San Francisco 49ers 2011 Preview: Chatting With Football Outsiders

The 2011 NFL season kicks off tonight at 5:30pm pacific as the last two Super Bowl champs do battle to kick things off. As we get closer and closer to the 49ers season opener on Sunday, there is still some interesting tidbits of preview material as we figure out what this new look 49ers team will be able to do over the next four, hopefully five months.

The folks over at Football Outsiders have been kind enough to provide some of the writers and editors for interviews with SB Nation. As would be expected, NN worked out a Q&A with former front page writer Danny Tuccitto. Danny put together fantastic statistical preview and review posts here at NN for several years before he inevitably moved on to bigger and better things. He now works as an assistant editor over at FO and took time out of his BUSY schedule to answer a few questions about the 2011 49ers as FO views them.

After the jump we've got a few comments from Danny followed by the Q&A.

Hey everyone. Nice to return to Niners Nation for something more involved than the one-off random comments I've been limited to since getting this Football Outsiders gig. It's been a wild ride over the past couple of months, and not something I envisioned whatsoever when I was the interviewer instead of the interviewee for this piece last year. But enough about me. Let's talk about the 49ers.

When I laid eyes on our first version of the Niners' win projection this season, I was kind of shocked. It was two weeks into free agency, and they had basically gutted their defense. When the final version was basically the same, after the team made several moves of dubious quality, and looked really bad at the outset of the preseason, I was even more shocked. How could we have them winning the NFC West?

But then I remembered that the same kind of thing happened last season, when Football Outsiders Almanac 2010 had San Francisco going 6-10, and Niners Nation (myself included) went up in flames about it. There was no way that was happening...until it did. So, I've learned to fight my gut reaction, and am perfectly happy to accept that, when it comes to Niner predictions, what might set us apart from the Football Outsiders supercomputer is that it lacks the emotion of fandom. Besides, why argue with a division championship? 

Oh, and of course, the supercomputer's paying my bills now. In the immortal words of Frankie Pentangeli, there's not gonna be no trouble from me!    

Fooch: The FOA introduction mentions factoring in new offensive or defensive coordinators. The 49ers find themselves with a new coaching staff, and for the first time in a long time, an offensive-minded head coach. Given all the changes, how much does this end up being shots in the dark by FO when projecting out the 49ers?

Danny: I wouldn't call it a shot in the dark because there's a decent theory behind it (i.e., less practice leads to less mastery of the scheme). Also, don't assume that the inclusion of a coordinator factor produced wild swings in the projection. This adjustment nudged the dial a little bit for certain teams, but it's not like we had the 49ers winning 10.5 games, and then adjusted it down to 7.5 because they're installing a new offense and defense.

Fooch: How does FO view the addition of Braylon Edwards within the context of the 49ers current receivers and new offensive scheme?

We can look at this in one of two ways. From a standard stats perspective, Josh Morgan had 52 catches for 527 yards and 3 touchdowns last season as the Niners' No. 2 receiver. This season, in FOA11, we project Edwards to have 49 for 746 and 5, we view him as an improvement insofar as he provides a deep threat that San Francisco didn't have before. (I'm ignoring Ted Ginn here, obviously). Essentially, they were starting two possession receivers last year, so it's no wonder that they had the lowest deep-pass frequency (13%) of any offense in the league. (I'm ignoring Alex Smith's checkdown affinity here, obviously).

From an advanced stats perspective, Morgan has been one of the worst No. 2 wide receivers over the past two seasons in terms of DYAR (i.e., total value) and DVOA (i.e., play-by-play efficiency), whereas Edwards has been a high-end No. 2. Again, it suggests improvement for the Niners' offense. Of course, this is all assuming Crabtree won't be missing any games at No. 1 wideout.

In the context of the new scheme, Edwards is better suited for the west coast Z than Morgan was; for the reason I mentioned above.

Fooch: In the analysis of Frank Gore, the writer seems to think Gore lost a step based on fewer broken tackles and a lower DVOA in spite of a higher success rate. What are your thoughts on Gore's performance last year and how he projects out in 2011?

Danny: Just a point of clarification for the inquiring minds out there. DVOA is basically success rate with bonuses for longer plays, and adjusted for opponent and game situation. So, if a player has a high success rate, but low DVOA (ala Gore), it means he either didn't get the bonuses or he faced easy run defenses/game situations. Gore actually faced opponents with better-than-average run defenses in his 11 games last season, so that's why we're saying a lack of long-play bonuses was to blame. Now, add to this the broken tackles stat and the offense's low rankings in our downfield running stats (i.e., 2nd-level rush yards, open-field rush yards), and you end up with the picture we paint in Gore's player comment.

What I might add to our comment is that it's hard to tell whether Gore's lack of explosiveness last year -- not to mention his injury -- was a byproduct of constantly running into 14-body pile-ups for nearly 2 full seasons. It looks like Harbaugh thinks so, given that they took Kendall Hunter in the draft, and he's said Gore will be utilized in space much more often this season.

Fooch: An interesting statistical note saw Alex Smith gain 11.2 yards per play on big blitzes of 6+ defenders compared to 5.7 yards per play otherwise. In 2009 he was getting 7.7 yards per play against the big blitz and 5.5 yards per play otherwise. What was the reason for the improvement from 2009 to 2010 and why the big numbers against the big blitzes?

Drawing me back into the NN Alex Smith flame wars I see. I'd say it might be some kind of practice effect since he's used to being big blitzed, but (a) I'd just be joking, and (b) he's actually not big blitzed very often because teams can get pressure on the Niners' offensive line without it. I went back and looked at our game charting data for the past two years, and two things immediately stuck out to me.

First, opponents got pressure on about 46% of their big blitzes (including 5 sacks) in 2009, whereas they only got pressure on 28% of their big blitzes (with no sacks) in 2010. So, it looks like the pass protection was much better on big blitzes in 2010 than it was in 2009. Furthermore, given that they ranked 27th in max protect frequency, the improved protection on big blitzes wasn't because they they outmanned the rushers.

The second thing that stuck out to me was that Smith's improved average against big blitzes last year was essentially because of one huge play: Brian Westbrook's touchdown against Seattle in Week 14. On that play, the Seahawks rushed six against five blockers, Smith threw the ball 5 yards across the middle to Westbrook, who then broke an Earl Thomas tackle and ran 57 yards to paydirt. If, rather than 57, you give Westbrook the Niners' average YAC of about 7 on that play, Smith's per-play average against the big blitz drops all the way down to 8.8. That's still an improvement from 2009, but not as dramatic of one.

Fooch: The 49ers defense features new terminology and potentially some more creativity from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. More importantly, the defense has had a lot of personnel turnover and could continue to see some starter turnover through the final two preseason games. If the 49ers are able to improve their pass rush by season's end will it have been because of talent, coaching, or both?

There's no way to answer this without it being rank speculation. I will say this, though, their pass rush can't get much worse than it's been over the past few years.

Fooch: The team's various win total possibilities include 28% at Loserville (4-6), 41% at Mediocrity (7-8) and 25% at Playoff Contender (9-10). Between Loserville and Playoff Contender, which do YOU see as more likely?

I see 6-10 as being more likely than 10-6. But then again, I saw 10-6 as being more likely than 6-10 last year, so take that for what it's worth (i.e., not much). Part of me thinks that, at some point around midseason, the offense will start looking a lot better than it does now simply due to their knowledge of the offense catching up to their talent level. The defense, on the other hand, looks like it's going to be superbad all season because no amount of practice time can overcome their lack of talent. As I think I've mentioned either on Twitter or in one of the NN comment threads, this season just reeks of 1980 to me. Hopefully they can draft an entire starting secondary next year, just like 1981.


Big thanks to Danny for providing a few thoughts on the 49ers. If you haven't yet purchased the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac, I highly recommend grabbing a PDF copy at the FO Store. You can purchase a printed book version of it HERE.  I'm not saying you need to accept what FO has to say as gospel. However, they provide insightful data and analysis that is just one more tool in your path to knowing everything there is to know about football. It's not too far in the distance!

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