NFC Championship Game: Reviewing the 49ers, previewing the Seahawks

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Can anything be learned from San Francisco's victory over Carolina?

I'm trying a new format that binds observations from next-game implications a little more tightly. Hope it reads well and makes sense. Last week turned out pretty close to what I expected. The Saints committed thoroughly to running the ball, they stuck to tight formations, spreading their receivers more broadly later in the game, found success on the ground and ultimately still didn't pose a problem through the air (thanks in part to the weather). Their pass rush posed problems enough to keep their team in the game. Just didn't have that big game from Luke Willson. I don't always have a result turn out so similar to detailed expectations like this, so I'm making a big show of it now while I can. Let's see how this one goes.

Carolina passing game

Carolina started with a lot of quick passes. This played to San Francisco's defensive strength. The three Carolina passes in the 1st half that took any time went for 28, 31 and 35 yards, and one TD. A fourth was incomplete, a would-be 52-yard TD bomb (assuming Ted Ginn would have caught it, which is no certain proposition) which yielded a 5-yard defensive holding penalty.

Yes, protection is requisite for deeper passes. But the scripted plays to start the game ran and targeted shorter routes, and the Panthers' initial approach to the game worked against them. Carolina largely didn't challenge SF deep, and when they did, Carolina succeeded with the exception of the TD prevented by Tramaine Brock.

I watched for checkdown passes due to tight coverage deep. The first I found occurred with 3 minutes left in the third quarter. It was a warranted checkdown, as the deeper routes were very tightly covered. As the game drew to a head, down 10, Carolina opened it up and looked to pass more, looked deep, in the final 18 minutes of the game. SF responded and their deep coverage improved substantially in the final two drives. Four sacks stalled Carolina's final two meaningful drives.

Crossing routes and angle-backs sent Panther receivers back in toward the 49rs' great ILB pass coverage in the middle. By Carolina's own design, some of their routes would break open and then run back into coverage. Sometimes that's just the result of great underneath zone coverage. But this was persistent. Underneath zones weren't cleared out by a seam route or anything. A mixing in of some high-low combo concepts would serve their passing game well. Their coaches aren't tremendously experienced.

These were routes that Newton didn't shy away from targeting too much, either; it's clear it's just symptomatic of their offense. Don't they have option routes? I would think the receivers would avoid this if they did. I like the multiplicity of the running game built around Newton, but the design of the passing game seems antiquated, and it felt like it's holding Cam Newton back as a passer.

Whether by game plan or offensive design, it was an unfortunately conservative approach to attacking the 49er defense. They threw it into the teeth of the opponent, and it cost them.

Seattle passing game

Can & will Seattle attack where Carolina abstained? Seattle has attacked deep, plenty. But lately? What is up with the apparent offensive struggles? Opinions abound, and disparate ones are well-supported. Here's my take.

It's been since November when Seattle faced a pass defense that wasn't great. Top 10 DVOA. The exception is the comparatively average Rams, who have an elite pass rush and know how to play Seattle well. It's been a tough row to hoe. That's excuse #1. The Saints game featured some unruly weather, that's excuse #2. They're legitimate, but don't account for everything.

The pervasive anti-narrative is that Seattle's offensive struggles are narrative because similarly-producing San Francisco has a "hot" narrative right now. Also don't forget the weather. But the single-game VOA & DVOA shows Seattle underwhelmed.

DVOA (with opponent adjustments)
TEAM TOT OFF DEF ST
SEA 28% 6% -11% 10%
NO 41% 39% -13% -12%
NE 50% 35% -26% -11%
IND -48% -32% 18% 1%
SF 42% 23% -17% 2%
CAR 4% -2% 1% 7%
DEN 32% 6% -18% 9%
SD -6% 9% -4% -20%
VOA (no opponent adjustments)
TEAM TOT OFF DEF ST
SEA 10% 4% 4% 10%
NO 4% 11% -4% -12%
NE 51% 36% -26% -11%
IND -47% -23% 25% 1%
SF 23% 9% -12% 2%
CAR -8% -6% 9% 7%
DEN 27% 23% 4% 9%
SD -28% 11% 19% -20%

The opponent & single-game weather excuses are legitimate to me, but additional factors must remain. Is Seattle playing conservatively? Not really. There are seam and red line-attacking routes, they just take time to develop and there's not often enough time to throw.

From my studies, my best guess is that good opponents have done a better job containing Wilson's scrambling lanes, exposing his underdeveloped skill of getting the ball out to a viable option from within the pocket within 3.5 seconds. It happens, but not consistently. He's a great scrambler, runs to throw, Seattle is proficient in extended plays. And I love it. But when opponents play to keep Wilson in the pocket, their defense keeps their team in the game.

The excuse here is that the pass protection is poor. Well, it is underwhelming. But Wilson factors here, too, and shares as much of the blame as anyone. It's easy to lose sight of, and bears frequent mentioning, that virtually all mobile QBs suffer poor-looking pass protection numbers. Whether it's pressure points or advanced play-by-play tracking of hits and pressures or so on, the guys who are a passing threat outside the tackle box have worse pass pro figures perennially. Aaron Rodgers, Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, all have made a lot of plays on the run, and are known both for holding on to the ball too long, as well as suffering allegedly bad offensive line play.

What's the truth? Mobile QBs make it harder on their pass protection. They do hang on to the ball because they can escape and extend the play and the allure of the chance at a big play breaking open keeps this approach to passing viable. Is it worth the tradeoff? Most likely. But we need to recognize that it comes with a lot of protection problems.

Wilson is in that mold, and we love him for it. The consequence is that teams will contain the scrambling lanes, and if he doesn't develop more consistency & proficiency from inside the pocket, playoff football will continue to have offensive outputs on par with the stretch of the past 6 games for Seattle. Defenses are usually better in the playoffs, and the weather worse.

Even with all of the said problems, Seattle fields an above average offense. Good for worst remaining in the playoffs. They could attack & exploit the 49er secondary. Percy Harvin could play. The weather may not be too bad. But Ahmad Brooks is playing well and the 49ers seem to be pressuring better of late. A dramatically improved passing game result could happen, but I wouldn't count on any improvement through the air at all.

Questionable Play Design

What's with the play design on 1st & Goal from the 6 yard line here? It allows SF to stay in base. The defense is not spread out at all. Indeed, nearly 40% of the lateral field has zero football players occupying it. That's about 24 yards of unused field, while the two receivers "spread" the defense across 15 yards.

Carolina was making things a bit easy for SF. It's a full-on power play; calling it a FB draw doesn't do it justice, as pulling a weakside guard makes for 6 total playside blockers, and SF has three linemen there, so it ought to be a bigtime advantage. The football math is great.

It's a classic off-tackle blast, from a weakside pistol alignment for Mike Tolbert; he has to cross the pocket to get in position to cut toward the gap. Why cross-pocket off-tackle? I don't understand it. That's an inherently slow run. The TE downblocks on the DT, which makes sense since it's Justin Smith, but if the Olsen & Gross double-team doesn't succeed in blowing Smith off the line -- and it doesn't; Smith defeats this play surprisingly easily -- then Olsen and the H-Back Hartsock are clogging up the running lane. Aldon Smith & Patrick Willis need to do very little to keep this play contained.

FWIW, the play wasn't unsuccessful; it gained half of the remaining yards to go. Carolina's decision to run power football for all four downs on the goalline isn't necessarily a bad decision, but it's another example of Carolina playing to SF's strengths, and this was just a very weird play design that seems a bit self-defeating. At least send Olsen laterally into the open to the left of the hashmarks, or double the weakside edge on Ray McDonald, peeling off to impede (or attempt to) Navorro Bowman, going with a 3-on-3 matchup of receivers & a guard to 3 DBs. Or fake the draw and power sweep Cam Newton into position to beat 2 DBs with 40% of field ahead of him. Any of those seem to have a better chance than this play here. Yeah, this got defeated because Justin Smith blew up a double-team. That the play depended on moving Smith out of the way shows the problem with the play design.

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Seattle's play design is much more modern. It's philosophically rooted in running & play action by Pete Carroll, tactically utilizing zone running, read-option, combination routes and constraint plays. New Orleans had a surprisingly hard time with the read-option, which really opened some runs up for Marshawn Lynch. The Percy Harvin effect showed up, too.

Seattle ran a weakside counter that failed miserably, early on, for a 4-yard loss. The same play was run again two drives later, and resulted in Lynch's 15-yard score. Harvin was in position for another bubble screen, which drew the safety over. This was not a read-option, but the weakside end played Wilson as though it was. Two different constraint play types factored on a misdirection run that amounts to the same ol' outside zone but cutting immediately and running outside the weakside tackle. The system as a whole fits together well.

However, the questionable use of the beloved empty set on 3rd & medium came back vs. New Orleans. Three times. It proved just as successful as normal, which is to say not very. I've known it's not a high percentage play, but found ways to buy into the notion that it may have a benefit for Seattle this year, for a number of reasons. They've had pass protection problems -- even if it's Wilson's fault, the result still limits the chances for chunk plays -- and spreading your eligible receivers out should remove a defender from the box. Since the protection problems remain with a chipping back in, I surmised the tradeoff was worth it.

But it doesn't seem to remove a defender from the box. Defenses are spying Wilson, or covering his scrambling lanes. Protection breaks down quickly and they've been good pass rush defenses, so they don't need to over-commit to deep coverage. I've defended it with somewhat strained logic in the past, but I'm done with that for the time being. I don't know how frequent Seattle goes empty on 3rd & 3-to-5 compared to the rest of the league, but it feels like we've been one of the worst offenders this year.

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For the most part, play-calling is not a concern of mine, this being the one chief exception. Seattle's play-calling mix seems like a good approach vs. the 49ers, and they in turn figure to blitz little, playing very vanilla coverages because they have the talent to defeat you. They don't scheme their way to victory on defense.

They seem so similarly built, and they are, but underneath the DVOA, Seattle's defense set themselves apart from other great pass defenses primarily due to turnovers and, subsequently, points scored. Beyond that, the biggest difference in defensive performance is that Seattle forces fewer 3-&-outs and so stays on the field a little longer. On the other side of the ball, they're also similar, but SF suffers more 3-&-outs. I guess I find myself grasping at straws, looking for an edge. Seattle should win. They should be able to handle the best that SF can offer, and even hold potential for yet another blowout. Win probability sits at 71% for Seattle. So why does it feel like such an even matchup?

Like New Orleans, I expect the 49ers to keep Seattle's passing game in check, and keep themselves in the game. I expect the 49ers running game to be functional and find success, but again, in the aggregate not be a significant problem that factors strongly in the outcome. But Frank Gore has had so many monster runs against great Seahawk defenses. I just can't count him out. The SF receivers continue to play well, and Kaepernick has good options to throw to on most plays. I guess we expected there to be throws out there vs. Carolina, though.

I just can't settle this matchup into a cozy, descriptive box. Should win, but boy howdy can you envision losing? In a handful of different ways.

It's just not going to be comfortable, for a fan, until the dust has settled. It's the most titanic of all remaining playoff matchups. All other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance.

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