Can Colin Kaepernick get past the Seattle Seahawks? Will he ever show the grit to go into Seattle and lead the 49ers to victory? Does he have what it takes to shut up Richard Sherman?
When a quarterback gets a reputation attached to him early in his career, it can be nearly impossible to shake. Just ask Peyton Manning about his inability to knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots early in his career. With the 49ers going 1-3 in games against Seattle since Kaepernick took over as the starter, these are the types of questions we are sure to hear over and over and over again for the foreseeable future.
Notice I said the 49ers are 1-3 and not Kaepernick is 1-3. It's an important distinction and one that many in the national media fail to grasp. Quarterbacks might play a more important role in a team's success than most other positions, but wins remain a team achievement.
With that in mind, there's no denying that Kaepernick and the passing offense have been at the forefront of people's minds when it comes to San Francisco's struggles against their divisional rivals. Let's see if things have really been as bas as people think, and if so, some potential causes for those struggles.
How good is Seattle's defense?
#HotSportsTake coming... The Seahawks' defense has been really good over the last two seasons. Particularly the pass defense, which some posit could be one of the best in NFL history. We should obviously expect quarterbacks to perform worse against a defense of that caliber. But how much worse? And has Kaepernick performed better or worse than the average quarterback the Seahawks have faced?
Excluding Kaepernick for a moment, the Seahawks faced 13 quarterbacks who attempted at least 20 passes against them in 2013 (including playoffs). Here's how those quarterbacks fared last season:
|vs. non-Seattle opp||63.3%||7.27||4.65%||2.53%|
That's quite the difference. Our contingent of quarterbacks went from roughly a Ben Roethlisberger-level of performance to the worst quarterback in football when going up against the Seahawks last season. The dip in completion percentage wasn't all that bad but that's because with Richard Sherman shutting down a third of the field and Earl Thomas patrolling the deep middle, teams were forced to throw shorter passes. They were unable to turn many of those short passes into significant gains as evidenced by the 1.33 yard per attempt drop. Our quarterbacks were also nearly twice as likely to throw an interception while finding the end zone almost half as frequently.
So what about Kaepernick? Let's take a look:
|vs. non-Seattle opp||60.7%||8.40||5.37%||1.38%|
One quick note: Kaepernick's table includes data going back to his first career start in 2012, so as to include his first game against Seattle and to increase our sample sizes. As you can see, Kaepernick's decline was even more precipitous than the average Seahawks' opposing quarterback. Of course, this is partially due to the fact that Kaepernick's standard level of performance is much better than the average from our other 13 quarterbacks. When looking at where Kaepernick's numbers rank when considering each of the 13 quarterbacks individually, he ends up in the middle of the pack in each metric with the exception of completion percentage, where only Chad Henne was worse.
While this gives us a reasonable estimation of the impact Seattle's defense on a quarterback's performance, an even better way to do so is using Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. DVOA adjusts for a number of factors including quality of opposition and game situation, giving us a result more accurate than standard statistics alone. Aaron Schatz, FO founder, was kind enough to pass along Kaepernick's DVOA splits from the past two seasons, which you can find in the table below:
|2013 Regular Season (vs. non-SEA)||30.2%||23.1%|
|2013 Regular Season (vs. SEA)||-61.8%||-27.8%|
|2013 Playoffs (vs. non-SEA)||17.0%||8.6%|
|2013 Playoffs (vs. SEA)||-76.4%||-40.3%|
|2012 Regular Season (vs. non-SEA)||35.7%||26.5%|
|2012 Regular Season (vs. SEA)||-15.1%||2.0%|
|2012 Playoffs (vs. non-SEA)||38.2%||46.8%|
For those unfamiliar with FO's metics, positive numbers are better for the offense, negative numbers favor the defense and VOA is DVOA without the opponent adjustments, giving us Kaepernick's level of performance before considering how good the defense was.
Even after considerable bumps when adjusting for Seattle's league-best defense, Kaepernick has been far worse in his four games against the Seahawks than in his 25 other starts. While the drop in his lone game against Seattle in 2012 wasn't quite as bad, Kaepernick's roughly 50 point decline in DVOA when playing the Seahawks in 2013 is the difference between Drew Brees and Geno Smith. That's fun.
Now that we've established Kaepernick's level of performance has clearly suffered against his NFC West rival—and suffered more than we would expect from the average quarterback has when facing Seattle—we can get to the more pressing question... Why?
There are several potential reasons, so let's tackle some of the most commonly mentioned.
Missing weapons: It's nearly impossible to separate a quarterback's performance from his surrounding cast. When we say that Colin Kaepernick has performed significantly worse against the Seahawks, really what we're saying is that Colin Kaepernick has performed significantly worse throwing to Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and a rotating cast of secondary receivers behind the 49ers' offensive line while playing in Greg Roman's offense. When you remove one or more of those components, it makes it that much harder to succeed against a defense of Seattle's caliber.
This was an issue that popped up primarily in Kaepernick's first two starts against the Seahawks. Davis was knocked out the game early in the lone 2012 contest with Kaepernick at the helm. Michael Crabtree was absent from the Week 2 match-up as he recovered from a torn Achilles. It's no secret that the 49ers' passing offense has revolved around Crabtree, Davis, and then last season, Boldin. Those injuries left the 49ers with just one of their go-to targets and a crop of guys who had no business being a significant part of any team's passing attack. The 49ers lost those two games by a combined score of 71-16.
In the two most recent meetings between these two teams, Kaepernick had the full stable of weapons and though the games were certainly closer, Kaepernick continued to struggle. It certainly doesn't help matters when you're sans one of your top targets, but I don't feel injuries have had as big of an impact on Kaepernick's performance as most would imply.
Pass protection: Another common reason for Kaepernick's struggles against the Seahawks has been the play of the offensive line. The idea is that Kaepernick has been pressured more frequently and has generally responded by making poor decisions; looking to escape the pocket too early, force throws, failing to properly read the coverage, and all those things quarterbacks have a tendency to do when they're worried about defenders breathing down their throat.
Turns out this one doesn't hold much weight either. In his four starts against Seattle, Kaepernick has been sacked eight times, a sack rate of 6.35 percent (these numbers consider scrambles as running plays and are not factored in to the sack rate). That rate is actually a good amount lower than Kaepernick's sack rate against other teams, which sits 8.17 percent.
If we look at throws made under pressure as opposed to just the times Seattle got home for the sack, the same theme applies. What constitutes pressure is a very subjective topic, but was something that I marked when charting Kaepernick's starts. By my numbers, Kaepernick was under pressure on 27.2 percent of throws against the Seahawks, slightly below his non-Seattle rate of 28.5 percent. There's plenty of wiggle room in there for error, but even taking that into consideration, there's not a lot suggesting that Kaepernick has been under fire a significant amount more often than he has been in any other game.
The LOB Effect. Far more concerning has been an inability of the receivers to consistently defeat press coverage. Seattle's physicality at the line of scrimmage is well known. Seeing the Kyle Williams's and Marlon Moore's of the world struggle in this area is to be expected, but this has also extended to the 49ers' top receiving options.
You would expect physical wide receivers such as Boldin and Crabtree to have more success against press coverage, but that simply hasn't been the case against Seattle. Outside of an unblocked pass rusher coming through the middle of the line, there's no quicker way to put a halt to a passing play than preventing receivers from getting into their routes by the time the quarterback reaches the last step in his drop. Something to the effect of this is a far too frequent occurrence:
When San Francisco's receivers do manage to get off the press and into the pattern, there are two very noticeable trends as to where Kaepernick chooses to go with the football: short and left. Kaepernick targets a receiver under 10 yards from the line of scrimmage on about 57 percent of his throws across all starts. Against Seattle we see that number rise up over 62 percent, pulling from his intermediate and deep throws about equally.
Efforts to avoid Richard Sherman on the right side of the field are more pronounced. In the aggregate, Kaepernick spreads the ball across the field in a manner that's consistent with pass location throughout the NFL. More throws to the outside than the middle of the field, particularly as you move to longer throws, and a slight preference to the right side of the field. Based on my charting, just over 45 percent of Kaepernick's passes have gone to the right side. Against the Seahawks, that number drops to about 31 percent and it's been more exaggerated in his last two starts.
Even the throws that have gone to the right side of the field in those last two starts have mostly avoided Sherman, instead going to a back in the flat or an underneath receiver on a crossing route from the opposite side. Attempts to challenge Sherman have gone poorly (see: final play of the NFC Championship Game). About the only completion of note with Sherman in coverage in the two most recent contests came on a jump ball won by Boldin in Week 14 of last season.
During and after Thursday Night's opening game between the Seahawks and Packers, many on Twitter suggested that Kaepernick would be more willing to challenge Sherman than Aaron Rodgers was, which was not at all. This likely stems from comments Kaepernick made following the NFC Championship, but the reality is Kaepernick and the 49ers have been avoiding Sherman for two straight games now.
Playcalling. For as much flack as Greg Roman gets when it comes to his playcalling, he has typically done a fantastic job of giving his offense the best chance to succeed. Whether it's a creative wrinkle in the run game to setup favorable blocking angles or late motions and shifts to force the defense to show its true coverage look, this has been an area of strength for the 49ers.
However, one thing that has been very odd to me in the Seattle games has been the limited use of bunch formations to help alleviate the issue San Francisco has had with press coverage. Bunch formations have never been a large part of San Francisco's offense during Roman's time with the 49ers, but considering the effectiveness they've had with them when they do decide to use them, you would expect to see a heavier dose against a press-happy team like Seattle.
As you can see in the clip above, Boldin's motion to a stacked alignment forces Maxwell to back off to account for a potential switch release from the two receivers. This gives Boldin a free release and the result is a completion on the quick out route on a throw Kaepernick is able to make in rhythm.
Yet, despite the effectiveness they've had, I only marked 11 pass plays (12.8 percent) in which the 49ers lined up in this type of formation. The addition of a player like Stevie Johnson, who excels at defeating press coverage, is a good weapon to have against a press-heavy team. However, the coaching staff can give the rest of their pass targets better opportunities by working more compressed formations into the game plan.
There are undoubtedly other things that you could potentially point to as reasons for Kaepernick's struggles against the Seahawks, ranging from the completely inane to the possible but difficult to measure. The biggest cause is clearly the effectiveness of Seattle's defense and their ability to hinder receivers at the line of scrimmage and force shorter throws than Kaepernick would prefer.
As I mentioned when discussing Kaepernick's ability to read defenses, his inconsistency in this area becomes more of an issue against the Seahawks when the margin for error is much smaller. His arm strength can make up for a throw that is slightly late against most opponents, but against Seattle it's the difference between a touchdown and an interception.
There are certainly schematic changes that could be made to give Kaepernick some easier throws, such as an increased use of bunch formations. However, when facing top-level competition you need players that can consistently win one-on-one match-ups, which is something that San Francisco has lacked in the past couple seasons. If they can remain healthy this season, the 49ers field an arsenal of players that could be one of the NFL's best group of pass targets, giving San Francisco—and Kaepernick—their best opportunity to solve Seattle's defense.