a way to contribute to non-ST matchup fails - he's that talented! Throw on top of that the contribution of offensive coaches, and you have the anatomy of a "what could have been" loss.
Thanks for another kick in the junk, guys.
*DVOA statistics used to produce this article were obtained from Football Outsiders.