It’s Carroll-Harbaugh X! Okay, the Whats Your Deal Bowl may not have quite the hype of Brady/Manning XV, but don’t tell that to folks on the West Coast. Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh are longtime rivals who have managed to alienate 31 other fanbases in the NFL. For the record, Harbaugh holds a 6-3 record over Carroll, including a 4-2 mark in the NFL. Of course, Carroll’s Seahawks won the last two games at CenturyLink Field, the site of the NFC Championship Game.
Let’s begin our preview by analyzing each team’s passing offense:
Picking between Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson feels like an exercise in hair-splitting. Over the last two seasons, these two have nearly identical passing numbers, ranking 4th and 5th in ANY/A. Kaepernick was slightly better last year, Wilson slightly better this year, and then Kaepernick has been better in the playoffs. By ANY/A standards, this is a complete wash.
What about the weapons? That’s one area where it at least appears like the 49ers have the edge. Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin, and Vernon Davis are legitimate stars who combine to give Kaepernick three versatile weapons on every play. A healthy Percy Harvin changes things for Seattle, but with Harvin declared out for the game, Golden Tate, Doug Baldwin, and Zach Miller represent a clear downgrade from the 49ers bunch.
But remember, when we look at the passing statistics of Kaepernick and Wilson, those numbers already incorporate the quality of each quarterback’s targets. After all, a quarterback’s ANY/A or NY/A averages are not mere reflections of the passer, but of the passing offense as a whole. On the other hand, Kaepernick hasn’t had those three players together for most of his career. In fact, the trio has only been available in 7 of Kaepernick’s 28 career starts. In 10 starts, only Crabtree and Davis were on the team, and in another 10, Kaepernick had just Boldin and Davis.1 The table below shows Kaepernick’s numbers as a starter depending on the availability of his three weapons:
Kaepernick’s numbers were outstanding in 2012, which is what the first line represents. Then he struggled for most of this season without Crabtree, represented by the middle line. But over the last 7 games, Kaepernick’s numbers nearly match the high level from 2012.
Subjectively, I prefer Wilson as a passer. I think he’s better at progressing through his reads and is more comfortable as a passer, while I think Kaepernick still struggles to look past his first read and is more eager to run. I also think Wilson is more accurate, although Kaepernick does have a stronger arm. And while Kaepernick’s 8.4 AY/A average with all his weapons together is great, that’s no better than Wilson was over all of 2013. Sure, Wilson has struggled of late, but I’m not going to let that sway me too much.
Let’s move on to the running games:
Looking at the production of each team’s running backs incorporates each team’s offensive line and other blockers, which makes the analysis simpler. Including the playoffs, Advanced NFL Stats has Marshawn Lynch 13th in Expected Points Added at +12.3 but only 27th in success rate (42.7%). Those numbers might sound bad to you, but they’re well ahead of Frank Gore, who has provided -25.5 Expected Points Added and also has a below-average success rate of 38.5%. ANS isn’t impressed with Kendall Hunter (-10.7 EPA on 89 carries and a 34.0% success rate) or Robert Turbin (-12.1 EPA on only 80 carries and a 36.8% success rate), either. I like Brian Burke’s approach and understand why his numbers are what they are, but I can also recognize that they’re an outlier opinion. While neither may have been particularly efficient according to ANS, Gore ranked 9th in rushing yards and 6th in rushing touchdowns, while Lynch was 6th in rushing yards and tied with Jamaal Charles for the league lead in rushing touchdowns.
Football Outsiders shares a different view in scale, at least. Lynch ranks 5th in DYAR (the counting stat) and 17th in DVOA (the average stat), while Gore is down at 20th in DYAR and 24th in DVOA. This being advanced analytics, of course, FO has a different definition of success rate than ANS, but still has Lynch (48%) in the lead (Gore is at 42%).
Football Outsiders has Russell Wilson as the more efficient runner, and that makes some sense, too. Wilson and Kaepernick have very similar rushing numbers, but Wilson has a slightly higher YPC average and has rushed for more first downs. On the other hand, ESPN’s QBR is much more fond of Kaepernick’s work on the ground, although the site graded Wilson as the better runner in 2012.
The San Francisco line is considered one of the best in the league, while the Seahawks have had offensive line issues for most of the season. But Seattle’s running attack has been a bit more productive: part of that might just be because Lynch is a better player, and part might be because the Seahawks tight ends, receivers, and fullbacks are better blockers (although both teams fare well in this regard).
Edge: Small edge, Seattle.One area not up for debate is pass defense. Seattle has an absurdly dominant pass defense that makes San Francisco’s 5th-ranked pass defense looked puny. In fact, the 49ers are closer to the 24th-ranked pass defense (as measured by ANY/A) than they are to Seattle. Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas are probably the best players at their position in the NFL, and the Seahawks have an endless supply of above average defenders. Linebacker K.J. Wright has a good chance of returning for Sunday’s game, too.
The 49ers pass defense is very good, and a healthy Aldon Smith makes the pass rush that much better. But put it this way: Seattle’s pass defense held the 49ers offense to -0.9 ANY/A and 3.45 NY/A in Seattle and 4.19 ANY/A and 5.00 NY/A in San Francisco, while the 49ers allowed Seattle’s passing attack to average 4.04 ANY/A and 5.13 NY/A in Seattle and 5.67 ANY/A and 6.59 NY/A in San Francisco. There’s good, there’s San Francisco good, and then there’s Seattle good. Any edge the 49ers have at wide receiver is given up (and then some) once we compare the two teams in the secondary. Having a healthy Crabtree and Smith will improve on the 49ers’ year end numbers, but they still were a tier behind Seattle in net ANY/A and NY/A differential.
But before moving on, let’s take a moment and reflect on how dominant Seattle’s pass defense has been at home over the last two years. Only once in 17 tries (Mike Glennon) did a quarterback not finish the game with a lower ANY/A average in Seattle than he did in games started at all other venues that year (shown in the “ROY Avg” column):
If you take an average of the averages, the 17 quarterbacks averaged 2.99 ANY/A in Seattle and 6.12 ANY/A in all other games that season. In other words, going to Seattle takes about half of a quarterback’s value away. That, in a word, is insane. The only non-Glennon quarterback to produce an ANY/A of over 5.9 (the league average the last two years) was Drew Brees last weekend, but that was based on some garbage time production.
Finally, we must examine each team’s run defense. This is particularly important for San Francisco fans, since the only path to defeating the Seahawks seems to be on the ground (or just suffocating the offense the way the Cardinals did). Despite having an average lead of 5.6 points this year, Seattle faced the 10th most rush attempts in the league. That’s a direct consequence of the #LegionOfBoom, as teams were simply afraid to throw on the Seahawks.
Seattle’s rush defense was not bad — it ranked 7th in yards allowed, 7th in yards per carry allowed, and 8th in DVOA. And those ratings are dragged down by the team’s woes in back-to-back weeks of the middle of the season, when St. Louis and Tampa Bay each rushed for 200 yards. But there was even a silver lining in those games: neither team rushed for a touchdown against the Seahawks, and on the season, Seattle allowed just four rushing touchdowns, the fewest in the NFL.
One thing to keep in mind is how insanely deep Seattle’s defensive line is. According to Football Outsiders, the team’s top seven defensive linemen have between 480 and 600 defensive snaps this season. Michael Bennett is the team’s best two-way defensive end, while Chris Clemons and Cliff Avril are the edge rushers. Red Bryant is the hybrid, capable of lining up at end or tackle and an excellent two-gap player who can stuff the run. Seattle will rotate Brandon Mebane (the team’s best DT) and Clinton McDonald and Tony McDaniel at tackle, with McDonald being more of a pass rushing specialist and McDaniel more of a run stufer. So against a team like San Francisco, that means we should expect to see a lot of McDaniel and Bryant to go along with Bennett and Mebane, with Avril and Clemons coming in on passing downs.
So what happened against St. Louis and Tampa Bay? According to Pro Football Focus, Stacy broke five tackles and averaged 2.7 yards after contact per carry. In that game, PFF gave Clemons and McDonald poor run grades, but also gave negative marks to Brandon Browner, Earl Thomas, and K.J. Wright. Against Tampa Bay, it was not just Bryant and Avril getting negative scores, but Thomas, Wright, and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, too. And in that game, it was Mike James breaking 6 tackles and picking up 3.2 yards per carry after contact.
Seattle devotes so many resources to stopping the pass that you have to expect the team to allow a few good runs here and there. But for the most part, the run defense was very good this season, and I suspect those two bad games were an outlier. The defensive line is incredibly deep, the linebackers are very good, and in general, the secondary features good tacklers. What’s more, against a power team like the 49ers, Seattle can place its best four run defenders on the line and hold up well.
In the last 4 Seattle/San Francisco games, Frank Gore has rushed 33 times for 241 yards in the two wins, and 15 times for 44 yards in the two losses. Both of those games in Seattle got out of hand quickly, but that’s a pretty significant gap in production. The question for San Francisco is whether they can win if the Seahawks contain Gore to say, 15 carries for 60 yards.
San Francisco’s run defense is in the same “very good but not great” territory. The 49ers rank 4th in yards allowed, 9th in yards per carry, and 14th in DVOA. The 49ers run defense struggled a bit early, but has not allowed a running back2 to rush for 50+ yards and average 4.00 YPC in 12 straight games, including the playoffs. With Navorro Bowman, Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, and yes, Glenn Dorsey, in the front seven, an opposing back must earn every yard he wants.
Edge: Slight edge, Seattle.
This should be a very even game, but most of the signs point to Seattle. The Seahawks will probably fare slightly better running the ball than the 49ers will, while it’s hard to imagine anyone beating Seattle through the air. Home field gives the Seahawks a big edge, too. Both teams are content to play conservative football, though, so expect a close game well into the fourth quarter. The path to a 49ers win seems to be either exceptional performances from the wide receivers or suffocating the Seahawks offense. But I think more likely than not, we see Seattle earning the trip to MetLife Stadium.
Prediction: Seattle 19, San Francisco 16