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49ers vs. Falcons: An Advanced Statistical Preview

Much has changed since the 49ers met the Falcons in the NFC Championship game last season. Is there any reason to believe the struggling Falcons have a chance to ruin the final game at Candlestick? We go to the numbers to find out.

Streeter Lecka

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:

  • The interior of our offensive line will have trouble with Gerald McCoy
  • Vernon Davis could have a quiet day in the passing game for a second straight week
  • A breakout game from Mario Manningham
  • Avoid turnovers against an interception-happy Bucs' defense
  • Run the ball off tackle
  • Explosive plays will be available through the air
  • 49ers will be able to get pressure on Glennon through the interior of the Bucs' offensive line
  • Tampa will struggle to convert on third downs
  • The Bucs won't be able to run the ball

While we didn't necessarily need numbers to point out that Gerald McCoy would be a problem, he certainly gave the interior of our offensive line fits. He only managed to take Colin Kaepernick down once, but McCoy finished the day with seven total quarterback pressures according to Pro Football Focus while also doing some solid work in the run game. McCoy is a force, no shame in losing some battles to a player of his caliber.

Unlike against Seattle, Vernon Davis was able to put up solid numbers this week against Tampa Bay. Davis finished with five receptions for 79 yards and a touchdown. Most of Davis's production came on the 52-yard touchdown and he was inches away from adding another long touchdown grab to his day earlier in the game. Of Davis's four other receptions, two were successful plays with the other two coming up short of the needed yardage on third down. I had thought the Bucs would have Lavonte David covering Davis for a large chunk of the game, but that didn't happen. Davis was only targeted once with David in coverage (a reception for five yards) as the Bucs used a variety of different defenders on him.

Mario Manningham had one reception for two yards on just two targets. So much for that.

Kaepernick and the offense were able to avoid turnovers altogether in this one. Much like against Seattle with Richard Sherman, the 49ers mostly avoiding throwing towards Darrelle Revis. He was targeted just four times, giving up a single completion that would've amounted to just a short gain if not for a monster play by Anquan Boldin after the catch.

San Francisco definitely focused on running the ball outside the tackles in this one. According to PFF, the 49ers only ran the ball four times for 12 yards between the guards. Outside the tackles, they ran the ball 21 times for 94 yards, far and away their most frequented run location. They had the most success to the left side, picking up 71 yards on nine carries.

Most of the explosive plays for the 49ers offense actually came on the ground as opposed to the air. They finished the game with seven total explosive plays and five of them came through the run game. Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James, and Kaepernick all got in on the action.

Justin Smith beat Bucs left guard Jamon Meredith for a sack, but outside of that the interior of the Bucs offensive line held up pretty well. Most of the 49ers pressure came from the edge in this one, with Aldon Smith in particular having a big game. Aldon finished with nine total quarterback pressures, per PFF, including two sacks.

Oh boy, did the Bucs struggle to convert on third downs. Tampa finished one-of-ten on third down attempts and tossed in two more failed conversions on fourth down. In all, Tampa was held without a single first down on seven of their 11 drives.

The 49ers defense shut down the Bucs' run game. As a team, the Bucs finished with 39 yards on just 12 carries with only one of those carries managing double digit yardage. Tampa was forced to forgo the run game in the second half due to the score deficit, handing the ball off only three times after halftime.

The numbers weren't quite as on point as they were for the Seattle game, as there were some very clear misses there. Nonetheless, we still found some helpful angles in there as about half of the major bullet points came to fruition.

On to the Falcons we go.

49ers Offense vs. Falcons Defense

After a run of stout defenses, the 49ers offense is finally going to get some relief against the Falcons this week. Atlanta currently holds the 30th ranked defense in the league by weighted DVOA (which weights more heavily towards recent games). The Falcons have only one game with a negative DVOA in their last six and that came against the Matt Flynn-led Packers. According to Football Outsiders' drive stats, no one has allowed more points per drive than the Atlanta defense and only San Diego and Dallas have allowed more yards on a per drive basis.

The Passing Game

While it takes a certain level of incompetence in each phase to achieve the 30th ranked defense, it has really been the passing defense that's led the charge. Atlanta's weighted pass defense DVOA is dead last in the league, having actually gotten worse in the second half of the season. Asante Samuel, who saw just two snaps of action last week against Washington, has essentially been benched as the Falcons attempt to see what they have in their younger players. Rookies Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford have been the starting cornerback duo each of the last two weeks, with fourth-year player Robert McClain getting the slot corner snaps. Trufant has actually played relatively well this season, but the rest of the secondary has been a mess.

With a pass defense that's been as bad as Atlanta's has it's difficult to pick out a specific weakness that stands out. They rank 23rd or worse in DVOA against every type of pass target with the exception of running backs. They've been especially bad against opposing team's number one receivers, ranking 29th in DVOA and allowing an average of 8.5 receptions and 84.8 yards per contest. I don't know that Michael Crabtree has overtaken Anquan Boldin as the 49ers' top passing target just yet, but I suspect that we'll see a breakout game of sorts for Crabtree this week to close out the 'Stick.

Not helping out their shaky secondary is the fact that Atlanta fields the worst pass rush in the league. The Falcons are dead last in Adjusted Sack Rate having taken down the opposing quarterback just 28 times on the season. Osi Umenyiora, who was swapped out with fellow aging pass rusher John Abraham this offseason, leads the team with 7.5 sacks but, like Samuel, he is also seeing a reduced role. Umenyiora played a season-low 28 snaps last week against Washington. San Francisco has certainly had their issues in pass protection this year – they currently rank 21st in Adjusted Sack Rate allowed – but Kaepernick should have plenty of time in the pocket on Monday night.

The Running Game

As you might suspect, Atlanta hasn't been very good stopping the run either. After ranking a respectable 15th in run defense DVOA over the first half of the season, they've fallen to 24th in the second half of the year. Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters have both been solid in run defense in the interior of Atlanta's defensive line – Babineaux ranks seventh in run stop percentage according to PFF – but outside of those two, things have been pretty bleak.

The Falcons have been most vulnerable to the left side of the offensive line. Using FO's Adjusted Line Yards metric split up by run location, the Falcons have been the worst team in the league defending runs off the left tackle. San Francisco loves to run behind Joe Staley and that's exactly where the 49ers had most of their success running the ball last week against Tampa Bay.

San Francisco's run offense put up their third best game of the season by DVOA against the Bucs. I wrote about that performance in much more detail a few days ago, so I won't spend too much time on it here.

Explosive Plays

Guess what, guys? Atlanta's defense hasn't been very good here either. The Falcons defense has given up 7.71 explosive plays per game with 73 percent of those plays coming via the passing game. Falcons' safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have been poor in coverage this season and we saw last week how Vernon Davis was able to get behind the much better Buccaneers' safety duo. According to PFF, only DeSean Jackson has more deep touchdown receptions that Vernon Davis does this season. Good things are not in Thomas DeCoud's future.

49ers Defense vs. Falcons Offense

Things haven't been quite as hopeless for Atlanta on the offensive side of the ball this season, but it hasn't necessarily been good either. Injuries have decimated the Falcons offense this season, none bigger than the season ending injury to star receiver Julio Jones. But several other significant players on Atlanta's offense have missed time as well. Roddy White and Steven Jackson have both missed chunks of time this year. Atlanta has also sent two offensive lineman to injured reserve in Sam Baker and Mike Johnson. All of this has contributed to an offense that now ranks 21st in weighted DVOA.

The Passing Game

Matt Ryan and Tony Gonzalez were able to hold things together for the first half of the year, as the Falcons ranked ninth in pass offense DVOA at the midpoint of the season. Since then, the wheels have fallen off a bit as they're down to 20th in the second half of the year. They've faced some very good defenses in that time, but actually put up their worst single-game pass offensive DVOA of the season last week against Washington.

Harry Douglas may be the biggest potential problem in the passing game. San Francisco ranks 19th in DVOA against "other" receivers, their worst ranking against any pass target. He will likely be the problem of Carlos Rogers for much of the day, as Douglas spends 64.7 percent of his snaps in the slot.

On the surface, Atlanta's fifth ranked Adjusted Sack Rate would lead you to believe that the Falcons' offensive line has done an admirable job keeping Matt Ryan clean despite the injuries. However, it appears as though that ranking may be due to Matt Ryan's ability to get the ball out of his hand at the last moment. According to PFF, no team in the league has allowed more hurries or total pressures than Atlanta's offensive line has.

Current starting left tackle Lamar Holmes has been the biggest culprit. Holmes has given up 65 total pressures on the season, the second worst total among tackles by PFF's data. He'll have the pleasure of dealing with the Smith's for most of the day. Aldon Smith had the second-highest pressure total of his career last week and he could very well approach that mark again on Monday.

San Francisco's pass defense has been playing very well as of late, which I wrote about in greater detail earlier in the week.

The Running Game

The biggest weakness of the Atlanta offense last season was the running game and swapping out Michael Turner for Steven Jackson hasn't helped much. As mentioned earlier, Jackson did miss some time earlier in the season and the Falcons have actually been a bit better running the ball since his return. But overall, Jackson hasn't been a very effective player. He's averaging just 3.5 yards per carry on the season and his minus-11.6 percent DVOA ranks 34th among 41 qualifying running backs.

On the other hand, San Francisco's run defense is playing better than it has all season. The 49ers posted another game with a negative run defense DVOA against the Bucs, making it four consecutive games that they've done so. Due in large part to spending a lot of their time trailing this season, the Falcons have run the ball fewer times than anyone else in the league this season. If the game goes as expected, the 49ers defense shouldn't have to spend too much time worrying about the Atlanta run game before they are forced to give up on it.

Explosive Plays

Atlanta's offense has been even worse than Tampa Bay's was at producing explosive plays. The Falcons average just 5.71 explosive plays per game on the season, ranking in the bottom 10 of the league in explosive plays in both the passing and running games.

On defense, the 49ers had another great week in preventing explosive plays, allowing only four to the Buccaneers' offense. Two of those plays came after the play had broken down and Mike Glennon was able to find someone down field after he began scrambling. Another came on a draw from Brian Leonard towards the end of the first half.

The Verdict

In many games, it's can be relatively easy to find the potential path to an upset. That path may be more of an off beaten trail than it is a paved road, but at least it's there. This week, it's difficult to foresee a way in which Atlanta would be able to win this game. They struggle in most every phase of the game and are without a real strength that they can rely on. With the phasing out of several veteran players, the Falcons are playing for next year at this point.

On the other side, the 49ers have been gradually improving each week and are playing their best football of the season. There's no reason to assume that will change this week and I fully expect the 49ers to send Candlestick Park out with a fond farewell and a comfortable victory.