Last week: 13 (+4)
I still don’t think this team is much of a Super Bowl threat because eventually the turnover differentials will…blah blah blah regression I’m done repeating myself. Let’s focus on something positive, namely this amazing defense. This was Jim Harbaugh’s first full offseason with this team and many people expected an improved offense because of it. I don’t think anyone really expected an improved defense, but that’s what they got.
In the opener, they shut down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, holding them to 324 total yards and then last week they shut down Matt Stafford and the Lions, holding them to 296 total yards. Those were two top-5 offenses last year. It’s very interesting to look at exact how they did so. In the opener against Green Bay, they spent most of the game in a dime package, using 6 defensive backs on 55 of 72 snaps and 5 defensive backs on 65 of 72. That left, for the most part, 5 men in the box.
Against Detroit, they did a similar thing, running nickel on 57 of 65 snaps and leaving, for the most part, 6 men in the box. What’s amazing is that they’ve still managed to allow just 3.2 YPC in those 2 games. I know they haven’t played good running teams, but that’s good coaching on the part of Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to make significant schematic adjustments to the point where you run your base 3-4 defense on 15 of 137 plays in your first 2 games and shut down two of the best offenses in the leagues.
It’s also a testament to the versatility of the players, namely linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman. They’re the reason why they’re able to run primarily sub packages and still stuff the run. Both are good enough in coverage to stay in the game in sub packages and both are good enough against the run to help hold opponents to 3.2 yards per carry, despite the defense dropping 5 or 6 in coverage and sending 4 men on a pass rush.
The only area this defense has been weak is pass rush, as they rank just 31st in pass rush efficiency. That’s really interesting because it’s not a schematic thing. They’re rushing at least 4 on almost every play, but they’re still not getting to the quarterback (5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, and 13 quarterback hurries). It’ll be interesting to see if that continues and it’ll also be interesting to see if the coaches choose to continue using a sub package as their base package going forward. This week, they face Minnesota, who are probably more of a threat to run than to pass, but if you can still stuff the run in a sub package, why not continue to use it?
Before the season I said 49ers takeaways would go down and turnovers would go up. I’ve been half right, only 2 takeaways, but still just 1 turnover. Given that they’re not as reliant on takeaways this year, that’s why I say this is an improved defense. Offensively, however, they will eventually start to turn the ball over more. They also haven’t played a decent secondary playing well yet and everyone turns it over eventually. Turnover differentials are so much more inconsistent on a week to week basis than yards per play and the 49ers rank just 8th in yards per play differential, with a middle of the pack 5.9 yards per play gained.
Can you win a Super Bowl with a middle of the pack offense and a great defense? History says no. I say no, but I’ve been wrong before. The other thing that will eventually happen for this team is injuries. They’ve had next to none over the last two years and their depth is unproven. Right now, the 49ers are probably the best team in football. However, these Power Rankings are a little different in that I’m not really interested in who is best now. I rank teams by how I see them finishing in terms of projected win-loss record, where I think they’ll advance in the playoffs, and likelihood to win the Super Bowl.
The other concern for the 49ers should be Frank Gore. He’s averaging 6.1 YPC this year, but he averaged 4.9 in first 8 games last year, before averaging 3.5 YPC in final 8. That coincided with a 4.3 point decrease in points per game. Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James can help take the load off of him if that time comes, but it’ll be up to the coaching staff to make the adjustment and up to Gore to accept the adjustment.
LT Joe Staley: Allowed 1 quarterback hurry on 36 pass block snaps, run blocked for 14 yards on 4 carries
QB Alex Smith: 20 of 31 for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns, 1 throw away, 1 batted pass, 5 drops, 103.1 adjusted QB rating, pressured on 7 of 35 drop backs (3 sacks 2 of 4, 1 throw away)
C Jonathan Goodwin: Did not allow a pressure on 36 pass block snaps, run blocked for 26 yards on 6 carries
LG Mike Iupati: Allowed 1 quarterback hurry on 36 pass block snaps, run blocked for 16 yards on 2 carries
RG Alex Boone: Did not allow a pressure on 36 pass block snaps, run blocked for 15 yards on 2 carries
TE Vernon Davis: 5 catches for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns on 7 attempts on 27 pass plays, 5.4 YAC per catch
MLB NaVorro Bowman: Allowed 3 catches for 20 yards on 6 attempts, 8 solo tackles, 3 assists, 4 stops, 1 missed tackle
ROLB Aldon Smith: 1 sack and 1 quarterback hurry on 34 pass rush snaps, 5 solo tackles, 1 assist, 6 stops
FS Dashon Goldson: Was not thrown on, 1 interception, 5 solo tackles, 2 stops