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The Tape: 49ers @ Seahawks 4th Qtr and Overtime

Mike Nolan ran a nickel as his base defense on Sunday. It was a very poor choice and nearly lost him the game. Mike Sando disagrees, arguing (bolding my own):

Niners coach Mike Nolan heard about it when he left nickel defenses on the field for the whole game against Seattle in Week 2. The Seahawks rushed 34 times for 169 yards and two touchdowns. On the surface, only a misguided coach would leave five defensive backs on the field while the opponent was averaging 5 yards per carry.

Nolan's plan wasn't misguided at all. This became obvious after breaking down the Seahawks' offensive personnel use in the first half. In theory, Seattle's rushing attack should have enjoyed its greatest advantage while using only two receivers with either two backs or two tight ends. In reality, Seattle ran the ball only five times for 16 yards, a 3.2-yard average, from two-receiver personnel groupings in the first half.

In this post, Mike Sando offers a lot of information, but it's nearly all misleading. The second paragraph above is particularly specious. Why isolate it by half? There's no reason to do that. That alone reeks of statistical gerrymandering. Further, do we need to talk about why yards per carry, especially in a small sample size, is very misleading? Add another run of 10 yards and all of a sudden Jones is a superstar from two wide: 4.3. Or how about this? This is those five runs straight from the play by play.

1-10-SEA34(11:36) J.Jones left tackle to SEA 34 for no gain (J.Smith).

1-10-SF46(10:28) J.Jones left end pushed ob at SF 44 for 2 yards (M.Roman).

1-10-SEA42(:27) J.Jones left guard to SEA 45 for 3 yards (W.Harris).

1-10-SEA49(4:52) J.Jones left end to SF 43 for 8 yards (N.Clements).

2-2-SF43(4:20) J.Jones up the middle to SF 40 for 3 yards (R.McDonald).

One bad run, two mild failures and two successful runs. Hardly seems to prove anything, really. The foolishness of splitting it into two halves is especially clear when you look at all of Seattle's rushes from two wide receiver sets. You know, both halves.

YPC: 3.9

Success: 69%

First Downs: 3

So, in other words, Seattle did exactly what you would expect against a nickel defense. Run successfully. Nine of the final ten runs were successful.

That hardly matters though. Playing nickel affects both Seattle's pass and rush. The only way to prove or disprove Nolan's choice of defense isn't complicated at all; doesn't require extraneous information about Trent Dilfer or statistical chicanery. It requires only a look at how successful Seattle was on offense.

Seahawks Game 2

Yards per drive: 32.36 (2007 rank 7th)

Points per drive: 2.09 (7th)

Seahawks Offense 2007

YPD: 28.98 (13th)

PPD: 1.84 (14th)

49ers Defense 2007

YPD: 29.38 (21st)

PPD: 1.72 (17th)

As I said, it was a bad move by Nolan and one that hurt his team. The unfortunate upshot is that Seattle's offense is not as good as it looked. Yeeeah.

Onto the tape:

Stupid Blitzing: I'm not quite on the can John Marshall bandwagon, but since we're being statistical, let's look at two really stupid blitzes. Both involve rushing 7 men, and both are in a situation (3rd and 7+ yards to go) where the average passing DVOA against 7+ man blitzes is 61.4%. In other words, roughly equivalent to the 2007 New England Patriots (61.8%).

3-8-SEA27(3:50) (Shotgun) J.O'Sullivan scrambles up the middle to SEA 11 for 16 yards (D.Grant).

3-7-SF23(14:15) J.O'Sullivan pass deep right to I.Bruce to SEA 44 for 33 yards (J.Wilson).

The latter essentially lost the game. And really, in overtime when any score will do, your opponent backed to its 23, why would you blitz seven on 3rd and 7? Seattle needed only to force a punt to be in an excellent position to win. A standout bad call in a game of bad calls.

As much as I dislike Brian Russell's play, I didn't see him lose the game for Seattle. Tomorrow I'll explain why Marshall did.

Josh Wilson, designated blitzer: Wilson is fast, and makes for an interesting diversionary blitzer. He's also very easy to pick up by almost any blocker.

On the 4th play of San Francisco's 2nd drive, 1st and 10, the Niners broke 4 WR, Rb. After having taken the lead the drive before, Seattle was already cowering in soft zones: Dime. Before the snap, Deon Grant conference with Wilson. Wilson and Jordan Babineaux align sorta over center, Wilson right, Babs left. At the snap, Wilson fades for a second and then charges on a delay blitz from about eight yards deep. It's a fruitless and frustrating play call as the now uncovered Arnaz Battle grabs an easy 13 and the first. I understand blitzing Wilson occasionally, especially from the outside where he can pull a blocker wide, but up the gut, from eight yards out, as the only blitzer in a scheme that vacates coverage from underneath-Come on?!? Wilson blitzing is a lot like Patrick Kerney is coverage. Maybe worth an occasional look, but guaranteed to play a player away from his strength and towards his weakness.

One bad call: Seahawks have a right to be sore at officials, but one must be careful not to become prejudiced. This game was called tight, but it wasn't called unfairly. I did notice one exception and it's worth noting.

10th play, San Francisco's second drive, 2nd and 14 from the Seattle 15. Niners break 2 WR, TE, I. Seattle in a base 4-3. At the snap, Vernon Davis plows into Deon Grant. Davis jacks Grant nearly to the goal line before releasing, drawing a target and incompletion. The officials call Grant for defensive holding and award San Francisco five yards and the first. Now, here's the thing. With Davis starting contact off the snap, and Grant really incapable of seeing the play until easily 10 yards downfield, how could Grant know Davis was running a route and not just blocking him? How could Grant stop "holding" Davis when Davis was running right into him? I'm not sure the officials were technically wrong, but it's still a bad call. Davis essentially forced a defensive hold.

Anyway, that's it. Hard to assign blame for all the confused coverages, and without knowing what those weird, sloppy and ultimately failed zones were supposed to look like, hard to describe intelligibly. Usually, zones are decipherable, but not on Sunday with its players in unlikely places, bunched up or absent. Maybe that's why they failed.