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Seattle Must Blitz Smartly To Defeat San Francisco's Deep Passing Attack

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Before we examine the stats that matter for this week's contest, let's revisit last week's conclusions:

1. Buffalo's run defense would be better overall.

It's just one week, but Buffalo's rush defense ranks 6th. Pessimists will note that's unadjusted for strength of opponent.

2. Buffalo will be stronger on runs up the middle. Seattle should attack the edges, especially behind left tackle and left end.

Buffalo was the best rush defense in the NFL on runs to left end. The official scorer didn't record a single rush as being off either end for Seattle, and only two rushes as "end" for the entire game. Ah, sweet, foolproof play-by-play. Nevertheless, if we simplify this to read as left, center or right, here's how Seattle did on each.

Left Tackle or End Middle or Guard Right Tackle or End
Rushes: 6 R: 13 R: 2
Yards: 45 Y: 39 Y: 2
Success: 50% S: 15% S: 50%

Percentage of distance to first down: 75%

%: 28 %: 11%

I'm not sayin'...I'm just sayin' might've been worth running left a few more times. Don't worry, we'll revisit these even when I'm wrong.

This week Seattle faces Mike Martz's 49ers. Wai - What? Mike Martz isn't the head coach? They didn't fire Mike Nolan? I'll be damned.

Last year's stats are particularly ineffective in evaluating San Francisco's current offense. Mike Martz brings a different philosophy, with different formations, tendencies and strategies. The Niners have also had major personnel turnover, something even the most pre-retired head coach should realize demands updated play calling. Ahem.

So, when evaluating San Francisco's offense one must look not just at the 49ers themselves, but at the Detroit Lions from 2007. Some things stick out right away. Mike Martz does not run the ball. That's been true since he coached the Rams. And though San Francisco approached equality in week one, running on 45% of all plays, one might guess Martz did so begrudgingly. Note their week one VOA: Pass: -52.7% (31st). Run: 5.3% (13th). Or this drive in the first quarter:

San Francisco 49ers at 08:43

1-10-SF25(8:43) F.Gore right guard to SF 34 for 9 yards (T.LaBoy).

2-1-SF34(8:06) F.Gore right guard to SF 39 for 5 yards (G.Hayes).

1-10-SF39(7:31) J.O'Sullivan pass short middle to B.Johnson to ARZ 45 for 16 yards (A.Rolle). Caught at ARZ 47.

1-10-ARI45(6:46) F.Gore right tackle to ARZ 41 for 4 yards (T.LaBoy; G.Hayes).

2-6-ARI41(6:11) F.Gore up the middle for 41 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

ARI 3   SF 7,   Plays: 5   Yards: 75   Possession: 2:43.

After which Gore would rush only 8 more times. The Niners rushed early and effectively but still abandoned it.

So we know they'll pass. Nearly as assuredly, we know they'll employ 3 and 4 wide receiver formations. In 2007, the Lions went 3+ wide on 68% of all plays, and 4+ wide on 32% of all plays. The former is 4th in the league, the latter is 1st. Martz also doesn't key in on one receiver. The Lions had four wide receivers with 90+ targets. Even with a #1 receiver, Martz likes to spread the attack. Torry Holt was targeted 163 times in 2005, but Kevin Curtis, Shaun McDonald and Isaac Bruce were each targeted 70+ times, too. To put that into perspective, another pass happy offense, the New Orleans Saints (second in least number of runs as percentage of all plays), only had two wide receivers with 70+ targets.

So we know they'll pass to their wide receivers. In week one, they didn't target Bruce even once. Bryant Johnson, Josh Morgan and Vernon Davis accounted for half of J.T. O'Sullivan's targets. Davis is a tough call, as he's a capable enough tight end, but can and is split wide. He's a TE/WR tweener, so we'll include him. That's probably your four: Bruce, Johnson, Morgan and Davis. Jason Hill might also might be in the mix.

Davis makes for a bit of a matchup problem. No, not because he's tall, but because Seattle would like to match him against a DB. You could run Julian Peterson 30 yards downfield, but that's not ideal. Instead, Seattle will likely match Deon Grant, Brian Russell and Josh Wilson against Davis. Wilson might legitimately be short enough to cause a matchup problem. The greater matchup problem, though, is when Seattle matches Grant against Davis, I would guess often, it will leave Russell as the lone deep cover man. Gulp. Against a team that likes to challenge downfield, Seattle will have its worst, slowest DB anchoring its deep coverage.

And the deep attack will be challenged. Morgan, Johnson, Davis and Hill are legitimate deep threats. So how can Seattle counteract?

Blitzing.

Seattle is stupid-fascinated with 7+ man blitzes, blitzing 7+ on 3.9% of all plays, 4th in the NFL. In his 2006 essay Stop Me Before I Blitz Again!, Aaron Schatz determined 7+ is the least effective pass rush, resulting in an opposing 16.4% DVOA. The only exceptions to the 7+ rule are 3rd and short and first down. The best pass rush is 6. On 1,198 passes, opponents scored -15.1% DVOA on plays against 6 rushers. Luckily, and I say that with all intended scorn, Seattle blitzes 6 men on 9.3% of all plays. Their 6+ rank is 13.2%, 7th in the NFL. That's a good mark, but loses a little steam in translation. According to Schatz's "Smart Blitz" stat, accounting for what blitz is most effective for each game situation, Seattle was just 22nd at blitzing "smartly".

Seattle didn't blitz much at all versus the Bills. Sending more than four on just five of Buffalo's 61 offensive plays. Seattle has a strong pass rush, but only Darryl Tapp is a real speed rusher. That means, when Patrick Kerney gets sacks, it's often after a little good coverage and a lot of great hustle, but also after good bit of time. Same basic story for Lawrence Jackson and Rocky Bernard. That could be problematic, because the Niners need time to gain a favorable matchup downfield. Arizona's 4 sacks came from an inside linebacker, Gerald Hayes (1), and two DE/LBs, Travis LaBoy (2) and Bertrand Berry (1). Seattle should do likewise, sending five or six pass rushers - six out of nickel packages with Wilson speed rushing the edge - and dropping Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp, Patrick Kerney and even Brandon Mebane into a short zone. The mix of fast arriving pass rush and tricky underneath coverage should lead to incompletions, sacks, fumbles and picks. Can you say Tapp for 34 and the score?