This is an ongoing series where we take some of the best and worst performances of last year -- as judged by Pro Football Focus' grading system -- and analyze them on film. I peruse their game grades for each player, see something remarkably good or bad, and go to the All-22 to see what it tells us.
Not only do the grades and game-charting provided by PFF shine a spotlight on specific plays and players, giving us a treasure map of "x's", denoting when and where to dig deeper; but they provide us a convenient measuring stick by which to conduct some of our own evaluations. Where and when is PFF grading or charting inaccurate? Where might our interpretations of the film differ?
These and more questions will hopefully be answered in the coming weeks. At the least, they will be considered. Cuz, "it's science, dawg."
We started the series yesterday with Perrish Cox's bad day against Green Bay's Randall Cobb. Jeff from PFF joined us in the comments to clarify some of the grades and the thought-process behind them. Hopefully he sticks around as we move forward because the impetus of this series is curiosity, the goal to learn -- and anyone employed by PFF has insight quite valuable to us as we move through their evaluations and offer our own.
Plus, I am giving them free PR!
side note: ... speaking of which, please sign up for PFF's premium account. Tons of cool stats and an ever-growing database of things to look at. Definitely worth it.
And so, Niners Nation now presents...
Caught on Tape! Week 1 @ GB
PFF graded him at a -4.4 for the entire game, with a -3.2 pass rush -- easily Smith's worst of the season, including the playoffs.
Now this is a surprising grade to me at first glance because I, just like I am sure most of you, distinctly remember Aldon getting some pressure on Rodgers during the very first drive of the game. The early (and totally bogus) unsportsmanlike conduct penalty aside, #99 appeared to be lined up for a good outing.
PFF did grade Aldon down for the penalty, but that was done separately from his pass rush grade; so do keep that in mind. This means, when we say he got a -3.2 pass rush grade, we are saying he had a very poor day creating pressure.
The first thing to do, before looking at the film, is take a look at some more of the stats -- which, again, PFF provides.
Smith recorded one sack in this game, along with two QB hits, and one hurry. That does not appear like a bad day.
Aldon had 20 sacks last year in 19 games. So the one he had against Green Bay lines up with his average. He also had 18 hits on the season, making the two he accrued on Rodgers an above par display. So where does the negative grade make sense from a stat perspective?
Well, through two numbers:
First, where we really see the discrepancy is in hurries. Aldon had only one according to PFF's game-charting, yet he managed 49 total in his 19 games.
Second, and more importantly, we know that a player does not always play the same number of snaps in a game -- meaning "one game" is not a good unit for efficiency measurements.
Also, since we are speaking strictly of Smith as a pass rusher, we know that not all of his opponents threw the ball the same number of times.
As it happens, Green Bay is one of the more pass-heavy teams in the league, and they played this entire game with a deficit. This means Rodgers was really slinging it.
Pro-football-reference's game log will tell us that Rodgers threw the ball 44 times, was sacked three times, and had to escape the pocket and rush forward five times.
Aldon, who played almost every snap but did spend several of those in coverage, managed a whopping 51 snaps rushing the passer. That was the second most all season, behind only that very long game in New England where Aldon rushed Tom Brady 56 times.
In those 51 snaps, he had the aforementioned four total pressures. So how does 4-out-of-51 compare to the rest of Smith's season?
Well, PFF has a formula they use called "Pass Rushing Productivity", which measures how often a blitzer, linebacker, lineman, etc., accrues pressure relative to the number of snaps they spend in pass rush.
Sacks are worth a full "point"; hits and hurries are naturally worth less. Add the "points" up and divide the total by Smith's 51 rush attempts to get a true efficiency measure of 6.37.
During the regular season, Aldon's Pass Rushing Productivity (PRP) was 11.7, almost double what he managed against Green Bay, and the second-best mark in the league among outside linebackers who played at least 50% of eligible snaps.
For reference, Aldon's 6.37, if applied to the season, would have ranked him 17th on that same list, with only three men behind him. Even his performance in the Super Bowl, a 6.81, was better. And, in case you were wondering, his monster day against Chicago notched him a 34.09, which one has to imagine was the highest single-game number of the season.
Thus, Aldon's day seems normal until we take into account the large number of snaps he spent rushing the passer. The contextualized stats now bare out Smith's ineffectiveness that day, and give some early credence to his -3.2 pass rush grade.
Of course, that begs the question: does the film agree?
A Hot Start
Smith's biggest play of the game came on the third play of the game.
While the rest of the 49ers squad is following the Green Bay line up the screen, Aldon notices the play action quite quickly and stays behind:
You can see that above, where Aldon is already in good position for Rodgers before he can even come out of the fake.
When he does, Aldon is there waiting for him. With good coverage down-field, and Rodgers not at all set to throw, he runs outside. Smith chases until eventually earning an ankle tackle for the sack, at which time his helmet comes off, the zebras throw a flag, and Coach Jim Harbaugh has his first angry moment of 2012.
Marshall Newhouse is not just a name that sounds like a Simpsons character, but is the name of Green Bay's left tackle. He did not grade well according to PFF on the whole season, but he did have his best game in pass protection of 2012 against San Francisco.
Seeing as how Aldon often lines up on the right, Newhouse was often in charge of protecting Rodgers from him.
However, his task was made easy as Green Bay utilized a particularly quick passing game to neutralize the 49ers pass rush. As PFF said in their own review of the game:
Of Aaron Rodgers' 41 targeted passes, 29 of them were thrown within 10 yards, and 21 of the 41 were released in 2.0 seconds or less.
Without knowing how PFF grades a pass rusher for his inability to create pressure within two seconds, we cannot say for sure how much of that affected Smith's grading.
The two plays below were from early in the game, and they feature Newhouse having a difficult time containing Smith on plays that were not quick throws.
Here is Smith lined up on Newhouse (#74) above.
Smith rushes outside, and is too quick for Newhouse here. The Packer LT grabs quite a bit of jersey, which becomes obvious as he stumbles left and Aldon shrugs him off to move back inside.
The pocket was already getting squished, but the presence of Aldon having a clear gap at Rodgers causes the QB to escape outside.
Aldon maneuvers back around Newhouse, who now stumbles right as Aldon shoots left, and he chases Rodgers out of bounds.
Unfortunately, Rodgers gains 8 yards on the play. Since it was 2nd and 9, that is a successful rushing attempt, as it gained a large percentage of the needed yards.
I am not sure if what Smith did above constitutes a hurry, as the pocket was already showing signs of trouble; but I imagine, since Rodgers picked up 8 yards on a 2nd down play, that Smith was not graded positively regardless.
The second one is another play-action that Smith (circled red) reads very quickly.
As you can see, Aldon's leg is already planted to blast inside. He is paying no attention to the movement of the Green Bay line left.
A second later, Aldon is darting towards the red lane I have highlighted above. Newhouse (circled yellow) is stunned and flat-footed.
And so here is Aldon blasting through the line while Newhouse doesn't appear to have moved at all.
I wish I could gif this for you, because it was crazy to watch how fast #99 diagnosed the play and took off through the line.
Smith leaves five Green Bay defenders watching him go as Rodgers scrambles further outside and is able to gain the four yards necessary for a first down.
As with the last play, this could mean Smith, despite getting pressure on Rodgers and preventing a pass attempt, was not awarded any positive grading. I am not sure on the PFF process for such a play.
This play comes from the third quarter and may (or may not) be the one play of the game where Aldon recorded a QB hurry.
Again, lined up on Newhouse...
... and beating him outside...
... to get a fingertip or five on Rodgers as he ducks between the Smith Bros to escape.
Rodgers gains 5 yards here. On a 2nd and 7, that is considered yet another successful run by advanced metric standards.
Based on the plays we have focused on here, another reality of Smith's poor grade may just be a testament to Rodgers' elusiveness.
On the whole, it seems that while Smith did perform, stat-wise, far below his usual standards, that this was more an effect of Green Bay game-planning well than Smith failing to produce. Combine that with two other obvious facts -- Smith had a really good pass rush season; Newhouse had a below average one in pass protection -- and I think that point becomes clearer: this game was not about Newhouse handling Smith, but rather Newhouse being afforded a quick release by his quarterback, as well as some timely escapes.
So while Smith's grade should be low because he failed to produce, it does not necessarily mean this was his worst pass rushing day of the season on tape.
Often, Rodgers threw quick. Some plays, Smith was chipped at the line; others he was double-teamed. Still others he was part of three/four man "pseudo-rushes" where Green Bay spread San Francisco out and telegraphed the pass.
Especially towards the end of the game, with a two touchdown lead and time on their side, San Francisco seemed content to let Rodgers have his quick completions. The pass rush attempts came across as more self-contained than anything.
Sadly, as mentioned, since all of Rodgers' scrambles resulted in successful gains, it is possible Smith was not awarded any positive grading at all for those plays even though, ultimately, he prevented Rodgers from attempting a dangerous deep pass attempt. In fact, he could have received a negative grade for letting Rodgers escape.
Even if Aldon did allow Rodgers to gain successful yardage, he still, with great awareness and speed, prevented something worse. That does not reflect anything wrong with the grade (if my assessment of their grade is even correct, of course), but it does add context.
I feel confident saying Smith played better in this game than what his grade implies, but that he did still have a more difficult time than usual creating pressure. His grade (as with all player grades, I'm sure) was at least partly a function of game context and play-calling on both sides of the ball -- plus a little luck in him not being able to turn some of his close pressures into sacks, and in allowing Rodgers to gain positive yardage while scrambling.
Either way, some very interesting things to discuss.
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witticism and empiricism @liberty_JAC
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