The Battle of Quarterbacks Nobody Believed In

The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks have one of the biggest point spread differences we’ve seen in the playoffs, making it even more impressive that the favorites, the 49ers, are on their third quarterback. Wild Card Weekend in the NFL gives us some fantastic opportunities to see big upsets, write new storylines, and begin the narrative arcs for teams we may end up remembering for the rest of NFL history.

But there are deeper storylines we’ll be able to see fulfilled in this game. Not only is Brock Purdy going to have an opportunity to write his name in the sky, but Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith is also looking for a chance to prove himself as a free agent looking for a new contract.

The Seahawks’ offense has a unique weakness against the 49ers’ defense, and that defense might end up coming out of the playoffs as one of the best ones we’ve seen in recent memory.

We break down the biggest storylines from the Seahawks’ Wild Card matchup against the 49ers.

Can Geno Smith Throw Deep Against the San Francisco 49ers?

The Seahawks’ offense is walking into a buzzsaw going up against the 49ers’ defense, but it’s not an unpredictable one. In their previous two matchups, the Seahawks scored a combined 20 points. Seven of those points were on a blocked field goal return, and another seven points came from a late-game touchdown when San Francisco had already secured a 99 percent chance of winning the game.

This is to say, during standard offensive play over the course of two games, Seattle scored six points. A major contributing factor is that the Seahawks don’t have a playstyle advantage over the 49ers. They like to look for explosive moments with DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett and settle for intermediate throws when those aren’t there.

The 49ers deny those opportunities — they prevent deep passes from being thrown at all at a fairly good clip, and they prevent those deep passes from being completed frequently. Geno Smith only threw two deep passes against the 49ers in their two matchups, and one of them was intercepted. The other, a 27-yard completion to Lockett, didn’t yield a good enough return to make any substantial dent in the game.

MORE: Seahawks vs. 49ers Injury Report

The Seahawks don’t pass deep more often than the average team, but their passing game is disproportionately reliant on it. On passes over 20 yards in the air, Smith has the second-highest expected points per dropback, just behind Tua Tagovailoa.

But on passes below the 20-yard threshold, Smith ranks 22nd in the NFL among quarterbacks. That’s the third-largest difference in the NFL. Of all quarterbacks with positive expected points, Smith has the fourth-highest percentage of his EPA from deep passes, only behind Matt Ryan, Justin Fields, and Aaron Rodgers.

That’s not necessarily a negative, but it creates a unique matchup problem against San Francisco. That’s probably why, even though he ranked 15th in overall EPA over the season, Smith had one of the worst total performances against the 49ers this year; he averaged -0.25 expected points per dropback against San Fran, the fourth-worst of all quarterbacks to play them. The QBs ranked below Smith were Russell Wilson, Tua Tagovailoa, and David Blough.

Metcalf and Lockett are dangerous matchups for cornerbacks like Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir in a vacuum, but with Smith’s issues throwing deep and the safety group lurking over the top, it’ll be tough to get them the ball.

Will the Seattle Seahawks Write Geno Smith Back?

This kind of weakness, especially in the division, should help inform Seattle’s decision-making process when deciding whether or not to offer a new deal to Smith. While he’s played well, he’ll need to expand his game — a tough ask at 32 years old — in order to be consistently effective against Seattle’s division rival.

Smith will probably get that extension, but it would be wise for Seattle not to expose themselves to too much commitment over the next few years if he can’t figure out the intermediate and short part of his game, which is an odd thing to say about a quarterback who came out of Dana Holgorsen’s system in West Virginia.

Smith’s storyline has been fantastic to follow this season, and his return to NFL prominence after a rocky start with the New York Jets is a reminder both not to write players off and about the importance of coaching in developing players.

The next step in this story is to determine if this is a one-season narrative or a genuine comeback. In a season with all kinds of plot threads, many of them summer, Smith’s is a nice story to have.

Is Brock Purdy Real?

The Geno Smith saga is a good QB narrative to follow, but it’s not the only one in this game. Kyle Shanahan has developed a reputation for crafting good passing games out of nearly any quarterback — getting efficient games from Nick Mullens, CJ Beathard, and now the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, Brock Purdy.

Shanahan has limited Purdy quite a bit. Purdy has one of the shortest depths of target in the NFL — even lower than who he replaced, Jimmy Garoppolo — and he’s been one of the most YAC-reliant quarterbacks in the NFL. Despite a careful playing style, his turnover-worthy play rate is about league average.

Typically, turnover-worthy play rate correlates to depth of target and aggression percentage, the rate of throws that are thrown into a tight window. Purdy has both the second-lowest aggression rate and the third-lowest depth of target in the NFL, yet has a league-average turnover rate.

MORE: NFL Power Rankings Wild Card Weekend

The same applies to his accuracy. Without context, his completion rate — 67.1 percent — is high compared to the league average. But when accounting for depth of target, drop rate, and tight-window throws, it’s fairly low — about two percentage points lower than the NFL average.

None of this is to say he’s underperforming. He’s doing a remarkable job compared to any rookie, much less one drafted in the final round. The 49ers have apparently found a gem and should be able to hold on to Purdy for some time as a more-than-capable backup who might genuinely develop into a starter.

But if this playoff game is meant to be an audition for him to earn a starting job sooner rather than later — most likely through a trade to another team — then he needs to show more.

This doesn’t take away from how intriguing his story is and how uplifting it is to see players normally discarded in the eyes of NFL fans perform at the highest level. But he has some flaws that might not be readily apparent when looking at the raw numbers.

Where the San Francisco 49ers Defense Ranks Historically

The 49ers’ defense, at this point in the season, has been acknowledged as the best in the NFL. It’s tough to dispute that at this point, but that wasn’t always the case. At various points throughout the season, the Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, and New England Patriots had some claim to that title.

Historically, all-time great defenses are usually recognized to be in rarefied air earlier in the season. The 2013 Seattle Seahawks, 2015 Denver Broncos, 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and 2000 Baltimore Ravens were all well-known to be the best defenses in the NFL well before the playoffs began. The Super Bowl wins they were all a part of certainly played a big role in cementing them in the public consciousness, but few disputed their rank in season.

Is it possible that the 49ers could put themselves in that category, even with the late start that they’ve had?

It’s hard to argue against the notion that the defense has been carrying the team. The 49ers have rotated through three separate starting quarterbacks this season and earned the second seed in the NFC despite that tumultuousness.

From a point perspective, it’s easy to see why they haven’t been compared to historical defenses. Since 1999, San Francisco ranks 42nd in points allowed per game. But the average points scored by offenses has increased since then, so adjusting for that brings the 49ers’ defense up to 37th.

That’s the best of the 2022 season, but it’s not even close to the best over the past few years.

It’s also worth noting, however, that the 49ers have had some weird things happen to them this season that impacted their points allowed but were not the fault of the defense. Against the Seahawks, they “allowed” a returned blocked field goal, and they have been subject to their own offense taking sacks in the end zone and a fumble-six.

It’s difficult to account for all of that. On top of that, a defense that happens to stop the Baltimore Ravens at their own 45-yard line will generally have been understood to have done their job — but Justin Tucker can nail that field goal. It’s difficult to say that the defense did their job exactly as well as a defense that held a team inside the red zone to force a 30-yard field goal.

If a defense has to deal with poor field position or special teams scores, that doesn’t always reflect on the unit.

So, if we only analyze in terms of defensive expected points allowed, we can account for that. By that measure, they rank 26th since 2000. We’re getting there.

MORE: Early NFL Wild Card Round Predictions and Picks Against the Spread

We also value consistency for defenses. One way to account for that is success rate, which will allow us to get a play-to-play understanding of how a defense can take down opposing offenses.

After all, if a defense allows a game with three big scores and then shuts down other offenses, they wouldn’t be considered as elite as a defense that never allowed a big score but happened to allow just a little bit more in terms of total yardage.

If we combine success rate with EPA per play, then the 2022 49ers defense ranks 15th since the year 2000. That’s special — that puts them right next to the 2015 Carolina Panthers and 2013 Seattle Seahawks.

And again, these things have changed over time. If we account for historical EPA performances among defenses, then the 49ers rank sixth — right next to the 2009 Jets and the 2006 Bears. And if we combine historical success rates with historical EPA, they rank eighth since the year 2000 — about as good as the 2017 Vikings or 2020 Rams.

This defense is good and nearly great. They have All-Pro quality talent at every level, and where they don’t have All-Pro talent, they have Pro Bowl talent. Their role players could be the best players on other teams. Their depth is extraordinary.

But no one will remember them if they get bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

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