Week 14 Statistical Matchup Review: 49ers vs. Cardinals

Another week, another instance in which I was Nostradamus-esque in identifying the key statistical matchups. As you'll see in today's post, a dominating performance the likes of which we saw on Monday night occurs primarily via a corresponding domination of key matchups. In other words, if you ever doubted that football is a game of matchups, the 49ers bludgeoning of the Cardinals was a prime example of why it's true.

TEAM MATCHUP #1: CARDINALS OFFENSIVE TREND

In the preview post, I told you that, going into the game, ARI was 7-0 when they had a Game OFF DVOA above 30%. The implication was that a key part of beating ARI was for the Niners' DEF to keep them below that threshold. Well, since it's so late in the week already, I have access to the actual Game DVOAs, and the Niners held "the straw that stirs ARI's drink" to just a tad bit below 30%: how does -81.8% (!!!) sound? When an OFF is over 110% less efficient than they need to be to win, they're not just going to lose. They're going to get annihilated; and that's exactly what happened to the Cardinals on Monday night.

After the jump, more stats showing the 49ers' recipe for Monday Night Football victory...

TEAM MATCHUP #2: PASS DEFENSE

For this one, I noted that the matchup between ARI's pass OFF in the red zone (ranked 3rd) and SF's pass DEF in the red zone (ranked 1st), along with the matchup between ARI's pass-blocking (ranked 6th) and SF's pass-rushing (ranked 7th), were going to constitute the classic battle between an irresistible force and an immovable object. I think we know who won the battle.

With respect to red zone passing, ARI actually had only 5 total snaps inside the Niners' 20 yard line, only 2 of which resulted in Kurt Warner passes. The result: 1 completion in 2 attempts for 6 yards. Not to mention the fact that, in their first of two trips into the red zone, Warner threw an interception immediately after a Larry Fitzgerald block-above-the-waist penalty sent ARI back to the 28 yard line.

As for ASR, the Cardinal OL's was 4.5% and the Niner DF7's was 7.1%. After the game, the Cards' ASR rose to 5.0% (dropping them to 8th), while the Niner DF7's ASR rose to 7.6% (vaulting them to 5th). If we ignore the strength of schedule (SOS) adjustments for a second, ARI's OL had allowed only 18 sacks in 480 pass plays, for a Sack Rate of 3.8%, while SF's DF7 had sacked opposing QBs 30 times in 450 pass plays, for a Sack Rate of 6.7%. Put those together and you have an expected Sack Rate for the game of about 5.2%. Well, during the game, ARI's OL allowed 4 sacks in 33 pass plays, for a Sack Rate of 12.1%, meaning that the Niners outperformed this matchup by over 100% (i.e., 12.1% divided by 5.2%). Again, we have absolute matchup destruction.

TEAM MATCHUP #3: PASS OFFENSE

Here's one where you might think I'd have egg on my face because I used 2 paragraphs and a table (which, per howtheyscored, are only for jerks) to argue that the Niners were highly unlikely to run successfully against the Cardinals' DEF; and, therefore, needed to pass. It turns out, obviously, that I was wrong on both counts. However, this doesn't mean the stats lied, or that they couldn't predict anything. Rather, it just means that Frank Gore's absurdly good performance was an unqualified matchup destroyer.

In making my case, I noted that there were 6 areas in which the Niners had a horrible rush OFF matchup against the Cardinals: Rush DVOA, Overall ALY, C/G (aka up-the-middle) ALY, RT ALY, Power Success Rate, and Stuffed Rate. In each of these statistical categories, SF's rush OFF was ranked 23rd or worse, whereas ARI's rush DEF was ranked 9th or better. Was I really that insane to come to the conclusion that I did?

Here are the game stats for the 49ers' OFF in each of these 6 categories, along with the statistical disadvantages they had going into the game and how they performed relative to the matchup (ALYs include Gore carries only and are approximate because I can only adjust for SOS):

Statistic

ARI Game

Expectation

ARI Game

Performance

Matchup

Performance

Rush DVOA

4.5%

43.2%

+37.7%

Overall ALY

3.43

2.93

-0.50

C/G ALY

3.45

2.84

-0.61

RT ALY

2.89

1.47

-1.42

Power Success Rate

55%

100%

+45%

Stuffed Rate

26%

16%

+10%

I said "Frank Gore's absurdly good performance" a minute ago for good reason. That's because this table shows that the Niners' domination of their running game matchup was primarily due to Frank Gore. Specifically, the Niner OFF's Rush DVOA for the game suggests a performance that was 10 times better than expected (!!!) despite the fact that the OLs ALYs were worse - and in the case of RT ALY, considerably worse - than expected. Essentially, what this means is that, while Gore's carries were ridiculously efficient in the context of specific game situations, most of his damage came beyond 10 yards down field, i.e., after the point at which the OL receives credit for those yards.*

That brings me to one matchup I didn't mention in the preview because I honestly couldn't have predicted that it would mean very much. Namely, SF's RBs vs. ARI's LBs and DBs on runs that go farther than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. It turns out that, going into Monday night's game, 32% of all rushing yards gained by Niner RBs occurred more than 10 yards downfield (which ranked #2 in the league), while 28% of all RB rushing yards allowed by the Cardinals' DEF occurred more than 10 yards downfield (which ranked #31 in the league). In other words, if Gore got past ARI's stout DF7, he'd have a field day - so to speak - running free in the secondary. And that's exactly what happened: 33% of Gore's rushing yards came after he was already 10 yards downfield. Of course, there's no way I could have predicted this given that the OL/DF7 matchups suggested Gore would not, in fact, make it that far on his carries.

In any event, the table above doesn't altogether speak unkindly of the Niners' OL. Actually, what it says is that the OL came through when it mattered most. First, there's the Niners' Rush OFF DVOA for the game. You don't achieve a value of 43.2% without some seriously efficient blocking from your OL. Second, the OL's Power Success Rate for the game suggests that they wildly overperformed against ARI's DF7 when it came to blocking on 3rd-/4th-down running plays with 2 or fewer yards to gain. Indeed, they were a perfect 4 for 4 in such situations, with a Gore TD as icing on the cake. Finally, the OL's Stuffed Rate indicates that they also overperformed against ARI's DF7 when it came to avoiding zero or negative yardage on running plays. Indeed, only 5 of the Niners 32 RB carries went for zero or negative yardage.

So, all in all, I may have predicted that the Niners couldn't run against ARI given the horrible OL/DF7 matchup, and I may have suggested that they throw the ball more because of it. However, looking back at their performance, I couldn't have foreseen Gore being able to run free against ARI's long-run-prone secondary, and I certainly wouldn't have offered up passing as a game plan if I knew the Niners would overperform this matchup so much. Hell, I would have done the same exact thing Jimmy Raye decided to do when Gore started the game with 3 carries for 13 efficient yards, while Alex Smith started with 5 plays for 2 inefficient incompletions, 1 inefficient scramble, and 1 incredibly inefficient INT.

PLAYER MATCHUP # 2: TIM HIGHTOWER VS. SF PASS DEF

Another matchup that the Niners' pass DEF absolutely hammered was preventing Tim Hightower from replicating his 12-catch, 121-yard performance in Week 1. I had said prior to the game that this matchup was going to be important because Cards/Niners II was going to be more pass-heavy than Cards/Niners I, and so Hightower's pass-catching prowess would play more of a role in the outcome than it did in Week 1, i.e., a plodding game the 49ers won despite it.

Well, I was half-right. The matchup did matter a lot, and it was because the game was pass-heavy (at least on ARI's end), but stopping Hightower in the passing game had virtually nothing to do with the Niners' pass DEF; unless you consider a FS forcing Hightower to fumble on a running play as part of "pass DEF." It turns out, though, that the best pass DEF against Hightower was a good run DEF. After Dashon Goldson laid some serious wood on Hightower's 2nd carry of the game, thereby causing a fumble that the 49ers recovered, the Cardinals essentially benched Hightower. And, of course, a benched Hightower equals a non-pass-catching Hightower.

Amazingly, as gifted as a receiver as he is, and as integral a part he plays in ARI's pass OFF, Hightower wasn't even the intended receiver of a pass until 37:26 had elapsed in the game. Furthermore, although he caught both passes, only 1 was a successful play given the down and distance; and, by that time, the 49ers already had a game-clinching 24-9 lead.

So, the bottom line of this matchup boils down to saying a big "thank you" to Goldson for knocking that ball loose so early in the game. That play singlehandedly nullified a massive advantage ARI's pass OFF had against SF's pass DEF.

BOTTOM LINE

Make no mistake, the 49ers defrocked the Cardinals - hope you like that pun - because of a god vs. devil performance the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Crusades:

  1. They destroyed ARI's aerial assault.
  2. They sacked the enemy commander (i.e., Kurt Warner).
  3. They annihilated their opposition in the trenches.
  4. Goldson's "shock and awe" campaign against an enemy stronghold caused an early retreat.

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

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