Seahawks and the 49ers: A Closer Look

We should see a lot of this on Sunday - Otto Greule Jr

The latest prediction for the Seahawks’ next game.

A Retrospect

I'm not superstitious. I don't believe that my striped underwear is actually lucky, but I wear it before interviews, dates (though not in a while), and as much as I can on Seahawk's game day. I don't believe wearing that particular pair will have any effect, but what's the down side of wearing it?

That's my take on superstition. I know that superstitions are just coincidences, but I still believe in my own. So you can imagine how nervous I was when my girlfriend's power went out before the game. It was a bad omen.

Luckily, my girlfriend and I had a jolly good time at the Three Lions Pub in Redmond and really, the jolly started early. The Seahawks jumped out to an early lead and Beast Quaked the clock until it gave out. The Saints put up a fight in the end, but it was too little too late.

Immediately following the game I saw analysts questioning the Seahawks' offense and wondering about how far this team can go, and at first I was incredulous. Then I thought about the performance I had just witnessed and I became confused.

For every point you can make for the Seahawks there seems to be a viable counterpoint. Then if that isn't enough, there's a counterpoint to the counterpoint. For example, many Seahawks fans have reasoned that Russell Wilson's sub par day was mostly due to the wind. That explanation is fine (and is likely at least partially true). However, if that's the case, why was Brees able to throw for 300 yards? Quite a few of those yards came in garbage time sure, but Brees was playing against the wind in the fourth quarter. Garbage time can't have explained everything. However, as a counter to that point, Percy Harvin left the game early, and it seems like teams react much worse to a featured player leaving the game as opposed to that player never playing. So, seeing Percy leaving early was detrimental to the offense. Considering all those points, where do you decide the Seahawks' offense is bad or good? I don't know, and but for my part I think the Seahawks are fine.

Another point I've heard is that the Seahawks' defense didn't look as good on Saturday. They gave up an efficient day on the ground and allowed a passer to eclipse 300 yards. Furthermore, the defense didn't impact the kicker missing two field goals. There were some fluky events that worked against the Saints. The counterpoint to that however is that the Seahawks also had some fluky events happen on defense. The Seahawks' defense doesn't often drop gimme interceptions, so to see it happen twice was pretty strange (the Seahawks need to practice pop-fly drills). There was also a fumble that should have been awarded to the Seahawks (I'm actually not sure what happened here, can someone fill me in on why Pete didn't challenge?). It seemed to be a fluky game all around and not just against one team.

In all, I don't really know what to think about this game and its implications on the Seahawks. Moreover, it's really easy and mostly factual, to point out that even if the Seahawks were sub par (which we're not sure of), then it's just one game. It's not unusual to see a game play out strangely, and then see that same team right itself the following week. I just hope the Seahawks play well on Sunday.

This next section allows readers to assess how well my predictions have played out. As always, this post will rely heavily on stats (all stats through week 19-ish), mostly from football outsiders. You can read more here.

On to the recap!

Where my predictions were right!

  • Marshawn Lynch would have 100+ yards and a TD or two.
  • The Seahawks would play well on special teams.
  • Brees would throw for 230 yards and a TD.

Where my predictions were wrong.

  • The Saints would rush for 60-70 yards and around 3.3 yards per carry.
  • Jimmy Graham would finish with around 80 yards and a TD.
  • Russell would throw for around 250 and be very efficient.
  • The Score line: 34-17.

Somewhere in between.

  • A number of Saints receivers would finish with around 30 yards.

At a Glance

With all due respect to Tom Brady-Peyton Manning CXLVI, the Seahawks playing against the 49ers is the most exciting game of the week. It's certainly not going to make the most money, but I think more invested football fans agree with me. After all, when Peyton talks about Tom or vice versa, they have nothing but great things to say. In contrast, these division rivals may actually dislike each other.

What's impressive about the dislike is that often times after games you'll see players hugging and chewin' the fat despite "being rivals," or "playing tough". I doubt such nonsense happens after these two division rivals play. Hate can be a powerful motivator and short of the Superb Owl, it's hard to see two teams funneling more energy into one game than this.

Two teams vying to play just one more game. Win this game and they become exempt from the pro bowl. Win this game and players can expect millions more in their next contracts. (Heck, even for bit players, there are millions at stake.) Win this game, and we the fans get to brag for the rest of the off season. As a fan that wants the Superb Owl above all else, I rooted for the Packers. I rooted for the Panthers, but truth be told, I'm happy the Seahawks are playing the 49ers. The stakes couldn't be higher, and I couldn't be more ready to watch a football game. Go Hawks!

The San Francisco 49ers

The San Francisco 49ers' Offense

If you haven't seen my previous post about the 49ers against the Seahawks, I'd recommend checking it out. They may be a bit outdated, but most of the players are the same and the strategies certainly haven't deviated much.

Really, you should know the characters by now. Colin Kaepernick is the engine that drives the offense. He plays behind what might be the best offensive line in the NFL who do an excellent job of opening up holes for the (gracefully) aging Frank Gore.

Speaking of which, Gore has rushed for yet another 1,000 yard season (1,128) and has vaulted himself into the "Best Running Back in 49er History" conversation. He hasn't quite been himself this season, and neither has the 49ers running game. After Gore, Kaepernick is the next leading rusher with 524 yards and after him is Kendal Hunter with 358 yards. Once you get past Hunter however, you find a big drop off, the next leading rusher is LaMichael James with 59 yards. The stats back my observations up too. The 49ers are ranked 14th in rushing DVOA - barely above average.

The 9ers run the ball mostly, but when they pass they have three main targets: Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, and Michael Crabtree. All three are above average receivers and all three are capable of 1,000 yard seasons (Davis was 35 yards away in 2009). With respect to receivers, the 49ers are star dependent. 63% of their receiving yards come from just Davis and Boldin. In contrast, the Seahawks devote only 47% of their passing yards to their top two receivers. However, despite their dependency, the 49ers have done well this season. They ranked 4th in the NFL in passing DVOA. In all, it's an effective offense quite similar to the Seahawks.

The San Francisco 49ers' Defense

As with the offense, I don't feel like there's much to say that already hasn't been said. It's a good defense that's stocked full of quality players. That said, I think some of the efficiency measures would surprise people.

At the end of the season the 49ers' defense was ranked 13th in defensive DVOA. That's good but not great. Against the run, they rank just 14th. That's pretty much dead average. Ranking that low is surprising - to me at least. I've always thought of the 49ers' defense as slightly below the Seahawks but still very formidable. When you look at their games however, you see a defense that gave up major yards to teams like the Colts, the Texans, the Cardinals, and the Rams. None of those teams have a rushing game ranked within the top 10 in DVOA (Indy is closest at 11 - but include the Luck factor).

Glenn Dorsey hasn't been as effective as his predecessor, Patrick Willis has been injured, and Justin Smith may be slowing down. Those may all be reasonable explanations, but I find it hard to believe that those reasons - even in combination - are enough to explain the 9ers rushing woes.

Another surprising stat: the 49ers are ranked 10th against the pass. I think it's fair to contribute a large portion of that ranking to Aldon Smith missing time, but it can't account for too much. After all, Ahmad Brooks has had his best season this year. He's no Smith, but he's certainly mitigated the loss somewhat. Really, I have to wonder if the secondary is slowing down. Eric Reid has been a nice find, but Tarell Brown is 29, Carlos Rogers is 32, and Donte Whitner is 28. They're all on the wrong side of the production curve and the 49ers haven't been cranking out great secondary prospects.

Considering Aldon Smith is back, I think it's fair to say the defense is better than their stats suggest. Surprisingly though, not by all that much. The 49ers still rank just 12th according to the weighted defensive DVOA. Sure they've had great performances, but a hobbled and cold Aaron Rodgers isn't an offensive juggernaut and Cam Newton's Panthers aren't either. They've held up well, but the this kind of discrepancy can't be ignored. This defense has cracks.

The Seattle Seahawks

As forever, you should check out Kenneth's piece. For those who don't know, football outsiders (FO) stop updating their stats in the playoffs. At least they stop updating for the free users. Instead they release an abbreviated version which focuses mostly on weighted DVOA. That is, they focus on the games most recent. After all, it doesn't make much sense for a game played in week 1 to count as much as one played in week 17. (That explanation isn't complete, but it'll do)

With that in mind, the Seahawks still rank 1st - by a wide margin. In fact, Seattle has increased their overall DVOA to about 45% (up from about 40%). What's the cause? Mostly other teams. DVOA is a relative system. The statistics are dependent on how well other teams are playing. So when the 49ers improve, the Seahawks beat the Saints, and all the schedules and corresponding degrees of competition are updated, the Seahawk's season becomes even more impressive.

When FO stopped updating in week 17, the Seahawks were ranked 8th in passing offense, 7th in rushing offense, and 7th in overall offense. Since that time, they've slipped to 10th in overall offense. However, despite that slip, they've only decreased by 1.4% in offensive DVOA.

Considering how much talk I've seen recently about the downfall of Seattle's offense, I found it surprising that the Seahawks' offense hasn't actually changed dramatically (at least from an efficiency standpoint). If efficiency hasn't changed (substantially), but the production is down, then the only answer I can use to explain the dip in production is the opponent they face on a weekly basis.

In the last 5 games of the regular season, the Seahawks faced the some of the best defenses this league has to offer. In fact, if you averaged those defensive ratings, the Seahawks faced the 7th best defense (by weighted DVOA) for those weeks. I bring schedule up because I think it's been far too overlooked. Yes, the offense has looked poor, but they've faced a murderer's row here. Nothing is wrong with the offense, it's just faced good competition.

The Matchups

The San Francisco 49ers' Offense vs The Seattle Seahawks' Defense

One of the more pivotal matchups this game will be between Seattle's defensive line and San Francisco's offensive line. I consider the San Francisco offensive line to be among the best, perhaps even the best. However, when San Fran came to Seattle in week 2, their line had their worst game of the season. The defensive line (and defense as a whole) for the Seahawks wasn't at full strength that game either. With the return of K.J. Wright, the Seahawks defense will be at its apex. Given Seattle's home field advantage, it seems unlikely that the 49ers will afford Kaepernick a clean pocket all day. Nor does it seem likely that they will bust huge holes open for Gore, especially considering that outside that 51 yard run, he's been struggling against the Seahawks' defense.

Moving back within the defense, the next matchup is going to be Gore, Will Tukuafu, and Kaepernick against the linebackers. In this year's first game, the linebackers helped limit Frank Gore to just 16 yards on 9 carries (1.8 yards per carry). Kaepernick ran well, but it wasn't to much benefit and was mostly a way to gain yards against a stifling secondary. In the second game, the Seahawks limited Kaepernick to just 31 yards, but Gore was able to spring free for 110. If you substitute a large, but reasonable gain, like say 16 yards for Gore's 51 yard run, Gore's total becomes 75 yards at about 4.4 yards per carry. Considering the Seahawks will be at home, another monster day on the ground seems unlikely for Gore. Something like 3.3 or 3.5 yards per carry is more likely, but I wouldn't be surprised if those numbers went even lower. In the end, I doubt Gore will finish with over 80 yards (67 is the prediction).

Now that we've gone through the line, and the line backers, how will Seattle's secondary hold up against Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' receivers? In a word, grand. In games against the Saints, I've predicted that Jimmy Graham would have good games. That hasn't happened, so to think Vernon Davis will, seems silly - especially considering the game is in Seattle. Davis shouldn't end with more than around 30 yards. Boldin has been up and down, ending one game with 93 yards and the other with 7, but I think him reaching that average is more likely somewhere around 40 yards. Lastly we have Crabtree, who has only played in one game against Seattle this year. In that game he ended with 40 yards and I think he'll end up staying there. I'd talk more about the other receivers on the team, but as I pointed out earlier, the 49ers are incredibly star dependent. All things considered, I would be surprised if Kaepernick deviated too much from 150 yards and maybe one touchdown. Throw a couple of turnovers in there, and you have his game.

The Seattle Seahawks' Offense vs The San Francisco 49ers' Defense

Like before, the lines are a good place to start. Earlier I said that Glenn Dorsey hadn't lived up to his predecessor's quality and that's true but he hasn't been bad. He's actually been very effective against the run and that's true of all of the lineman including Ray McDonald and Justin Smith. That said, the Seahawks have had success against the 49ers this year. Marshawn Lynch has averaged 85 yards per game against the 49ers. That's actually above his season per game average of 78. Considering the Seahawks are at home, I think it's fair to suggest a similar day from the running game - 70 or 80 yards and a touchdown or two (not including Wilson).

As far as passing goes, I've sort of lumped the 9ers' line backers in with the line because 3-4 tend to move around more. This means that the linebackers are going to have much more of an impact on the pass rush than in a 4-3 (under typical circumstances), and it's tough to say how much of an impact they'll have. In the first game against Seattle, San Fran had 4 sacks and 7 QB hits in a blow-out loss. In the next one, the 9ers' had 2 sacks and 1 QB hit (QB hits aren't counted as sacks) in a close win. I tend to think that pressure is highly correlated with winning, so these two games are a bit fluky. That said, I think because the Seahawks are at home, they'll be able to hold up reasonably well. That'll give Wilson time to throw and a few lanes to scramble through. That'll lead to a few sacks and about 20 yards on the ground for Russell.

When he's not running Russell will have to pass to keep the offense going and in that respect he should do fine. He's likely not going to blow people's socks off and that might mean another week (or offseason) of "Wilson regression" talk, but Russell doesn't need to dominate to win this game. The 49ers' secondary is good, but they've had trouble shutting down every weapon, and they tend not to shut down every weapon in the same way the Seahawks can. That in mind, I can't predict who, but one of the receiving targets is going to have a 70 yards + game and a number of others are going to hover around 30 or 40 yards. Throw in a TD or two and you have the passing game.

X Factors

49ers' pass rushers. We saw this during the middle of the season. A strong pass rush can wreck the Seattle offense, but Seattle has been much more effective at protecting Russell Wilson since that injured sequence of games.

Colin Kaepernick. If he doesn't shit the bed then the 9ers' have a chance. I don't know that they would win, but if he has a turnover free game, this could be a real nail-biter.

Seahawks' pass rush. If the pass rush has its best game of the year, then it'll be very hard for San Fran to score or win.

The Narrative

When I try and formulate narratives for games, I often try and think of ways that each team can win. In this game, I feel like the only way the 49ers can win is in a low scoring defensive battle. If you trust FO's numbers (and I do) then the 49ers' defense isn't living up to its reputation. Add in the home field advantage and I find it difficult to believe that the Seahawks won't score a reasonable amount of points. The Seahawks will score, the 49ers will struggle on offense and the Seahawks should win without too many questions.

Prediction: Seahawks Win 23-13

Recap Stats

This section is dedicated to me owning up to my predictions. The predictions are graded on a 10 point scale where 1 is completely wrong and 10 is completely right. As always, if anyone submits their own grades of my predictions I'll include them in the average. Further, if YOU, the reader, include predictions in this format, I'll include them as "The Field."

Where my predictions were right!

  • Marshawn Lynch would have 100+ yards and a TD or two. - 9 - Lynch is so great.
  • The Seahawks would play well on special teams. - 7.5- As they do.
  • Brees would throw for 230 yards and a TD. - 6.5 - He had over 300 yards, but most were during garbage time.

Where my predictions were wrong.

  • The Saints would rush for 60-70 yards and around 3.3 yards per carry. - 3 - Saints are surprisingly good at running the ball.
  • Jimmy Graham would finish with around 80 yards and a TD. - 2- I am officially off the Graham bandwagon.
  • Russell would throw for around 250 and be very efficient. - 2 - I should do a better job of checking the weather.
  • The Score line: 34-17. - 4 - The finals score doesn't encapsulate how unlikely the Saints chances were. I don't feel too bad about this one.

Somewhere in between.

  • A number of Saints receivers would finish with around 30 yards. - 5 - I pegged the wrong ones, and missed Meachem having a nice game, but this was a solid prediction.

This Week's Average: 4.875

Total Average: 5.212...

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