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49ers vs. Buccaneers: An Advanced Statistical Preview

We get comfy in our mom's basement, pull out our spreadsheets and pocket protectors and give you an advanced stat preview of the 49ers upcoming match-up with the Buccaneers.

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Brian Bahr

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.

Before moving on to our upcoming opponent, let's take brief look back at some of the things I pointed out last week and see how they actually turned out on the field. The major bullet points were as follows:

  • Throw towards players that aren't Richard Sherman
  • Vernon Davis may struggle to get going
  • Run the ball up the middle of their defense
  • Slow down their offense on 1st down
  • Take advantage of Seattle's suspect pass protection
  • Slow down their runs to the left side of the offensive line
  • Win the explosive play battle

The first bullet was clearly a large focus of the 49ers' game plan this week. Richard Sherman spends the majority of his time on the right side of the offense. According to Pro Football Focus, of Colin Kaepernick's 26 aimed passes, only four were thrown to the right side of the field, with 16 being thrown to the left. Rather than test Sherman, the 49ers choose to attack Byron Maxwell, who was targeted nine times on the day. Maxwell didn't get completely torched and ended up with an interception on an under-thrown Kaepernick pass intended for Michael Crabtree up the sideline. But, San Francisco did find some success on that side of the field, especially when targeting Anquan Boldin.

Vernon Davis made one of the most important plays of the game, catching a touchdown pass at the end of the first half, giving him a touchdown reception in each of the 49ers' last four games. However, he wasn't able to do much else, catching only one other pass. His 21 yards were his lowest total since the Carolina game. Seattle entered the game as one of the top teams in the league defending tight ends and they did nothing to hurt that standing in this one.

With the one huge exception of 97 G-rub, San Francisco did end up doing most of their damage on the ground up the middle. PFF marks them down as carry the ball nine times for 40 yards to either side of the center, an average of 4.44 per carry. They didn't break any huge gains up the middle, but were able to consistently pick up yardage. The 49ers also had some success wide to the right side.

While I don't have access to individual game splits for situational DVOA numbers, it does appear the 49ers were able to slow Seattle's offense a bit on first down. Headed into the week, Seattle had averaged 5.95 yards per play on first down while converting for a new set of downs on 24.6 percent of those plays. The 49ers managed to hold them to 4.86 yards per play while allowing them to pick up a first down on 19 percent of plays. I'll take it.

The 49ers' defense got out to a fantastic start, getting to Russell Wilson often in the first quarter. The pass rush fell off, however, and only ended up pressuring Wilson on eight of 28 drop-backs. NaVorro Bowman and Ray McDonald each picked up a sack and Aldon Smith managed four hurries, but Wilson was kept clean for most of the day.

Seattle's running game found no room to their preferred left side. PFF totaled six carries that went a mere 13 yards, or 2.16 per carry.

And finally, the 49ers won the explosive play battle by a count of six to four. I broke down that aspect in far more detail yesterday, so be sure to check that out if you haven't already.

All in all, it appears as if the numbers steered us mostly in the right direction and, thankfully, the 49ers were able to come out on the positive side in most of those key areas. But the Seahawks victory is well in the rear-view mirror at this point, so let's look ahead to the 49ers' Week 15 opponent, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

49ers Offense vs. Buccaneers Defense

Week 15 will mark the sixth game (counting Seattle twice) that the 49ers offense will face a defense ranked in the top third of the league by DVOA. Tampa Bay enters the game as DVOA's sixth ranked defense and are coming off their best defensive performance of the season, recording a -64.7 percent DVOA against the Bills and continuing their impressive second half of the season. San Francisco has been making some steady strides on offense over the last several weeks, but Sunday will be yet another test to show those improvements are here to stay.

The Passing Game

Tampa Bay's defense features three players that are arguably the best players at their respective positions. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has been a force on the inside this season. McCoy leads all defensive tackles in PFF's Pass Rush Productivity metric, recording 68 total pressures on the season. Alex Boone had a shaky game moving back inside to guard against the Seahawks after filling in admirably at left tackle against the Rams while Adam Snyder remains good for one or two disastrous plays per game. Even in Mike Iupati returns to the lineup this week, the interior of the 49ers' offensive line will have their hands full with McCoy.

At the second level, Lavonte David is having a phenomenal season. The second year outside linebacker is having a Defensive Player of the Year worthy campaign, impacting the game in every aspect. As a pass rusher, David leads all linebackers in Pass Rush Productivity, notching 25 total pressures in just 87 snaps going after the quarterback. He's also been fantastic in coverage and against the run. Football Outsiders has a defensive stat they call Defeats, which encompasses all of the impact plays that show up on the stat sheet: tackles for loss, turnovers and any play that prevents a conversion on third or fourth down. With three games still remaining, David became just the fourth player they've tracked to top 40 Defeats in a season. Odds are he'll end up finishing second on that list, only coming short of J.J. Watt's historic season last year.

For the 49ers, this could mean another quiet day for Vernon Davis in the passing game. Primarily due to David's efforts, the Bucs rank seventh in defending tight ends by DVOA. If there were a game that we could see Mario Manningham have a big day, this could potentially be it. Tampa actually ranks better than Seattle in DVOA against the opposing team's top two receivers, but ranks just 24th against "other" receivers. This means going after the likes of Leonard Johnson, the Bucs nickel back.

Much like last week, the 49ers are going to want to avoid the opposing team's top corner. After spending far too much time in zone coverage at the beginning of the season, it appears Darrelle Revis is finally being allowed to lock up the offense's top target. With how things have gone recently, I would have to assume that means he'll be most of his time shadowing Boldin.

With the possibility of his top two targets being limited, it's going to be important that Kaepernick does not force things and looks for his other options if necessary. The Bucs have been very opportunistic on the back end, intercepting passes on 14 percent of defensive drives, the highest rate in the league. Kaepernick should be helped out a good amount if the offensive line can continue its strong play of the last several weeks. Tampa Bay blitzes a high percentage of the time and loves to employ stunts and twists along the defensive line. While all of those stunts and blitzes are a point of contention among those that follow the Bucs far closer than I do, they are something the 49ers will have to prepare for and communication will be key in limiting their effectiveness.

The Running Game

The Buccaneers' run defense was the best in the league by DVOA in 2012. It hasn't been quite that good this season, but still ranks a very formidable seventh in run defense DVOA headed into this week. Unlike the Seahawks, who were vulnerable up the middle, the place to attack the Bucs on the ground is going to be off tackle. Using Football Outsiders' Adjusted Line Yards metric, split by run location, the Bucs rank 21st on runs off left tackle and 24th off right tackle. I would expect that we see the 49ers get back to more of their power and counter runs this week as opposed to the quicker hitting runs up the middle that we saw against the Seahawks. Lavonte David is again going to be a player to account for here, as he also leads all 4-3 outside linebackers in PFF's run stop percentage.

San Francisco's run game wasn't spectacular last week, but they did manage to post their first positive run offense DVOA since facing Jacksonville in Week 8. They've faced a ton of stacked boxes in the weeks between that Jaguars game and now, but that really isn't anything new for the 49ers' offense. If the passing game can continue its improvement, Frank Gore and co. will start to find more open space in the run game.

Explosive Plays

Tampa Bay's defense has been about middle of the pack this season in terms of allowing explosive plays, giving up an average of about 7.31 per game. Just over 70 percent of those have come via the passing game. By comparison, Seattle's defense allows an average of 5.69 explosive plays per game, 61.6 percent of which came through the air. San Francisco should have their opportunities to make plays down the field against this defense and, as it is in most games, it will be important that they take advantage.

49ers Defense vs. Buccaneers Offense

Things are not so bright for the Buccaneers on this side of the ball. They enter the game with the 24th ranked offense by DVOA and despite winning four of their last five games, the offense has been playing at essentially the exact same level. Tampa Bay's offense is set up to be a team that runs the ball effectively and takes shots deep down field with their two big play receivers off play action. The problem is they can't run the ball and they're starting an inconsistent rookie quarterback. Fun stuff.

The Passing Game

Mike Glennon leads a passing offense that ranks 20th by DVOA, sitting at a perfectly league average 0.0 percent. Their recent hot streak has led many to believe that Glennon has taken steps forward, but ask our friends over at Bucs Nation or anyone that has followed them closely and they will tell you that he remains extremely inconsistent. The numbers back that sentiment up as well. During the first nine weeks of the season, after the Bucs were sitting at a cool 0-8 down at the bottom of the standings, their pass offense DVOA ranked 19th. Since they starting piling up W's in Week 10, their pass offense DVOA ranks... 19th.

Tampa Bay's offensive line has done a respectable job of keeping Glennon off his back, as the Bucs rank 15th in Adjusted Sack Rate this season despite losing arguably their best offensive lineman to injury in guard Carl Nicks. When searching for the best path to Mike Glennon, the 49ers will need to look to the interior of the Bucs' offensive line. Demar Dotson and Donald Penn have performed well at their respective tackle spots, but the interior has really struggled. Davin Joseph – who was supposed to pair with Nicks to form one of the top guard duos in the league – has had a particularly awful year. Joseph currently ranks 51st among 60 qualifying guards in PFF's Pass Blocking Efficiency.

Of course, the big worry in the passing game is Vincent Jackson. Jackson hasn't been targeted on deep passes quite as often this season, down to 19 percent from 32.1 percent last season, per PFF. But he's still far and away the biggest threat in the passing game, as he's been targeted more than twice as often as any other Bucs receiver. The 49ers have been extremely effective in taking away their opponent's top option, ranking 2nd in pass defense DVOA against number one receivers. If there's a time for the Bucs to take their shots to Jackson down the field, it will be on first down where they rank 6th in pass offense DVOA.

Situationally, one significant advantage the 49ers should have is getting off the field on third downs. Tampa Bay's pass offense ranks 27th in DVOA on third downs, while San Francisco's defense ranks third.

The Running Game

As I mentioned earlier, Tampa Bay wants to be a team that can run the ball. They have the sixth most carries by running backs this season, not exactly a common thing for a team spending a good amount of time playing from behind. Despite their best efforts, the Bucs have been unable to get a consistent running game going. They have the 24th ranked run offense DVOA on the season and it's actually gotten worse during their post-Week 10 hot steak, dipping from 20th to 26th in that time frame. The Bucs have posted a negative run offense DVOA in nine of their 13 games this season.

It doesn't help matters when you lose your top running back for the season due to injury, but again, the Bucs run game wasn't any more effective when Doug Martin was out there. Much like Seattle, Tampa has done their best work in the run game to the left side of the offensive line, where they rank 12th in Adjusted Line Yards on left tackle runs.

San Francisco's run defense is coming off another solid effort and looks to be regaining their previously elite form in shutting down the ground game. After ranking 16th in run defense DVOA over the first half of the season, the 49ers rank 4th since Week 10, shutting down the likes of Carolina, Washington, and Seattle in the last five weeks, all of whom rank in the top 10 in run offense DVOA.

The Bucs will try, but it's unlikely they find much room on the ground in this one.

Explosive Plays

Tampa Bay's offense has been among the worst in the league at generating explosive plays this season, averaging 5.77 explosive plays per game. Their 50 total explosive passing plays is tied for dead last in the league with Buffalo. San Francisco's defense has been fantastic in preventing big plays, particularly in the passing game where their 53 explosive plays allowed is the fourth best total in the league.

For a team who's passing offense is primarily based on down field passing concepts, this certainly does not bode well for the Bucs. With a player as talented as Vincent Jackson, they maybe be able to connect on one or two big plays down the field, but nothing game changing.

The Verdict

The reality is the Bucs have never been quite as bad as their record has been over the course of the season. Their season has been marred by dysfunction among the coaching staff and the handling of their quarterback situation earlier in the year. But even when they were 0-8, they were the best 0-8 team that Football Outsiders has measured. Now that they've been able to string together some wins, they've pushed their overall DVOA all the way up to 13th – putting them in the ranks of a fringe playoff team by performance.

That surge has been led almost entirely by their defense, as Mike Glennon and the offense has remained inconsistent at best. I'm not much of a believer in "trap games," but if that sort of narrative is your thing, this is a game that would certainly fit the profile.

At the end of the day, while there are some things to like about the Bucs and reasons to point to as cause for a potential upset, San Francisco is clearly the better team. And if there's one thing that the 49ers have done consistently this season, it's handle business against inferior competition. I'm confident they will be able to this week, giving them 10-plus wins for the third consecutive season.