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Super Bowl 2013: An opus on stopping Joe Flacco

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Can the 49ers cause Joe Flacco to make his first big mistake of the playoffs? Or will he continue his red hot streak one more game?

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Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

San Francisco 49ers are supposed to be humble and hungry. But I'm just a short, skinny fan -- therefore, I can be as cocky as I please.

So in case you missed it, I boldly predicted in September that the 49ers would win at least 10 games.

And before the NFC Championship Game, I called Vernon Davis' big day.

Now I'm gonna tell you Joe Flacco will throw two picks this Sunday.

Here we go.

The 49ers defense faces, in my opinion, its toughest challenge of the post-season in the Super Bowl. Fitting.

Joe Flacco might not be Aaron Rodgers or Matt Ryan to some people, but he is on an amazing run the past three games and some will put their money on that continuing in the Super Bowl.

He is making defenses pay with his deep throw and has a complimentary run game to help -- something Green Bay and Atlanta did not.

Today, we take a look at his "elite" play and how the 49ers can stop it.

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The "Hot Hand"

Flacco is only the 6th player in NFL post-season history to throw at least seven touchdowns and no interceptions (he has thrown eight TDs) The other five guys on the list -- including our very own Steve Young and Joe Montana -- all won the Super Bowl the year they did it.

The difference between Flacco and the rest, however, is his reliance on deep passes. His completion percentage in the post-season (54.%) is the lowest among the group, and the only one below 60%; yet his yards per attempt (y/a, 9.17) is second behind only Montana, who benefited from completing 78.3% of his passes.

So Flacco, who has only completed 51 passes, has made those completions stretch for 853 yards.

I went ahead and checked for other post-season quarterbacks with similar numbers (low comp%, high y/a). Once again, Flacco joins a small list of six other men to have a comp% below 60 and a y/a over 9.

Four of those six won the Super Bowls that year, while two (Joe Theismann, 1983; Jake Delhomme, 2003) made it as NFC Champions and lost.

Now, I know what you're thinking, Theismann and Delhomme both have double-letters in their name, so that must not bode well for Flacco. But sadly, two of the others on the list are Terry Bradshaw (appearing twice) and Jim Plunkett, and they won the Super Bowl. Even Jim McMahon (if you count the "m's" at the end of "Jim" and beginning of "McMahon") had a double-lettered name, and he managed to go all the way in 1985 with the Chicago Bears. How odd.

Regardless, since 1960, there is at least some precedent of making your completions count. But the men on our second list combined for 30 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, because completing a low percentage of passes and simultaneously avoiding interceptions is not a skill -- it's luck.

But here Flacco sits at 8 TDs to 0 INTs, with a comp% below 55. And even though int% on average goes up as the ball travels further, Flacco has done all of this with a yards per attempt over 9.

Even more amazing, Flacco is only the second player in NFL playoff history to throw at least 90 attempts without a single pick. The other, Drew Brees, did it in 2009 in a Super Bowl run with the Saints.

Brees' completion percentage, however, was an incredible 70.6%; meaning he was putting less balls in bad spots where they could be picked off. His y/a was also just above 7 - a full two yards less than Flacco's.

What does this all mean for Sunday?

Well, 63 men in the NFL have progressed through a post-season (whether that means 1 game or 4 games) with no interceptions and at least 20 attempts.

The linked list is sorted by most attempts. 5 of the top 6 (not counting Flacco) won the Super Bowl, with Drew Brees' '09 run leading the way as the only quarterback to attempt 100 passes without a single interception.

Flacco is right behind him with 93.

Therefore, Joe Flacco is either going to have one of the greatest post-season runs in NFL history, or he is going to have his unbelievable luck in avoiding interceptions come crashing back to reality, courtesy of the best defense in the NFL.

I'll give you one guess which one I think is going to happen. And then I'll give you a few reasons why.

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Bippity-Poppity Joe

In baseball sabermetrics, analysts can use a stat called BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) to determine where a pitcher is unusually lucky or unlucky, or is working with a particularly good/bad defense. Any ball "in play" is just an at bat that does not result in a home run or a strike out.

For example, if a pitcher strikes out most the batters he faces and only allows 6 or 7 balls to be hit in the field of play in a game, but all 6 or 7 of those are recorded as hits, then he is either really unlucky and/or his defense sucks.

Conversely, if a pitcher is letting batters hit balls on him left and right, but for some reason very few of those batters get on base, then he is lucky and/or supported by a good defense.

While good defense is sustainable, it reflects nothing of the pitcher's skill -- and luck, of course, is not sustainable at all.

Over at Football Perspective (which I highly encourage you to bookmark), Chase Stuart created POPIP, or "Picks On Passes In Play."

Much like how BABIP can be used to adjust a pitcher's ERA (earned run average) to determine whether his performance is sustainable, POPIP can be used to adjust a quarterback's interception percentage (which is notoriously random) to a number that is a better indicator of future interception rate.

If a quarterback completes 70% of his passes, but 15% of his incomplete passes end up being intercepted, then that is pretty unlucky. His interception rate will likely look higher than it should, and we would expect it to drop the following year.

Meanwhile, a quarterback who completes just 56% of his throws, but only throws picks on 2.3% of his incompletions, would be considered very lucky.

If such a quarterback attempts 500 passes in a season, 44% are incomplete, giving us 220. 2.3% of 220 is 5.06. 5.06 interceptions in 500 attempts is about 1%, which would put our hypothetical quarterback 5th all time in single-season int%.

Heading into next season, we can either assume the guy is some sort of non-turnover saint, or we can adjust his int% with POPIP to determine a more realistic future. In 2010, the average POPIP was 7.5%. 7.5% of 220 = 16.5 interceptions.

Our hypothetical quarterback is likely in for a rude awakening in the near future.

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The Deep Ball

Which brings us back to Joe (all stats below come from Pro Football Focus' premium stats).

Flacco attempted 92 passes in the regular season that traveled over 20 yards in the air. This gave him the highest percentage of deep attempts per dropback in the entire league, meaning the Ravens rely on the deep ball more than any team.

His accuracy percentage on those throws (completions + drops / attempts) was 40.2%, which is good for 18th out of 33 qualified quarterbacks.

In other words, with 57 incompletions minus 2 drops (55 "bad throws"), he was not particularly accurate. Yet, how many interceptions did he throw? Zero.

Obviously, that leads the league; but to see just how "lucky" that is, I calculated the league average for POPIP on deep passes (20+ yards) through the following equation:


attempts - (completions + drops)

Tom Brady, for example, attempted 84 deep passes. He completed 28 of them and had 6 dropped. Meaning he had 50 "true" incompletions, or incompletions that were "his fault."

His 3 interceptions on deep throws, divided by 50, equals 0.06% POPIP.

The 2012 league average for POPIP on deep passes was 0.09%. Out of 33 qualified quarterbacks, 15 were right on that or beneath. Perfect.

Of those 15, 6 made the playoffs (really, 7, but I excluded Christian Ponder since he did not play in the post-season).

Out of the group, the first closest to Flacco in deep POPIP was Matt Ryan (0.05), who threw 3 total interceptions in the post-season, with 1 coming on a deep attempt.

The next was Robert Griffin III (0.06), who also had 1 interception on a deep attempt (coincidentally, just like Ryan's, it was picked off by Earl Thomas).

After RGIII is Tom Brady (0.06), who happened to lead the league this year in regular POPIP (with Flacco and Kaepernick just behind him). He threw 2 picks in the post-season, with 1 being a deep pass.

Next up is Aaron Rodgers (0.07), who we all know threw 1 deep interception as well (should have been two! grumblegrumblegrumble).

Finally, Colin Kaepernick rounds out the group at 0.08 - which is good news for his future as a deep passer, as that is right at league average. Kaepernick threw 1 pick, but it was that pick-6 on a shallow throw.

Every other quarterback in the group had a deep throw picked off. Except, of course, Joe Flacco.

Flacco, who has attempted 24 more deep passes in the playoffs, is still yet to throw a pick. Somehow, his ridiculous deep int% and POPIP of 0.00 has lasted all season, plus another three games.

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All-22 - Defensive Backs

Despite how bad this may appear for San Francisco, the Ravens' gunslinger has yet to face as good a squad as Vic Fangio's.

Though the 49ers' schematic wet dream of an offense (can I use that term?) is receiving a lot of attention heading into Sunday (and rightfully so), its defense has quietly put up two consecutive second-halves of near shut-out ball against the most elite passing offenses the NFC has to offer.

Combine the unsustainable luck in Flacco's avoidance of interceptions with what will be two full weeks of Fangio scheming against him, and you have to trust the 49ers' defense will crack the "interception egg" on some of these deep throws.

Otherwise, Joe Flacco's name is going right up next to another Joe as one of the best playoff quarterbacks in pro football lore.

So, how will Lord Fangio do it? Disguises.

We're going to show you three plays here that exemplify what the 49ers do well. And that is using the unique talents of each player to their advantage.

When Alex Smith was quarterback the first year under Jim Harbaugh, the offense had a whole new system to install and no offseason to do it. They simplified a lot of things, therefore. They worked with what they had.

As 2011 became 2012, things opened up a bit. Alex was enjoying the best season of his career with smart, efficient, Harbaugh-esque football. The offensive line improved and the run game became increasingly complex.

When Kaepernick took over, the offense adjusted once again to its players. Harbaugh and Greg Roman have utilized Kaepernick's unique skill-set to the best of their abilities, instituting read options and inverse-veers and other such college -- and even high school! -- plays.

They've also opened things up deep to take advantage of The Kid's cannon of an arm.

Same things goes for defense. Both Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are aggressive safeties. Goldon, especially; but both men are great in the run game and are known for being big hitters. They like to play down-hill.

Whitner has had a revitalization in San Francisco because Fangio lets Whitner be exactly who he is. Same with Goldson. The scheme puts each player in a position to succeed based on what they do well.

Which brings us to creating turnovers from that. Let's look at three of the best passing offenses in the NFL and how San Francisco's aggressiveness paid off.

Play #1 - New England

All three plays are very much the same. They involve some form of mixed coverage that tempts the quarterback to go deep.

Our first play is a 1st and 10 in the 1st quarter of Week 15 @ New England.


Whitner is playing a shallow zone in the direction of the yellow arrow. Goldson is playing deep up top. The defensive backs are in man, while inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman play shallow zone and spy anything out of the backfield.

The player to focus on for New England is the blue line, Wes Welker.

The play-call has a lot of feigned deep routes that end up cutting back. The bottom receiver is checking back to the ball and outside 5 yards up-field; the top one is running a deep in. Ideally, he will draw some of the safety coverage in so that Welker can exploit things over the top.

It's doubly deceiving because Welker is known as a slot guy who catches short and gets his YAC. But on this play he is the one running the go.


As the play develops and Brady is releasing the ball, the coverage underneath is superb. The linebackers are in the right position. Whitner, despite being the safety, ends up defending the shallowest route of the play.

Goldson is up top, but as you can tell by the angle of his motion, he is not defending the streak. He's trying to cut it off shallow for a big hit or interception.

It's Carlos Rogers who is in charge of getting over the top of the play. And he can easily do that because he knows Goldson is playing aggressive.


Which gets us this. Rogers over the top of the play; Goldson trailing. But that doesn't mean Goldson misplayed it. Fangio gives both Whitner and Goldson free reign to play hard and downhill. So he often has his defensive backs do things over the top.

Which is why nobody should be criticizing Tarell Brown or Carlos Rogers. For anything.

It's a tough job having to compensate for aggressive safeties. Sometimes you will get beat by a perfect throw over the top. It happens. Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan had more than their share of quality play against the Niners this post-season.

But the talent of San Francisco's DBs makes possible all the big hits that Whitner and Goldson are known for, and it also allows both men to be excellent in the run game.

Play #2 - Green Bay

Here we have a 3rd and 7 in the 2nd quarter against Green Bay in the Divisional Round.


The route to pay attention to is the bottom one, run by Jordy Nelson.

Just like the last play, Whitner is playing closer to the line of scrimmage while Goldson (yellow circle) remains deep in a Cover-1.

The 49ers are on a right side blitz. Rodgers sees it coming and adjusts pre-snap. He knows he's going to have something deep if he wants it. With two routes going long, Goldson cannot defend both.


Three of the linebackers are in coverage. Aldon Smith (1) is faking the pass rush, but he backs up. Willis (2) is playing zone about where he is now standing. Bowman (3) is in charge of the bottom of the field.

Again, the DBs are in man coverage on the outside, with Whitner lending a hand for the man that the blitzing Rogers leaves behind.

Goldson is already working towards where he sees Rodgers gazing.


And so here we have Goldson biting hard on the post route. Playing aggressive.

He can do it because Brown is over the top in great position to defend anything deep.

Since the coverage is, again, fantastic underneath (honestly, what other linebackers in the league can do it so consistently?), Aaron Rodgers lets the pass fly, but Nelson is not open.

The attempt is overthrown -- which good quarterbacks will do because you'd rather overthrow than underthrow a deep pass. So Brown comes underneath it for the interception, avoids Nelson's tackle, and charges back towards midfield with the return.

It sets up San Francisco in great field position for what ends up as a scoring drive.

Play #3 - Atlanta

Lastly, a 1st and 10 from the ATL 31 in the final quarter of last week's NFC Championship Game.

The 49ers have a 4 point lead, but Matt Ryan has (at this point) 7 minutes to change that.


Julio Jones (red route) is running a "post 'n' go"; or a fake post to a streak.

The 49ers start out in what looks like quarters zone coverage, but that's part of the deception. Really, they are in complete man coverage with the safeties deep.


As the play develops, the 49ers get pressure despite a four man rush. Ryan avoids a sack attempt from Aldon Smitih and rears to throw.

Goldson is again playing aggressive. He leans forward to bite on the post route.

When Ryan comes out of his current dilemma -- having avoided Option A, the sack -- he is tricked into Option B, a deep throw over the safeties.

"Matty Ice" sees Goldson trailing Julio, and so he heaves it deep.


The ball (black circle) is in the air. Both safeties are not in position to cover it, but Brown is.

He ends up defending what could have easily been an interception. It turns out to be a critical play in what eventually became a failed final drive for Atlanta; sending San Francisco to the Super Bowl to face off with Joe Flacco.

On Sunday, expect Lord Fangio to let his safeties continue their aggressiveness, and his defensive backs to continue their excellence in coverage.

Expect Flacco to mistakenly let a deep pass fly because he has the safeties beat.

Expect Rogers, Brown, and Culliver to make him pay.

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