Football Outsiders released their annual almanac, and, like every other year, it was loaded with information. There are stats for every position, and it can either confirm your biases or cause you to do a little more digging. For example, both San Francisco 49ers’ safeties Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward were top-four in success rate in coverage. Emmanuel Moseley was ninth among cornerbacks, while Kwon Alexander was tied four fourth among linebackers. We’ve spoken highly of those four off-season and even in-season, so it was good to see that the numbers matched the eye test.
This excerpt stood out to me:
San Francisco sticks out here as being the only team with improvements on both sides of the ball of at least 20.0%, resulting in their massive leap of 48.6% in overall DVOA. The 2004 Steelers and 2013 Chiefs came close to the 20.0% improvement mark on defense, so perhaps it makes sense that they both saw a nine-win increase year-over-year, much like San Francisco. The remainder of the teams on this list saw the bulk of their improvement come from the offensive side of the ball and just barely snuck over the 15.0% threshold on defense. The 2004 Steelers and 2013 Chiefs still remained in the top ten in overall DVOA the following year, but they did see a clear decline in wins and overall DVOA.
In 2003 the Steelers won six games. In 2018 the 49ers won four games. In 2004, the Steelers ran through the AFC during the regular season en route to a 15-win season with rookie Big Ben as their defense went from 15th in DVOA to third. We saw the jump the Niners defense made from ‘18 to ‘19. Both offenses improved after the Steelers drafted Big Ben, and the Niners got Jimmy G back from injury.
Both 2004 and 2019 weren’t supposed to be the years for either team to make the type of leap into the playoffs as they did. The Steelers were bounced by the Patriots in the AFC Championship game, while San Francisco suffered a heart-breaking loss. Garoppolo threw an interception that killed a drive, and Big Ben did so early in the first quarter that allowed New England to put points on the board. Both quarterbacks lacked playoff experience, and it showed.
The key for both teams the following year was bringing back their core. The 49ers lost two starters but replaced them both with first-round picks. Pittsburgh was never going to repeat the success of a 15-win season, and that showed in the win/loss column as well as in DVOA. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 49ers win fewer than 13 games. Honestly, does it matter? Perform in the playoffs. Go into January, playing your best ball with your team healthy. That’s what the goal should be.
The Steelers won 11 games the following season and had a tough road to the Super Bowl. There is a bit of luck involved in every team’s success. The Steelers didn’t have to face Carson Palmer in the Wild Card round, and they upset Petyon Manning in the Divisional round. They’d eventually go on to win the Super Bowl after beating the Seahawks. The Steelers’ three-year run could look a lot like San Francisco’s. Big Ben got a first-round target in 2005 in Heath Miller. Jimmy G will now have Brandon Aiyuk. There are a lot of similarities throughout the three years for each team.
Like the Steelers in ‘05, the 49ers will have to run through a gauntlet in the playoffs. Pittsburgh beat an 11, 14, 13, and 13-win team en route to the Super Bowl. Again, there was luck involved. Roethlisberger heaved a pass up to Hines Ward early in the Super Bowl that put the offense near the goal line, and the Steelers never looked back. The ball will have to bounce the 49ers way this year, too.
Don’t focus on whether the Niners win 11, 12, or 13 games. How are they playing? Are they trending in the right direction? San Francisco is built for the playoffs. The biggest threats are New Orleans and Dallas, and we’ll see at least one of those two teams in the playoffs. I don’t think San Francisco will have as easy of a route to the Super Bowl as they did last year, but I think it will prepare them in the event they make the big game. I found the comparisons to the Steelers in the mid-2000s fascinating and thought I’d share.