The AFC playoffs have seemed to be leading to a Baltimore-Kansas City showdown since both teams took care of the Patriots in the regular season. The NFC playoff picture has been a lot more open-ended for much of this season. For this weekend, that’s reflected in the fact that both NFC lines are smaller than the AFC lines. In San Francisco, we’ve got a 49ers defense that needs to get back to its historical level of performance from the first half of the year taking on a Vikings quarterback whose abilities are questioned by a lot of fans. In Green Bay, we’ve got two teams that excelled in close games but may not be as good as their win-loss records. One of those teams has to make it to the NFC Championship Game.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Game charting data appears courtesy Sports Info Solutions, unless noted. All stats represent regular season only, except for weighted DVOA and anything else specifically noted.
|DVOA||15.4% (7)||27.9% (5)|
|WEI DVOA||14.4% (7)||24.1% (5)|
|Vikings on Offense|
|MIN OFF||SF DEF|
|DVOA||4.6% (10)||-19.8% (2)|
|WEI DVOA||1.5% (12)||-14.0% (4)|
|PASS||18.2% (10)||-26.3% (2)|
|RUSH||-1.8% (15)||-12.1% (11)|
|49ers on Offense|
|MIN DEF||SF OFF|
|DVOA||-9.9% (7)||7.2% (7)|
|WEI DVOA||-11.6% (6)||6.9% (8)|
|PASS||-7.6% (7)||24.4% (8)|
|RUSH||-13.1% (9)||-0.5% (13)|
|DVOA||0.8% (14)||1.0% (12)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Back in 2017, many 49ers fans would have predicted that Kyle Shanahan and Kirk Cousins would be sharing a field in the playoffs in the not-too-distant future. After all, the rookie head coach’s affection for the then-Washington quarterback was well known, and with Cousins set to be a free agent and the 49ers starting the smoldering remains of Brian Hoyer, the fit seemed too logical not to happen — it was, explicitly, Shanahan’s master plan.
Plans have a way of falling through, however. The 2017 trade for Jimmy Garoppolo took the 49ers out of the franchise quarterback market, and Cousins was free to get an entirely guaranteed contract from Minnesota instead. While 2018 was rough for both squads, 2019 had both teams feeling pretty good about themselves. The 49ers roll in at 13-3, the top seed in the NFC for the first time since 1997. The Vikings are coming off one of the five biggest upsets in wild-card history, knocking off the highly favored Saints in large part because Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen stood on their heads.
We said last week that the Vikings were a good team without many glaring weaknesses who just happened to be going on the road to play a great one, and that’s true yet again. That being said, on paper, Minnesota matches up better with San Francisco than they did against New Orleans. Will the 49ers succeed where the Saints failed, or will the Vikings become the most successful sixth seed since the 2010 Packers?
WHEN THE VIKINGS HAVE THE BALL
Back in October, the 49ers’ defense was ranking up with the greatest squads of all time. The second half of the season, however, saw them come somewhat back down to Earth.
|49ers Defensive DVOA, 2019|
Those second-half defensive numbers are still good to very good, but not really in the same league as they were in at the beginning of the season, when they topped the league in DVOA and looked like Super Bowl favorites.
Some of that drop-off is just due to defensive volatility; defensive performance is less consistent on a year-to-year or even week-to-week basis than offensive performance is. Some of it is due to regular regression; it’s very, very difficult to play like one of the best defenses of all-time week in and week out. But there’s another, more significant reason why the 49ers’ defensive performance dropped off.
To massively mix franchises and risk the ire of nerds around the Internet, when Captain Kirk warps into San Francisco, he may be expecting to find the 49ers’ defenses comparatively weak. However, it’s a trap; I’m afraid the pass defense will be quite operational when his friends arrive. The Vikings will end up facing the firepower of a fully armed and operational battle station.
Starting linebacker Kwon Alexander tore his pectoral in Week 9 against Seattle. That injury normally costs someone their entire season, but like J.J. Watt in Houston, Alexander has made a remarkable recovery. While he likely won’t play every snap, he has been activated and is ready to go against Minnesota. Defensive end Dee Ford managed only 24 defensive snaps after Week 9 as he nursed a hamstring injury; he’s questionable but should also be in the lineup against Minnesota. Safety Jaquiski Tartt missed the last month of the season with a rib injury; he’s a full go. The bye week, the 49ers’ first week off since Week 4, has helped San Francisco’s defense approach full strength just in time for the playoff run.
The 49ers’ defense, at full strength, is a beast. They were the first team since the 1978 passing rule changes to hold five consecutive teams to 100 net yards passing or fewer. When Alexander, Ford, and Nick Bosa were on the field at the same time — which was just 128 snaps, but still — they allowed opposing quarterbacks a QBR of 3.0. With Ford on the field, Bosa’s pressure rate jumps from 10.3% to 22.1%; the 49ers’ four-man pressure rate goes from 19.4% to 37.0%, per Next Gen Stats. By SIS’ charting numbers, the 49ers’ overall pressure rate fell to 30.4% (subscription required) because of their second-half decline, but those first-half, healthy-defense numbers would have led the league. The Vikings do have an above-average offensive line, allowing pressure on 28.9% of their pass plays, but it’s hard for any team to put up enough blockers to stop Ford, Bosa, Arik Armstead, and DeForest Buckner.
Being able to generate pressure with just four frees up the rest of the back seven to shut down the pass. Alexander and Fred Warner have both been excellent in pass coverage, with Warner being one of five 49ers defenders to garner All-Pro votes this season. Two more of those All-Pro vote-getters play in the secondary. Richard Sherman is back to near his top Legion of Boom form, ranking eighth in the league in yards per target allowed (subscription required), while nickel corner K’Waun Williams picked up a pair of All-Pro votes as well; the two of them missing the Falcons game played a huge role in Atlanta’s upset victory. Then you have the safeties. When Tartt was in the lineup, the 49ers allowed a QBR of 16.8; that rose to 74.4 when he was out in December. Jimmie Ward has really come into his own as well; he ranks third in success rate by our charting stats and plays a hybrid safety-corner position as needed. When everyone in the 49ers’ defense is running at full speed, passing against them is a frightening prospect. Fear keeps the local passers in line; fear of Robert Saleh’s wide-nine system.
The exposed exhaust port on this defensive system is the other starting cornerback. Ahkello Witherspoon started the season strongly, but whether due to a sprained foot or just regression to where he was in 2018, he has been a liability over the last month, ranking 70th in YAC allowed, worst on the team in yards per pass, and generally being outplayed by Emmanuel Mosley. Witherspoon was benched in the middle of San Francisco’s last game against the Seahawks, but is expected to regain his starting job against the Vikings. The 49ers mostly keep their cornerbacks on their respective sides, rather than following matchups, so the Vikings can pick whether they want Stefon Diggs or Adam Thielen matched up against them. Thielen is questionable with an ankle injury, requiring stitches midweek. Diggs missed a few days of practice with illness, but seems otherwise good to go. Winning that matchup is crucial to the Vikings pulling off the upset this week.
As we mentioned last week, the Vikings love to run on first down, and they did so again against New Orleans — 21 times, in fact, most of any team in the wild-card round. Those rushes picked up a DVOA of -30.2%; only Seattle’s first-down rushes were less effective last week. Their nine first-down throws had a DVOA of -3.0%; nothing world-beating but obviously significantly better. For all the talk about how Dalvin Cook’s rugged running led the Vikings to victory over the Saints, their rush DVOA last week was just -12.8%, while they had a 29.6% DVOA when Kirk Cousins was allowed to pass. That’s slightly overstating what happened, however.
The Vikings’ pass offense was at just 4.9% through the end of regulation, and their run offense was at -6.0%. It was the overtime drive that killed the Vikings’ run grade; gaining -2 yards on two carries from the 2 is a killer, while 43-yard play-action bombs to set up game-winning touchdowns tend to grade out quite highly. While we continue to plead with Kevin Stefanski to throw more on first down, a big day from Dalvin Cook sounds a lot more enticing than repeatedly challenging the 49ers’ pass defense. The 49ers allow just 6.0 yards per play-action pass, the best in the league and a direct counter to the Vikings’ bread and butter. On the other hand, they rank outside the top ten in defensive DVOA against runs on both first and second down (subscription required); still above average, but far more vulnerable. Minnesota’s offensive line did a fantastic job last week, both keeping Cousins upright and blasting holes for Cook to run through. And remember, the Saints had a better rush defense than the 49ers did, so if Minnesota can pull off a volume-heavy performance from Cook against them, they have every chance to repeat that against San Francisco.
They key is plenty of pre-snap motion, drawing Alexander and Warner away from the play and giving Cook plenty of room to cut back into daylight. Keep the 49ers guessing, so they overcommit and allow Cousins to work free on play-action and bootlegs, and Minnesota has a fighting chance. The more predictable the Vikings’ offense gets, the more the 49ers’ defense can tee off against them. If they fall behind early, and are forced to get off schedule, the 49ers’ defense will attack all day long. Stefanski is head coaching candidate in Cleveland; consider this test against the 49ers’ defense the chance to make a hell of a case for a promotion.
WHEN THE 49ERS HAVE THE BALL
If there’s a better matchup this postseason than George Kittle versus Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, I’m not sure what it is. The Vikings’ defense ranked No. 1 in the league in coverage against tight ends, with a -45.9% DVOA (subscription required). Only one tight end really went off against the Vikings’ defense: Darren Waller, who had 134 yards all the way back in Week 3. Since then, the Vikings have mostly handled everyone who has come their way, including Jared Cook and his No. 1 receiving DVOA last week. They only allowed one touchdown to tight ends all season long! But Kittle is the best tight end in football and the lynchpin of the 49ers offense in a way no other tight end in the league can really match.
Kittle is used all over the 49ers’ offense. Screens, deep over routes, short slants, posts — he has moved around all over the offense and does everything. To make matters even more difficult, Kyle Shanahan’s offense uses tons of pre- and post-snap motion, forcing opposing defenses to be at the top of their game in terms of communication and awareness. You can never be sure where Kittle or Kyle Juszczyk or any of the 49ers’ other unconventional weapons are going to line up, or where they’re going to go after the snap. It’s a real challenge just to ensure someone’s covering them on every play. There isn’t a team better prepared to matchup, however — not just with Barr and Kendricks, but with the safety duo of Anthony Harris and Harrison Smith, the best pair in the league. This is the chess match. Fourteen different 49ers scored touchdowns in the regular season, as Shanahan schemes his players into unusual positions with chances to rack up massive yards after the catch — who else calls 40-yard fullback go routes? The Vikings’ defense will have their hands full diagnosing every play; the Saints burned them a couple times with Taysom Hill moving all over the formation last week, and Shanahan does the same sort of thing. Mike Zimmer’s defenses have always had the reputation of being very disciplined, however; this may not be the best defense the 49ers have faced all year, but it is probably the one that matches up best against what they want to do.
If Barr and Kendricks can avoid being fooled by the motion, it wouldn’t be shocking at all for one or both of them to come up with a turnover. They have the athleticism to close in those intermediate windows, and Jimmy Garoppolo has had a tendency this season to throw some truly inexplicable interceptions, failing to spot underneath defenders lurking in zones. That has died down some in recent weeks, but Garoppolo is yet to have a three-game stretch without an interception this season, and only Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield had more than Garoppolo’s 10 games with at least one interception. Barr and Kendricks are going to have their chances.
Jumping those intermediate routes is key, because it’s a lot easier to disrupt Garoppolo’s passes than it is to take down 49ers players after they get the ball in their hands; Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Raheem Mostert all have at least 25 broken tackles this season; San Francisco was the only team with three such players. Minnesota allows the fewest broken tackles in the league, however, with only 7.7% of their plays featuring a miss (subscription required). Again, this is a strength-versus-strength matchup.
The best news for the Vikings is that the San Francisco offense is not set up to attack their top weakness — cornerback, where Minnesota is down to Trae Waynes, the shell of what remains of Xavier Rhodes, Holton Hill, and Kris Boyd. They did a tremendous job keeping Michael Thomas in check, but that’s still a major liability. Past Shanahan offenses would attack that with their superstar receiver — Julio Jones in Atlanta, Josh Gordon in Cleveland, Pierre Garcon in Washington, or Andre Johnson in Houston. But the 49ers don’t really have that guy who can go out and win one-on-one matchups with raw talent at this point. Deebo Samuel has come on over the second half of the season — 575 yards in his last eight games, compared to 227 in his first eight. That’s partially due to his continuing development as a rookie, and partially due to the midseason acquisition of Emmanuel Sanders giving the 49ers a non-Kittle possession receiver. Samuel is not yet at the level where you can expect him just to beat cornerbacks deep; he’s a weapon you scheme into open space, give him the ball, and let him run. The 49ers will challenge Rhodes and Waynes deep, sure, but bombing the ball out to a receiver and letting him beat his man one-on-one is not how the 49ers’ offense operates.
Of course, you can’t talk about the Vikings’ defense without highlighting Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter, who broke down New Orleans’ top-rated pass-protecting offensive line, disrupted Drew Brees all day long and essentially are the reason Minnesota’s playing in this game. One big switch the Vikings did last weekend was frequently moving Griffen inside to attack Andrus Peat, the weak point in New Orleans’ line. The 49ers’ offensive line has a similar weak point, although not as bad as Peat — center Ben Garland. When Weston Richburg went down with a torn patellar tendon in December, that forced Garland into the starting lineup. He hasn’t been terrible, but that’s still a significant step down. Attacking the gap between Garland and either Daniel Brunskill or Mike Person (depending on whether Person comes back from injury or not) could see similar results to their success against New Orleans. It would help if Hunter can beat either Joe Staley or Mike McGlinchey the way he did Ryan Ramzcyzk and Terron Armstead a week ago — the Saints’ tackle duo is the tougher draw, and Hunter still won that matchup enough to disrupt everything the Saints tried to do. San Francisco’s line ranked fourth in pressure rate in 2019 at just 25.5%, but a stellar Saints line couldn’t slow down the Vikings’ rush last week. Brees was sacked three times, hit another couple, and forced to hurry or scramble three more times. Put up those kinds of numbers again against Garoppolo, and the rest of the Vikings’ defense will find their jobs that much easier. It’s worth noting that the last time Garoppolo faced the Vikings’ pass rush, in the 2018 opener, he was indeed sacked three times.
The one thing we haven’t mentioned so far is the 49ers’ run game. After all, as NBC would have us believe, the top four rushing teams made the playoffs while the top four passing teams missed it, so clearly, the 49ers offense is predicated around smashmouth football, running the trademark Shanahan zone system and letting Kittle and Juszczyk block their way forward.
In actuality, the 49ers aren’t actually particularly great at running the ball. They were eighth among playoff teams in rushing DVOA. They have a success rate of just 40%, below the league average! They also don’t run the ball as often as you think. We mentioned that the Vikings run the ball in 61% of their neutral-situation first downs (i.e., early and close, before time and score dictates offensive strategy more than offensive philosophy). San Francisco runs on 58% of their situation-neutral first downs, which is only very slightly above the league average, and third-lowest among remaining playoff teams, ahead of Green Bay (53%) and Kansas City (41%). San Francisco is second in the league in rushing yards because they win a lot; they’re sitting on leads and running the ball to control the clock. San Francisco actually has a -16.7% DVOA rushing in the fourth quarter, and a -12.5% DVOA when sitting on two-score leads; they’re just better when they throw the ball. Minnesota has a top-ten run defense, too, so counting on Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida to carry the day is unrealistic. The announcers are going to talk up the 49ers’ running philosophy; don’t believe (all of) the hype. Their offense is based around finding receivers like Kittle and Samuel in open space, letting them run around-slash-through defenders for yards after the catch, forcing defenders back in coverage, and only then breaking a big run downfield. The 49ers’ 16 runs of 20 yards or more were second in the league because yes, Kittle and Juszczyk and that offensive line can carve out massive holes, but they were much, much better at it when the defense wasn’t keying in against the run.
The 49ers’ offense drops to 27th in the league on second-and-long, so keeping them in long down-and-distances is a necessity for Zimmer’s defense. The 49ers are averaging 5.04 yards per carry on first downs, but with only a 38% success rate — they don’t pick up many 4- or 5-yard carries. 43% of their first-down runs gained 2 yards or less, third-worst among playoff teams ahead of New England and, uh, Minnesota. But 29% of their first-down carries went for 6 yards or more, ninth-most in the league. It will be vital for players like Kendricks and Hunter to get penetration against the 49ers’ offensive line and stop those first-down plays close to the line, as the 49ers just aren’t good enough offensively when forced to be predictable.
This is a matchup between two of our top seven punting units, as Britton Colquitt and Mitch Wishnowsky have both performed well this season. The advantage here probably goes to San Francisco, as the Vikings have the second-worst punt return unit in the game; Marcus Sherels averaged just 8.5 yards per return against New Orleans, and that was still much better than his season average of 4.7. Wishnowsky has only had two touchbacks all season, and 44.2% of his punts have gone inside the 20-yard line. Colquitt has yet to allow a touchback this season and has a longer net average; he just has fewer punts inside the 20 in large part because of where he’s asked to punt from.
The 49ers’ biggest weakness comes in the kicking game. The 49ers rank 27th in field goal/extra point value, and Robbie Gould has made just 74.2% of his kicks this season, including zero from beyond 50 yards. Remember: the 49ers franchised Gould before the season, making him the highest-paid kicker in 2019. That has not worked out for them so far.
The Vikings’ win last week actually improved the 49ers’ odds of going to the Super Bowl; removing the Saints from the picture means the 49ers are undisputedly the best team remaining in the NFC. Then again, the Vikings are a tougher draw than either the Eagles or Seahawks would have been, both in general and specifically matchup-for-matchup with the 49ers. A case of “be careful what you wish for.”
If the 49ers’ returning and rested defenders are up to full speed, they should be able to handle Minnesota without too much trouble, though that’s a pretty massive “if.” This isn’t October, and it has been a few months since the 49ers have been the undefeated dynamo rampaging their way through the conference. If the defense continues to just be very good and not great, and Mike Zimmer’s disciplined squad can keep their heads above water against all of Kyle Shanahan’s offensive shenanigans, the Vikings could pull off their second upset in a row — and we’d be less surprised this time than we were last week.
On the bulk of the evidence, however, we do have to favor San Francisco. They are the better team, at home, with the advantage of the much-needed bye week to both get players back in the lineup and dream up some new offensive wrinkles. You can never count out a repeat of the 1987 Vikings-over-49ers divisional upset, but the odds favor a repeat of one of the other four times the Vikings and 49ers met in the divisional round, with San Francisco winning more or less comfortably.
|DVOA||13.8% (8)||7.7% (10)|
|WEI DVOA||10.8% (9)||5.3% (12)|
|Seahawks on Offense|
|SEA OFF||GB DEF|
|DVOA||17.4% (5)||-1.1% (15)|
|WEI DVOA||11.1% (6)||-0.6% (16)|
|PASS||43.6% (4)||-1.3% (10)|
|RUSH||2.7% (6)||-0.8% (23)|
|Packers on Offense|
|SEA DEF||GB OFF|
|DVOA||2.7% (18)||6.5% (8)|
|WEI DVOA||1.4% (19)||3.9% (9)|
|PASS||3.9% (15)||17.1% (11)|
|RUSH||0.9% (26)||8.3% (4)|
|ST DVOA||-0.9% (20)||0.1% (18)|
All readers can click here for the open in-game discussion thread. If you have FO Premium, you can click here to see all the matchup of DVOA splits for this game.
Another week, another close win for the Seattle Seahawks. The 17-9 victory over Philadelphia in the wild-card round was Seattle’s 11th win this season by eight points or less, tied with the 2015 Broncos and 1978 Oilers for most in a single season in league history. Razor-thin wins are nothing new for Seattle. Based on points scored and allowed over the course of the year, we would have expected the Seahawks to have won 8.2 games in the regular season. Instead they went 11-5, putting them among the biggest overachievers in the league.
They were not the biggest overachievers, however. That honor goes to their divisional round opponent, the Green Bay Packers. Green Bay finished the year with 9.8 Pythagorean wins, but they actually won 13 games, the biggest positive differential in the NFL. (The biggest negative differential: the Dallas Cowboys.) The Seahawks actually finished ahead of the Packers in DVOA, 13.8% to 7.7%. That’s mostly due to their schedule, the second-most difficult in the league; the Packers’ schedule ranked 17th, nearly perfectly average. It’s difficult to find many signature wins for Green Bay. They only beat one quarterback who led his team to the playoffs this year: Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, who they beat twice. They also beat Kansas City, but that was when Matt Moore was playing quarterback for the Chiefs — and they still needed a 67-yard touchdown reception by Aaron Jones to break a tie in the fourth quarter. They only played two other games against playoff teams, losing 34-27 to Philadelphia and 37-8 to San Francisco.
All of that said, at their best, Green Bay was better than anything Seattle had to offer. As we noted last week, Seattle’s best single-game DVOA was 44.1% against Minnesota. Green Bay had three games better than that: their two wins over the Vikings, and a 42-24 beatdown of the Raiders. As you can see in their week-to-week graph, however, they also had a trio of stinkers: the aforementioned losses to the Eagles and 49ers, plus a 26-11 loss to the Chargers.
The Seahawks have dealt the Packers some of their most memorable losses of the Aaron Rodgers era — the so-called “Fail Mary” game of 2012 and the 16-point comeback in the NFC Championship Game in the 2014 season. Green Bay had beaten Seattle three times in a row, however, until the Seahawks got a win on Thursday night last year. That game was in Seattle, which may be the real key in this matchup. The home team in this rivalry has won eight games in a row and 14 of the last 15 games. The Seahawks have not beaten the Packers in Wisconsin since Mike Holmgren’s return to Green Bay in 1999. The weather at Lambeau Field is supposed to be relatively mild for a Sunday night in January — highs in the 20s, with little wind or precipitation. Will that give Seattle a chance at victory in a place where they haven’t won in 20 years?
WHEN THE SEAHAWKS HAVE THE BALL
Although they’re winning, the version of the Seahawks we’re seeing at this exact moment in time must be terribly aggravating to Pete Carroll, because his running backs can barely do anything on the ground. In two games since Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise went down with injuries, Travis Homer and Marshawn Lynch have averaged just 2.9 yards on 39 carries. That includes a combined 19 yards in 17 carries in the wild-card win over the Eagles. Is there any hope they can get better results against the Packers?
Well, yes. Neither Carson nor Prosise is returning this season, but Duane Brown and Mike Iupati might. Brown, the left tackle, has missed the last two weeks after meniscus surgery. Carroll said Wednesday that Brown’s progress was “encouraging,” though he added “we won’t know until late.” Iupati, the left guard, missed the Eagles game with a stinger; Carroll said the team was waiting to get a second opinion on his status.
Just as important as the faces returning for Seattle are those playing for Green Bay. The 49ers and Eagles were both in the upper half of the league in adjusted line yards, but the Packers were next to last. They were also next to last in stuff rate, hitting opposing runners for no gain or a loss only 13% of the time. The Packers also have some injury concerns. A trio of defensive linemen — starters Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry, plus Rashan Gary, a key part of the rotation — were limited in practice this week. Either Clark or Lowry would be a big loss; they rank second and third on the Packers roster behind linebacker Blake Martinez in run tackles and run stops.
The Packers must also be concerned with Russell Wilson’s mobility, though Matt LaFleur’s Packers weren’t nearly so vulnerable to quarterback runs as Mike McCarthy’s Green Bay teams often were. The Packers only surrendered 143 rushing yards to quarterbacks this season, fourth-fewest in the league and about 60 yards less than the average McCarthy team. No quarterback ran for even 30 yards in a game against Green Bay this year. Wilson doesn’t run as much as he used to — his 21.4 rushing yards per game this season were the second-lowest of his career — but he still went over 30 in four regular-season games and had 45 last week against the Eagles.
Green Bay’s improved defense against running quarterbacks may be a side effect of the team’s radical schematic transition. Under McCarthy and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Packers blitzed 29% of the time in 2018, eighth-most in the NFL that year. In 2019, with Pettine still in place at DC, LaFleur’s Packers blitzed 17% of the time, fourth-fewest. They may want to blitz more often this weekend, though. Out of 37 qualifying quarterbacks, Wilson ranked 14th in yards per throw against blitzes, but eighth in average gain on all other throws. He was especially lethal against three-man rushes, averaging a league-high 11.5 yards per pass. That’s on a tiny sample of only 25 throws, but it might still be relevant this weekend — the Packers used three-man rushes on 12% of opposing dropbacks, narrowly missing the top ten in that category.
Mind you, this is the strength of the Green Bay defense — they were 10th in pass defense DVOA, 12th in adjusted sack rate, and fourth in pressure rate (subscription required). Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith both made the top ten in sacks with 13.5 and 12.0 respectively, but pressures tell us that Za’Darius was clearly the superior pass-rusher — he was second in the NFL (and first among those left in the playoff race) with 65.0, while Preston’s 35 were tied for 29th (subscription required). This is going to be a problem for Seattle’s offense no matter which linemen they have — as we mentioned last week, the Seahawks offense finished next to last in pressure rate allowed. They only gave up one sack to the Eagles last week, but Wilson still took a beating, getting hit 11 times.
The Packers won’t get pressure every time, though, which means they will have to deal with Wilson and his receivers — and that’s going to be a problem. Tyler Lockett was one of the NFL’s best wide receivers this season, finishing fourth in DYAR and seventh in DVOA, while rookie DK Metcalf proved to be a decent sidekick. Lately, though, he has been much more than that. He set a rookie playoff game record with 160 receiving yards last week (inspiring an amazing tribute video by noted Seahawks fan Cable Thanos), and he only needs 83 yards against Green Bay to set the freshman record for a single postseason. It’s not just a one-game fluke, either. Over the season, Metcalf’s production has topped Lockett’s. Up through Week 9, Lockett had gained 767 yards to Metcalf’s 525. Since then, including the wild-card game, Metcalf leads Lockett 535 to 352. Lockett’s efficiency numbers still blow Metcalf’s away, but it’s not clear right now which is Seattle’s No. 1 wide receiver.
As such, Green Bay’s coverage stats against various types of receivers may not be relevant. More important are the specific cornerbacks in play. Of the 91 corners who qualified for our coverage tables (subscription required), Jaire Alexander ranked 15th in success rate and 37th in yards allowed per target. On the other side of the field, Kevin King ranked 51st and 83rd in those same categories. Nickelback Tramon Williams did not qualify for our tables, but his stats roughly split the distance between Alexander and King in both categories. More often than not, Wilson’s progressions might go:
- Look for whoever King is covering.
- Look for whoever Williams is covering.
- Run for your life.
For what it’s worth, the Packers often struggled against bigger receivers. The list of big receiving games against Green Bay this year includes such names as Kenny Golladay (twice), Allen Robinson (also twice), Courtland Sutton, Adam Thielen, and Mike Williams, all 6-foot-2 or taller. That could be a sign that the 6-foot-4 Metcalf is in for a big day.
Speaking of big receivers, that list also includes tight ends such as George Kittle, Darren Waller, Greg Olsen, and Hunter Henry. The Packers were 24th in pass coverage against tight ends, their lowest rank against any position group (subscription required). Is that a weakness that Jacob Hollister will be able to exploit? He did not make the top 20 in either DYAR or DVOA, and only twice in his career has he gone over 50 yards in a game.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
It’s pretty obvious what defenses can expect when playing the Packers: a whole lot of Aaron Jones (eighth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage, 10th in total touches, and first with 16 rushing touchdowns) and Davante Adams (10.6 targets per game, second only to New Orleans’ Michael Thomas). The transition from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur had little statistical impact. The Packers had about 75 more runs and fewer passes than they had the year before, and a higher share of those passes went to running backs, and that’s about it. The net effect was a slight decline. In 2018, the Packers offense had an overall DVOA of 11.1%, with 18.0% passing and 12.4% rushing. This year, those numbers slipped to 6.5%, 17.1%, and 8.3%.
A look through the DVOA database for Green Bay’s strengths and weaknesses yields some schizophrenic results. In some situations, they had the best rushing attack in the league — they were first in rushing DVOA in the red zone, and on second downs. On a related note, they had the league’s best offense on second-and-short (1 or 2 yards to go). However, they were 30th on third-and-short. This was a failure of both the running game (where they fell from third on second-and-short to 29th on third-and-short) and the passing game (first to 19th). Overall, they were 27th in our power rushing statistic that measures short-yardage rushing success. The Seahawks defense was not especially good in third-and-short situations — 22nd in DVOA — but given Green Bay’s weaknesses, a bend-but-don’t-break approach that gets them to third-and-whatever may be the way to go. That would certainly be a fair fight — Green Bay’s offense and Seattle’s defense both ranked 14th in DVOA on all third downs.
So the running game was usually very good, but it was very bad when they needed it most. And for all they did to establish the run, it didn’t help them much with play-action passes, where they ranked 28th with 6.7 yards per play. They averaged 6.5 yards per play on all other passes, 15th. Seattle’s defense ranked in the mid-20s in yards allowed on both types of passes.
The other notable split in the Green Bay passing attack was how it fell apart in the second half of the season. From Weeks 1 to 9, they were sixth in pass offense DVOA; from Weeks 10 to 17, they were 23rd. (The rushing offense finished fourth in both halves of the year.) This is partly because Rodgers’ best game, his five-touchdown outing against Oakland, came in Week 7; remove that week from the numbers and Green Bay falls to 16th in the first half of the year. Still, it’s notable how badly the Packers have struggled to produce via the pass in recent weeks. Rodgers has averaged less than 7 yards per pass in six of his last eight games, including each of his last four contests. At first glance that decline could be blamed on the four games missed by Adams, but that wouldn’t be accurate — all of the games Adams missed were in October, when the Green Bay passing attack was at its best. So what’s going on here?
Rodgers’ decline has coincided with that of Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Though Valdes-Scantling hasn’t missed a game, his playing time and production have both been slashed in the second half of the season. Through Week 9, Rodgers had thrown to Valdes-Scantling 43 times for 78 DYAR; since then, those numbers have dropped to 15 passes for -37 DYAR. This doesn’t appear to be injury-related; Valdes-Scantling had been playing through knee and ankle issues in the first half of the season, but still fared well, and he hasn’t been listed on the injury report in weeks. The passes that had been going his way have since gone to Allen Lazard and Geronimo Allison, and though their efficiency hasn’t slipped like that of Valdes-Scantling, they have still been unable to match what he was doing in the first half of the year.
The other big change in Green Bay’s offense has been a schematic one: it looks like defenses have focused on taking away shorter passes and forcing Rodgers to beat them deep. Rodgers’ short passes (those to receivers within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage) have dropped from 28.6 per game in the first half of the year to 20.6 since, while deeper passes per game have gone up slightly from 9.3 to 9.7. Rodgers’ DVOA has declined on shorter and deeper passes alike, so distribution isn’t the sole cause of his decline, but it is probably related.
What does this all mean for Seattle? It starts with stopping Adams. The Packers like to move him all over the field, which means Shaquill Griffin and Tre Flowers will get their chances with him. Griffin was a pretty average starting cornerback this year, though he tended to play things very conservatively, ranking 25th among qualifying corners in yards allowed per target, but 67th in success rate. Flowers was a little more conventional and a little bit worse, ranking in the mid-50s in both categories. As a team, Seattle ranked 12th in DVOA on passes to No. 1 wide receivers. For all his volume, Adams was just average in DVOA, 43rd at his position. On paper, this matchup is a stalemate.
Green Bay has the edge, however, when Jones gets the ball. Seattle’s defense was just 26th against the run this season. They did make some plays in the backfield, ranking 12th in stuff rate, but otherwise they were 20th or worse in each of our run defense metric. They were 12th in DVOA against passes to running backs, but they did give up 51.1 receiving yards per game to the position, fourth-most. This is what happens when you play as much zone coverage as Seattle does: opposing running backs tend to tally up the checkdowns in long-yardage scenarios.
The Packers only surrendered a pressure rate of 28.4%, 10th-lowest this year (subscription required). That would seemingly give them the advantage over Seattle’s anemic pass rush. However, the Seahawks were savage against Philadelphia, sacking Eagles quarterbacks seven times, concussing Carson Wentz and tearing Josh McCown’s leg apart. That wasn’t just a season-high in sacks for Seattle — they hadn’t even had that many sacks in back-to-back games since playing the 49ers and Eagles in Weeks 10 and 12 before and after their bye week. They were led by the one sack and three pressures of Jadeveon Clowney, playing through a core injury that had him limited in practice all week. They also blitzed a lot more than they typically do, as safeties Bradley McDougald and off-ball linebackers K.J. Wright and Cody Barton each got a sack. Most of those sacks and pressures came against a 40-year-old backup who played part of the game on one leg, and they’re not likely to get seven sacks again this weekend, but it at least raises the ceiling for what the Seattle pass rush can do.
As we noted last week, the Seahawks special teams were below average at everything this year. They had a quiet day in Philadelphia outside of a blocked field goal in the first quarter.
The Packers finished 18th in special teams DVOA, two slots ahead of the Seahawks, but with more clear strengths and weaknesses. They were seventh in placekicking as Mason Crosby only missed two field goals (both from 40-plus yards away) and one extra point all season. However, they were 28th in punt returns. The average Green Bay punt return actually went backwards for a good chunk of the season. Tyler Ervin, signed off the street in December, was a perfectly reasonable, averaging 9.6 yards on his 11 returns. Green Bay’s other punt returners only had nine returns for a total of -8 yards (not a typo). The Packers finished with 20 punt returns for 98 yards (last in the league in both categories) and a 4.9-yard average (next to last). They’re the first team that failed to gain 100 punt return yards in a season since the 2015 Chargers.
This is clearly a flawed Green Bay team that hasn’t played nearly as well as its record would suggest this season. Their overall DVOA of 7.7% is the lowest for any 13-win team since the 1999 Indianapolis Colts … who earned a first-round bye but then lost at home in the divisional round 19-16 to a Tennessee Titans team that had lost its division to the conference’s top seed. The Seahawks have the advantage in a number of areas, and it’s easy to imagine the blueprint for a Seattle win, with Wilson connecting with his receivers for a bevy of big plays while the defense forces checkdowns and limits yards after the catch. The Seahawks are the most likely road team to win this weekend, which is why we covered them in ESPN Upset Watch.
That said, it would still be an upset. This is also clearly a flawed Seattle team that hasn’t played nearly as well as its record would suggest this season. With practically no ability to run the ball and a defense with no particularly dominant traits, they have to go on the road to face a team that is healthier and more rested. There’s a reason teams fight so hard in the regular season to win those first-round byes: they often make the difference in games like this.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You’ll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
Team DVOA numbers incorporate all plays; since passing is generally more efficient than rushing, the average for passing is actually above 0% while the average for rushing is below 0%.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team’s trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.