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“49ers need to play as well as they did in 2018 while avoiding turnovers that plagued them”

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Warren Sharp is higher on the 49ers than most

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Warren Sharp of Sharp Football put out his Almanac, which takes a deep dive into previewing each team. The stats and information Sharp provides are second-to-none. You can pick up a copy here if you are interested.

In his preview of the San Francisco 49ers, he is very complimentary of the four-win team from a season ago:

The 2018 49ers were one of the best 4-12 teams in recent memory, but I would excuse you for having no memory of them at all. Both of their Sunday night games were flexed out, and their other two primetime appearances came without franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was lost for the season to a torn ACL in Week 3.

As the 49ers’ luck would have it, they ended up as the fourth-most injured team in the NFL, and it didn’t help that they played the league’s seventh-toughest schedule.

But in terms of Early Down Success Rate -- my custom metric that identifies efficiency and correlates to wins and losses better than almost any statistic – last year’s Niners were one of only two teams to rank top 10 both offensively and defensively. This comes in stark contrast to other popular advanced metrics: Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranked the 49ers 30th overall, while Pro Football Focus graded them 28th.

A more basic metric also picks up on what EDSR is noticing, though, and that metric is net yards per play, in which San Francisco ranked eighth. So how is it that a team so good at gaining yards and staying out of difficult third downs went 4-12, exactly?

Turnovers.

The only metric that correlates better to wins and losses than EDSR is turnovers, and the 49ers had a turnover margin of -25, worst in the NFL. To put that into context, the 49ers’ -25 turnover margin was a margin of seven worse than the next-worst team and twice as many as the third worst. More than three-quarters of the league didn’t even have 25 giveaways total, let alone a margin (offset by takeaways) of -25.

EDSR=early down success rate. Sharp referenced how the Niners won the EDSR battle in nine games last year, but were -2 or worse in turnover margin in four of those games, which they lost every game. In the other five games where they were between -1 to +1 in turnover margin, the 49ers went 4-1. If the 49ers play the way they did last year and don’t turn the ball over, they are going to win a lot of games.

I don’t have the data that Sharp does, but I do believe there’s a strong correlation to success in red zone scoring percentage—the 49ers finished 32nd—as well as opponents’ third-down percentage—the 49ers finished 21st. Those numbers have to improve as well if the team is going to be successful.

Who needs third down

The 49ers were one of five teams to rank in the top ten in both explosive pass and rush rate on early downs in 2018. As far as explosive plays go on first down, the Niners were 45% above average, with 16% of their plays charted as explosive, per Sharp. Think about that, a team that gets Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel, Tevin Coleman, and a healthy Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis, were one of the best offenses in the league on early downs. The hope is that getting all these weapons back, they’re able to improve on third downs—where they ranked 17th last year.

You could make a strong argument that the 49ers would be able to avoid third downs like they did last year because they will be even better with the names mentioned above being on the field. Here’s Sharp’s excerpt on Jimmy G:

It is hard to take too many positives from Garoppolo’s 2.5-game stint in 2018, but there wasn’t anything alarming to undo the promise he flashed in five starts at the end of 2017. The 49ers play a middle-of-the-road schedule of pass defenses in 2019, and with their own defense likely to struggle vs. the second-toughest schedule of offenses, Garoppolo is going to need to play like his 2017 self for his team to have a chance to win games. In the process, he will have to lean on Kittle just as Mullens and Beathard did, but also build on his blossoming connection with Goodwin while elevating unproven players in Pettis, Samuel, Taylor, and Hurd.

So, play like you’re capable of, and everything will be fine.

Tough road ahead for the defense?

Like most, Sharp is concerned that the 49ers didn’t do enough in the secondary. According to his strength of schedule, the 49ers will face the second-toughest slate of offenses in 2019. He has them facing the fourth toughest against the pass and the most difficult when you look at run offenses. Sharp also references how tough the schedule is at the end of the season, and how they’ll be at a rest disadvantage in five games.

Injuries, youth, poor tackling, and mental mistakes cost the 49ers. In an ideal world, the offense gets out to a lead, and it allows the defense to use their speed and cause chaos. Like Sharp said in the offensive section, they’ll need to find a way to come up with turnovers. That’s why I think a guy like D.J. Reed will get a chance in the secondary. A healthy Richard Sherman will be nice, as will a full-season of Jaquiski Tartt. The Niners rolled the dice heading into 2019 with the expectation that these guys will stay healthy all a the sudden. If the unit can limit the big plays and tackle better, they’ll be fine. Fine is a long way from how the defense performed last season.

Will luck finally be on the 49ers side? Not just injury luck, but they were 3-6 in one-score games. -25 in turnover margin, -10 in sack margin, and +5 in penalty margin. Time will tell.