Peyton Manning versus Tom Brady is so 2005. Ravens versus Steelers jumped the shark when Byron Leftwich tripped over the end zone last year. The Cowboys-Redskins rivalry is over: The 21st century won. Bears versus Packers? Great for bratwurst festivals, so-so for the rest of the nation.
Seahawks versus 49ers is an NFL rivalry for the post-Sharknado era, and what better way to get ahead of it than to start hyping their Week 2 matchup, seven weeks before it happens? Sports on Earth kicks off our training camp coverage with a tale-of-the-tape breakdown of two of the NFL's most compelling contenders. The stakes are high: The team that gains an edge in this rivalry will be the favorites to win the NFC, if not the Super Bowl. As these teams go during training camp, so goes the NFL.
Let's analyze these fascinating rivals down-by-down and situation-by-situation. The Niners have won the toss -- Jim Harbaugh swallowed the coin -- so their offense will take the field first.
(All situational stats and rankings are from Football Outsiders unless otherwise noted. The Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 is available in .PDF and print form now!)
49ers Offense, Seahawks Defense
First Down. The 49ers have the best 1st-down offense in the NFL, averaging 6.5 yards per play on 1st down -- 4.8 yards per rush, 8.1 yards per pass. The Niners are very balanced on 1st downs, though they played with a lead so often that it skewed their tendencies to make them appear a little run-heavy. Remove situations in which the Niners led by more than two touchdowns from the data, and they run the ball about 52 percent of the time on 1st down.
The Niners do not pull anything fancy on the typical 1st down. Add up all of their read-options, designed quarterback-keepers and trickery like end-arounds last season, and you get just 27 plays (out of 454) and 5.4 yards per play. Play-action is a useful weapon but not a deadly one: The Niners ran it on 94 1st downs (24 percent), averaging 8.1 yards per play and a handful of deep completions. The 1st-down success comes from their balance and diversity. Frank Gore averaged 4.8 yards per carry in 2012, while 10 different receivers caught at least three passes on 1st down. The Niners were good at many things, and their strengths complemented each other on the most important of downs.
The Seahawks had a very good 1st-down defense, ranking 7th in the NFL in Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic, allowing 4.3 yards per rush and 6.2 yards per pass. The Seahawks held opponents to a gain of two yards or less, or stopped them for a loss, on 41 percent of all 1st-down plays (a mix of sacks, stuffs, incomplete passes and running plays that accomplished nothing). Hold an offense to minimal gain on 1st down, and you make it a passing team on 2nd and 3rd down, which is just what Pete Carroll, Richard Sherman and others in Seattle want.
The Niners' offense held a 1st-down edge over the Seahawks' defense when the teams met last year. The Niners averaged 4.7 yards per rush and 7.3 yards per pass, with Colin Kaepernick completing a series of deep passes to Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree, Garrett Celek and Delanie Walker. (Alex Smith started the first meeting.) Much of that 1st-down success occurred when the Seahawks had the second game well in hand, however. In the Week 16 clobbering by the Seahawks, the Niners gained just 13 yards on their first seven 1st-down plays, including a fumble that they managed to pounce on. Drives stalled, field position tilted and the Seahawks built a 28-6 lead by halftime. Moving forward, the Niners must try to press the advantage that their balance and diversity gives them on 1st down.
Second Down. The 49ers were more likely to run on 2nd-and-long than any other NFL team. They rushed 63 times on 2nd-and-10 or more, averaging a remarkable 6.4 yards per carry. An average of four handoffs per game on 2nd-and-10 would make most fans tear their hair out (most teams don't do it that often, though fans will swear that they do), but if it is setting up 3rd-and-3, then hooray.
The Niners ran 25 options and oddities on 2nd down, netting 7.3 yards per play. This is the down where they keep defenses from stacking up, and where offensive coordinator Greg Roman gets to express himself a little.
Third-and-Long. Here is the biggest shocker of this essay: The Seahawks' defense was pretty terrible on 3rd-and-long. They allowed 50 receptions on 77 dropbacks (65 percent completion rate), for 623 yards (more than 8 yards per attempt), and 29 1st downs on 3rd-and-eight or more. There is a little fat in the data -- Ryan Lindley of the Cardinals completed a few 3rd-and-long passes while trailing by 51 points, when the Seahawks' team bus had already pulled away -- but the 3rd-and-long conversion rate is shockingly high for a good team with a great secondary. The Seahawks ranked 22nd in 3rd-and-long defense, though they ranked 2nd overall in 3rd-down defense. The Seahawks could stuff you on short plays, but they suffered lapses on long plays.
Many of the Seahawks' 3rd-and-long lapses came when they rushed just three defenders; opponents were 14-of-18 when the Seahawks sent a minimal pass rush. Instead of interpreting the Seahawks' 3rd-and-long defense as some kind of slight against Sherman (someone send this article to Roddy White, quick!), we should take note that this is a 77-pass sample that mixes important plays with garbage-time plays. It is small and polluted, and it represents a problem that coaches can easily compartmentalize and fix. If the three-man rush is really a problem, Pete Carroll and new coordinator Dan Quinn will scrap it. Considering the quality and makeup of the Seahawks' personnel, it seems unlikely that 3rd-and-long pass defense will be a long-term issue.
The Niners had an excellent 3rd-and-long offense last season, ranking 2nd in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. Crabtree, who tore an Achilles tendon in May and is out indefinitely, was by far their most effective weapon in this situation. He caught 16 of the 26 passes thrown to him on 3rd-and-8-plus, averaging 17.6 yards per catch and registering 11 combined 1st downs and touchdowns. Replacement Anquan Boldin was no slouch himself: 11-of-13, 17.9 yards per catch, nine 1st downs in the same situation. Crabtree was younger and more athletic than Boldin, but Boldin is wilier in a situation where experience matters. Those darned Niners have an answer for everything, don't they?
Short Yardage and Red Zone. So far, the 49ers have held an edge, but the Seahawks take it back here. The Niners have an awful short-yardage offense, and they tie themselves in knots as they approach the red zone. All the things they do well in the open field sabotage them when they only need a few yards; suddenly, all of those funky play designs look over-engineered, and Harbaugh and Roman begin to outsmart themselves. The Niners were just 14-of-30 on converting 3rd downs of 2 yards or less, including a sad 3-of-11 on passing plays. All of that Gore Kaepernick pull-trap-option science, and they were passing on 3rd-and-short? C'mon, guys. Chances are, this came up during coaching quality control meetings, and it will be addressed.
For the same reasons, the Niners ranked 23rd in the NFL in goal-to-go offense, the only part of the field where they were not ranked in the top 10 by Football Outsiders. The Seahawks, meanwhile, ranked 2nd in the NFL in both goal-to-go defense and 3rd-and-short defense. Among their other accomplishments, they forced three interceptions in goal-to-go situations, two of them by guys named Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick.
Just like 3rd-and-long defense, short-yardage offense is an easy problem for coaches to compartmentalize and correct when everything else is going well. That said, it has been a Harbaugh-Roman problem for two seasons. The Seahawks will still give the Niners trouble near the end zone. But their best defensive strategy will be tightening their 1st-down and 3rd-and-long defenses a bit, so that they keep the Niners away from their end zone.
Seahawks Offense, 49ers Defense
First Down. Remember how the 49ers had the best 1st-down offense in the NFL? Well, they also had the best 1st-down defense in the NFL, allowing just 3.6 yards per rush and a remarkable 5.2 yards per pass. Opponents completed a respectable 59 percent of their 1st-down passes against the Niners, but they also suffered 12 sacks and 6 interceptions in 196 dropbacks. The Niners' defense also forced 12 1st-down completions that were not really worth the effort, netting less than 2 yards or a loss. These guys know how to converge on the football and make a tackle.
The Seahawks' offense is no slouch on 1st downs: They ranked 3rd in the league last season, with 4.5 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per pass. The Seahawks were more run-heavy than the Niners on 1st down, rushing 59 percent of the time. (Their percentage actually goes up slightly when you take away plays they ran with a two-touchdown lead, which is just weird.) By modern NFL standards, a near-60-percent run-pass ratio is practically a Vince Lombardi tactic.
The Seahawks ran 38 option plays or other bits of constraint gadgetry (like end-arounds) 38 times on 1st down, averaging 8.8 yards per play, with a 44-yard flea flicker in the data. The Seahawks ran more options overall than the Niners, but the data shows that they were more likely to use the play to diversify their running game on 1st down than the Niners, who preferred to confound defenses on 2nd down. The Seahawks loved their 1st-down play-action, running it 94 times on 1st down: 22 percent of their plays but 54 percent of their passes. The Seahawks averaged 8.4 yards per 1st-down play-action pass, accounting for six passes of 30-plus yards, so they packed a big-play punch. Marshawn Lynch averaged 4.9 yards per carry on 175 carries per game.
In short, the Seahawks kept things simple on 1st down; Lynch plunges, Russell Wilson play-action shots deep and some read-option to keep defenses from loading up. The Seahawks averaged just 4.1 yards per play against the Niners on 1st down last year, and while some of that data comes from garbage time in an easy win, the fact that Wilson completed just six 1st-down passes in two games suggests that the Seahawks will have to expand their repertoire if they want to get an edge on 1st down.
Newcomer Percy Harvin could be a major asset in that department. He caught 25 of 34 1st-down passes thrown to him by Vikings quarterbacks last season, 10 of which were the kind of screen or "smoke" passes that grow naturally from a read-option offense. A little bit of Harvin as a counterpunch can make the Seahawks far more dangerous at something they already do very well.
Second Down. The Seahawks were second to the 49ers in the percent of running plays on 2nd-and-long. Again, the Seahawks played with a big lead a lot, which skews the data, but part of the reason they used these plays (which worked; the Seahawks averaged 6.6 yards per carry) was because of a philosophical commitment to the run.
Third-and-Long. The Seahawks had a respectable 3rd-and-long offense, ranked eighth in the NFL. Wilson and Matt Flynn completed just under 60 percent of their passes on 3rd-and-eight-plus, netting 13 1st downs or touchdowns. These numbers do not blow the mind, but the real secret to the Seahawks 3rd-and-long offensive success was avoiding 3rd-and-long. They ran just 31 offensive plays on 3rd-and-10 or worse. The Niners executed 45 plays in these desperate circumstances. The Cardinals executed 53 plays in this situation, the Rams 42, the Patriots 36 and the Broncos 34. There are some teams that somehow thrive on 3rd-and-long conversions -- the Steelers come to mind -- but successful, efficient offenses take care of business on 1st and 2nd down, then hold serve when they get into trouble. So the addition of Harvin and a year of experience for Wilson could make the Seahawks better on 3rd down, but they will be better off if those factors work their magic on early downs.
Opponents dropped to pass 88 times on 3rd-and-long against the 49ers. Among the carnage: a safety, a 20-yard intentional grounding penalty, two strip sacks, four other sacks and an interception. Opponents converted 32 percent of 1st downs on 3rd-and-long, a fine-but-not-outstanding percentage for the Niners defense. In keeping with their ability to allow a reception and stuff it for a minimal gain, the Niners stopped 28 receptions short of the sticks on 3rd-and-long. Cardinals quarterbacks had a particular knack for padding their (typically embarrassing) stats with short passes on 3rd-and-long; John Skelton and Brian Hoyer completed seven 3rd-and-8-plus passes and registered one 1st down.
Wilson, the guy we care most about, completed one 3rd-and-long pass in four attempts against the Niners, for a 17-yard 1st down. He also scrambled once in that situation. To beat the drum once more: The Seahawks whupped the Niners in Week 16 not by playing well on 3rd-and-long, but by rendering the situation as irrelevant as possible.
Short Yardage and Goal Line. The Seahawks finished 4th in the NFL in goal-to-go offense. They were also effective in other short-yardage situations: 24-of-42 on 3rd-and-two or less, a critical 5-for-5 on 4th downs.
The 49ers excelled against the run near the goal line: 0.96 yards per carry allowed in goal-to-go situations, with five rushing touchdowns on 31 carries. But goal-line pass defense gave them fits. Opponents threw 14 touchdowns in 28 goal-to-go attempts; the fact that offenses threw as often as they ran (near the goal line is the one place on the field where the ground game still rules) shows that opponents knew they had a better chance to go around the Niners defense than through it. Wilson threw four short touchdowns against the Niners in Week 16, so the Seahawks certainly sensed a weakness.
The Niners defense will look a little different this year. Isaac Sopoaga, Dashon Goldson and others are gone; rookie Eric Reid and on-the-decline cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Eric Wright are among the newcomers. The differences should not be too extreme as long as the NFL's best linebacker corps is intact and Justin Smith still anchors the line, but for a defense trying to get better along the margins, the changes could have an impact. The Asomugha of 2008, a 6-foot-2 All-Pro who could lock down any big receiver (or Jimmy Graham-type tight end) would be a major asset in the red zone. The Asomugha of 2012 won't make this roster. Goal-line passing defense is yet another of those correctable problems, but opponents are going to keep trying their luck through the air against the Niners, if only because it is not worth it to try their luck on the ground.
Special Teams. Both teams are deep with quality returners, and both teams have so much overall talent that it is hard to imagine kick coverage becoming a major problem. Andy Lee is the best punter in the NFL right now; Jon Ryan of the Seahawks is pretty good.
The Niners had kicker troubles last season when David Akers went into an early-season slump. Compounded with their red zone confusion, Akers' sudden inaccuracy nearly blossomed into a crisis. He is now in Detroit, with Browns mainstay Phil Dawson taking his place in San Francisco. Dawson was an impressive 13-of-13 on kicks longer than 40 yards last season. Field goal percentages fluctuate wildly, but the perfect record is evidence that Dawson still has plenty of leg left, just as Akers' 9-of-19 effort during his 38th-birthday season is hard to write off as mere statistical noise. In two seasons with the Seahawks, Steven Hauschka has been reliable short and erratic long. Both kickers are excitingly average on kickoffs.
In other words, these otherwise interesting teams are pretty ho-hum, but good, on special teams.
Closing Arguments. The Seahawks-49ers rivalry is just warming up, and one of the most compelling things about it is that both teams have a next-generation, best-practices-seminar flavor. Just about everything these teams do, at every organizational level, feels like it just arrived from some football think tank. The front offices acquire talent wisely and have the salary cap well-massaged. Both teams have had marvelous drafts in recent years; the only thing that will hold back their 2013 rookie classes is that there aren't many available roster spots. The on-field strategies consist of innovative ideas married to bedrock principles. The Niners and Seahawks run the ball, control the clock and play fundamentally sound defense, but they mix everything from Roman's complicated blocking schemes to Carroll's shifting defensive fronts into the stewpot. It's comfort food with fusion.
The Seahawks were the best team in the NFL at the end of the regular season. The Niners were more experienced, had highs just as high but lows that were lower. They beat the Seahawks in their first meeting but got splattered in the second. The Falcons barely beat the Seahawks and barely lost to the Niners; Tony Gonzalez and Matt Ryan denied us a Seahawks-Niners NFC Championship game. We may get one this year, and three or four others in upcoming years, because these two teams are not going anywhere.
Who has the edge this season? Football Outsiders sees 10.3 wins for the Seahawks and 9.7 for the Niners, but strength of schedule (Seahawks face Giants and Vikings as uncommon opponents; Niners get Redskins and Packers) is involved and the difference is tiny. The Niners 1st-down advantage on both sides of the ball is more sustainable than the Seahawks' short-yardage and goal-to-go advantages. The Niners lost more to free agency but had more talent stashed on the bench than any team since the start of free agency. If I had to make a pick right now, I would go home-and-home: The Seahawks do their usual noisy, drizzly thing in Week 2, but the Niners get a windy payback in Week 14.
A copout? Well, it would not be much of a rivalry if there was a clear-cut favorite, would it?
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(Want more wonky preseason coverage? I am previewing a few battles and stories this week as I prepare to do some visits next week. Here is a story about the Ravens receivers and one about the Rams running backs, with more coming soon! Hooray, football!)