If the San Francisco 49ers are going to defeat Tampa here at home today, we must maintain our advantage over them in two key areas: turnovers and red zone efficiency (both offense and defense). Staying ahead in these two statistics will mean gaining a "W" against a young, talented Buc team.
I am rather new to NFL data wonking, but so far one of my favorite basic statistics has to be turnover differential because it has a very positive correlation to winning. That might seem obvious, but it can’t be overstated: more than having a top 10 defense, or top 10 offense, teams that successfully keep possession of the ball while simultaneously causing their opponent to turn it over win games.
In 2008, the top 5 teams in regards to turnover differential made the playoffs. In 2009, the top 3 teams made it, and 7 out of the top 10, total. In 2010, the top 4 made it, and 8 out of the top 10, total. The Bucs placed in the top 10 last year and, though they missed the playoffs, had a good year. Rams rounded it off at 10th, and it’s a big reason why they got to 7 wins – something they likely won’t repeat.
The Niners enter today ranked first in turnover differential at +8, having taken away 11 and only given up three. Alex’s one interception is also tied for a league best. At 26.8 attempts per game, Smith is ranked second (best? worst?) in the league – meaning he’s getting less attempts than everyone except Jacksonville’s Gabbert. We can expect a little over 30 attempts from him today and, based on his play in the first four games, there’s no reason to expect an interception against a Tampa defense that has only produced two this season.
San Francisco has been great with play-calling on offense, avoiding mistakes and even opening up the field when necessary, and the Bucs have not shown much ability to stop the pass (281 yards on a mere 13 completions against Curtis Painter… what?!). This is all a recipe for a positive, turnover-free day for Smith which, in turn, opens up our rushing game for the two-headed beast that is Hunter/Gore. Expect a big pass play today, because one of these short but effective slant routes is gonna get taken to the house for another 30+ yard touchdown – much like last week.
On the other side, the Bucs have thrown four interceptions and lost one fumble. We should expect at least one turnover from the Bucs today (I’m predicting two). Part of that will be due to our ability to stop Blount, forcing the Bucs to put the game in the hands of their young quarterback. If Blount has a good day, I believe Freeman will throw only one pick; but if we can keep Blount contained, especially in the red zone where Freeman has thrown two interceptions already, Freeman will cough it up at least once more.
Part of our reason to be confident there is that the Niners rank first in red zone defense, allowing only four touchdowns in 14 trips. Coming up big today against a team that has five touchdowns and four field goals through 11 red zone visits means keeping that touchdown percentage below/around 50%. The Bucs generally pass in the red zone, with 23 attempts – that’s counting four rushing attempts from Freeman where the play broke down. Blount has one red zone touchdown, which is nothing amazing, but Freeman has two, which could be a problem inside the five. The guy isn’t Michael Vick, but he’s big and he can pick up short yardage in third down situations for the first – or the touchdown.
Believe it or not, we rank in the top half of the league right now in offensive red zone efficiency (which shouldn't be too hard to believe given Alex's crazy-awesome red zone numbers). We score every time we get close, guaranteed; and a little over half those attempts go below the uprights for 6. The Tampa defense has proven effective this year inside the red zone themselves, so, much like our victories over the Eagles and Cincinnati, scoring in the red zone when it’s needed most and forcing field goals and a costly turnover on the other side of the ball will get us that third-straight "W".
Then it’s on to the [hopefully still] undefeated Lions to play the spoiler! Good luck. Go San Francisco!