Note: All of the data used in this article, unless otherwise specified, is courtesy of Football Outsiders and their premium DVOA database. DVOA is FO's per-play efficiency metric that compares the result of each play to league average after adjusting for down, distance, game situation and opponent. A positive DVOA is good for the offense, a negative DVOA good for the defense. You can read more about it and the rest of their stats here.
Have you heard it's going to be cold?
The frigid weather conditions that are expected this Sunday at Lambeau Field has been a storyline that's been run into the ground all week. With game-time temperatures expected to be below zero even before the windchill, it will be far and away the coldest game that the 49ers have played in the Harbaugh era.
In fact, San Francisco has yet to play a game in sub-freezing temperatures in Harbaugh's three seasons at the helm. According to the game-time temperatures provided by the NFL, the 49ers have played in just two games below 40 degrees: earlier this season at Washington (35 degrees) and last season at New England (34 degrees). San Francisco won both of those games, but it's hardly a big enough sample to draw any kind of meaningful conclusions from.
So what type of impact can we expect the weather to have on the game? I'm not so sure that the weather is going to make all that much of a difference for either team and I certainly don't feel as if the weather will be an advantage for one team or the other. Is it going to be damn cold? Absolutely. No one is used to playing in below freezing temperatures. At the same time, this isn't the 1960s. Players should be able to stay relatively warm on the sidelines. Lambeau Field is heated, which means field conditions shouldn't be terrible. The wind is really the big worry. The initial forecasts that I had seen had the winds at below 10 mph. Those have crept up and are now expected to be between 15 and 25 mph. If that holds true, that will be a much more significant factor than simply the cold.
Weather aside, is there anything that should worry us about the 49ers simply leaving the friendly confines of Candlestick and heading on the road to win a playoff game? Homefield advantage obviously matters. Since the advent of the current divisional structure in 2002, home teams have won 60.9 percent (67-43) of playoff games. Thankfully, the 49ers are about as well equipped to go and win on the road as just about any team in the league. Over the course of this season, their performance has actually improved when they leave home. Seriously.
|Location||Points Scored||Off DVOA||Rank||Points Allowed||Def DVOA||Rank|
Now, it's certainly not a massive difference but considering that most of the league is worse on the road than at home, the fact that they've been even modestly better on each side of the ball when they travel away from the Bay Area seams to bear some significance. Relative to the rest of the league, the 49ers go from being an above average team at home to one of the best teams in football on the road.
Of course, as is the way of things in the playoffs, the performance of Colin Kaepernick will be under an even larger magnifying glass than it's already been this season. How has the young quarterback performed on the road? As you would expected based on the numbers above, Kaepernick has been essentially the same guy regardless of where the game has been played.
|Year-Location||Att/Gm||Comp%||Yds/Gm||Yds/Att||TD||INT||Rush Yds/Gm||Rush Yds/Att||Rush TD|
|2013 - Home||26.3||57.1%||208.1||7.93||9||4||24.1||4.60||1|
|2013 - Away||25.8||59.7%||191.5||7.44||12||4||41.4||6.62||3|
|Career - Home||26.3||59.4%||219.3||8.35||15||5||36.8||6.91||4|
|Career - Away||26.6||60.3%||198.1||7.97||20||8||41.7||6.64||5|
Kaepernick's 412 yard effort through the air the last time San Francisco played Green Bay inflates his home average a bit and makes the difference look more significant than it actually is. Remove that game and his career average at home as a starter drops down to 201.8, right in line with his career away average. Whatever your opinion on Kaepernick is, it's clear that at least to this point in his career his performance isn't dictated by the location of the game.
Winning in the playoffs is difficult regardless of the circumstances. But if the 49ers lose on Sunday, I have a feeling it won't have a whole lot to do with where the game is being played or the conditions it's being played in.
Nickel Run Defense
Instead, if the 49ers do lose this weekend, there's a good chance Eddie Lacy will have had a very good day. You don't need me to tell you that inserting Aaron Rodgers back into the Green Bay lineup is a big deal and that Aaron Rodgers happens to be really, really good at football. But Rodgers does more than return the Packers' passing attack to one of the best in football, it makes their running game one of the best in football as well.
Over the first half of the season, with Rodgers in the lineup, the Packers had the league's third best rushing offense by DVOA. Rodgers and the passing game forces defense to play with two-high safeties, which means less bodies in the box for Eddie Lacy and the offensive line to deal with in the run game. Here's a shot from the Week 1 game between the 49ers and Packers:
And in case you're saying to yourself, "but the 49ers play that way against everyone," here's another from the Packers' Week 6 game against the Ravens:
Outside of the position of the safeties, the other thing you might notice about both of those screenshots is the formations each team is using. Over the past several seasons, the Packers have used 3+ wide receiver sets as much as any team in the league and this season has been no different, even without Rodgers for an extended stretch. According to Jeff Deeney, the invaluable 49ers resource over at Pro Football Focus, the Packers have used 3+ wide receivers on 77 percent of their offensive plays. In the season opener against the 49ers this season, that number jumped to 87 percent.
This means we're going to see a whole lot of the 49ers' nickel defense on the field. Overall, the 49ers run defense hasn't been as good as we've become accustomed to this season. After finishing second in run defense DVOA in 2011 and 2012, they've dropped down to 14th this season putting them just slightly above average in that department. A big reason for the decline has been their inability to stop the run from their nickel package.
There are a few possible reasons for this. Injuries certainly impacted the 49ers front seven more this season than the previous couple seasons. Patrick Willis and Ray McDonald each missed brief stretches. Ian Williams went on IR and his replacement, Glenn Dorsey, has played well but has also played through injury a bit. And of course there was the absence of Aldon Smith for five games and most of a sixth.
Those injuries and absences definitely matter, but even when healthy the 49ers just haven't done as good of a job executing up front. I don't have specific data on the 49ers run defense splits when in nickel compared to their base 3-4, but Jeff Deeney did confirm to me that their yards per carry allowed was higher. You can also see adjustments in their gameplans. When they feel like they can get away with it, they've played more of their base defense against 3 receiver formations than I can remember them using in past seasons.
They won't have that luxury against the Packers on Sunday. Playing base defense against Aaron Rodgers and his trio of receivers just isn't an option. So instead, it's going to be on the 49ers nickel front to step up and stop the run. They were successful in doing so in the Week 1 match-up and they'll need a repeat performance this week. Shutting down Aaron Rodgers isn't something that's going to happen. But if you can make that offense one dimensional, things become more manageable.
When Green Bay does run, expect them to attack directly up the middle. Using Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric split by run location, the Packers have been the second best team in the league running the football between the guards. That just so happens to be the weakest spot of San Francisco's run defense, as they rank 29th in the same metric.
Keeping their foot on the gas pedal
One way that San Francisco can assist their run defense and force Green Bay to become more pass happy is by jumping out to a fast start. The 49ers have been one of the best first quarter teams in all of football this season, ranking eighth in offensive DVOA and second in defensive DVOA in the opening period.
However, there's been a feeling among 49ers' fans that after jumping out to early leads, the team goes conservative and fails to close teams out in the manner in which they should. We saw that exact scenario play out just last week against the Cardinals when they jumped out to a 17-0 first quarter lead before only scoring six points the rest of the way, allowing Arizona to come back and make a game out of it.
When looking at the 49ers DVOA splits by quarter, there certainly appears to be some evidence to support the claim that San Francisco's performance has tailed off as the game goes on. Here's a look at those splits, along with how the Packers match-up:
|Team||1st Q||Rank||2nd Q||Rank||3rd Q||Rank||4th Q||Rank||1st Half||Rank||2nd Half||Rank|
|Team||1st Q||Rank||2nd Q||Rank||3rd Q||Rank||4th Q||Rank||1st Half||Rank||2nd Half||Rank|
It's important to remember that Green Bay's offensive numbers include nearly half a season's worth of data without Rodgers at the helm. They almost certainly look a lot better had he been in the lineup for all 16 games. Looking at those numbers, the 49ers should indeed have an advantage in the first half and be able to get out to an early lead. The second half woes on the other hand are there, but they appear to be more a result of the defense's performance than the offense.
There is a slight dip in performance on the offensive side of the ball, but it's small and can probably be explained almost entirely by blowouts in games against the Texans, Titans, Jaguars and the like. The defense's drop is much more significant, dropping from the league's third best unit in the first half down to a below average group in the second half.
These second half lulls haven't come back to bite the 49ers in the form of allowing a big comeback victory. About as closest thing you could point of that ilk is the Saints game in which New Orleans scored the final nine points in the fourth quarter, but that game was close throughout and was a questionable Ahmad Brooks penalty away from having a different outcome.
The playoffs is obviously not the time the 49ers want to see this catch up to them. If they do in fact establish an early lead, it'll be important they stay aggressive and don't go into clock-milking mode too early. Knowing that Aaron Rodgers is on the opposite sideline, I don't think this will be much of a problem.
Can the Packers stop... anything?
With as much as there is to worry about on the Green Bay offense, Packers' fans must be even more perturbed about their defense's prospects of stopping the 49ers' offense. In the last two match-ups, San Francisco has out-coached and exposed the Green Bay defense in two entirely different fashions. Beyond that, Green Bay hasn't had much success stopping anyone this season.
The Packers have the worst defense of any playoff team, ranking 29th in weighted defensive DVOA. Their issues on defense extend to defending both the run (31st) and the pass (26th). Given the 49ers preference to run the ball, I would expect the Packers to spend much of their efforts to take that away with their gameplan.
I wrote earlier this week about how Green Bay was able to shut down the San Francisco run game in their Week 1 match-up. Much of their success in that game was due to failed execution on the part of the 49ers' offensive line, but the Packers also got standout games from Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji.
Matthews, by far Green Bay's most disruptive player on defense, won't be on the field this week. Green Bay's likely starters at outside linebacker, Nick Perry and Mike Neal, both rank in the bottom seven (of 42 qualifiers) among 3-4 outside linebackers in PFF's run defense grades.
Raji has struggled to make an impact ever since that opening week game against the 49ers. After PFF gave him a run defense grade of +2.0 against San Francisco, he has yet to top a grade of +1.0 since then and has worked his way down to the cellar of 3-4 defensive ends in run defense.
Barring the weather playing a far larger role in the game than I expect it to, this game has shootout written all over it. The average score in the previous three games between these two teams has been 36-27. My feeling is that we'll see similar numbers put up this week. Green Bay is better than an eight win team with Rodgers under center, but even then San Francisco is the more talented and complete football team. As long as they don't shoot themselves in the foot, we'll be getting ready for at least one more 49ers game this season.