Super Bowl XLVII: By The Grades
It’s Super Bowl week once more, which means a whole host of content up on PFF previewing the biggest game of the season using the most in-depth data out there. Where else to begin but with a look at how each team stacks up when it comes to grading.
If you’re a newcomer to PFF, or simply not a PFF Premium member (Really, why not? Take a look at what’s on offer here), you might not be familiar with PFF’s bedrock: the grading. We grade every player on every play in every game of the NFL season either side of 0.0, and the numbers we present at the end are the best single measure of a player’s performance anywhere. It is the only number out there that takes every single snap into account and removes the distortion that the base stats can have — a great throw is a great throw, even if a receiver lets it bounce off his hands and into the arms of a defender for an interception.
So what do these grades tell us about our Super Bowl participants, and where does the advantage lie?
You’ll hear a lot this week about defense still winning championships, and how this game marks a throwback to some tough old days of football. That might be true for the 49ers, who have one of the league’s most intimidating and dominant defenses. However, the Ravens have not made this run because of their defense, rather its due to the improved play of Joe Flacco.
The 49ers, over the course of the season, hold a clear and distinct advantage when it comes to PFF grades, and have had a far better defense than the Ravens the majority of the year. They have several players selected to PFF Pro Bowl rosters (AFC here with NFC here) and All-Pro teams and few weak links. Their two lowest-graded players have combined for a total of 546 snaps, or fewer than 50% of the defensive snaps this season, so they have been able to minimize any negatives they did have.
By contrast, the Ravens have had definite struggles in most areas. From the defensive line to the secondary each unit has had at least one weak link consistently throughout the season. Though Haloti Ngata remained their best defensive lineman even in a relative down season for him, the play of Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody up the middle has been a problem.
However, the team that will suit up on Super Bowl Sunday is not the same Baltimore Ravens squad that stumbled their way into the playoffs backward by virtue of an ugly collapse at the end of the regular season. So, are they a more formidable outfit if we look just at which side comes into the game with the better form? If we start our look at both teams beginning in Week 15 (discounting Baltimore’s Week 17 farce when they had nothing to play for and we saw backups all over the field), we have an equal number of games for each side and we see a far different picture.
In this scenario the Ravens actually take the edge when it comes to run defense and pass rush, and narrow the gap significantly in most other areas. The return of Ray Lewis may not have had a massive impact on the team from his play (he has yet to grade positively since his comeback, despite racking up tackles) but he has had a clear and quantifiable effect on the play of those around him. The 49ers have had the better defensive unit over the season, but on form going into this game it is almost a dead heat.
On offense things are far more complex. Looking at the full-season picture for both teams is almost misleading, since half of San Francisco’s data comes with Alex Smith under center, and the Ravens have fluctuated so much in form. That being said, we can clearly see the strength of the 49ers’ offense — led by the league’s most dominant O-line — in their edge overall and in the running game.
When we apply the same form filter we used before, we get to see each unit more reflective of how they come into this game. Joe Flacco has eliminated the mistakes that hurt his grade during the season and, despite the outstanding performance from Colin Kaepernick, the Ravens maintain an advantage in the passing game. The 49ers again run away with things when it comes to the run game, aided by the added dimension from the option wrinkles they have incorporated and expanded upon since they made the switch under center.
Baltimore has been able to keep Flacco upright, but the performance of their running game hasn’t been quite as spectacular as some of the numbers may suggest. Even Ray Rice’s 131-yard day against the Broncos took 30 carries and came with just one touchdown on the ground. The Ravens don’t have the luxury of the read-option to help them break open a defense and need instead to do things the old fashioned way. They have been able to generate the yardage in this playoff run, but it has been tougher sledding than San Francisco has had.
The Bottom Line?
When you look at the PFF grading you see a clear and definitive edge to the 49ers on both sides of the ball. They didn’t have any obvious weak links dragging down the performance of their units in all three phases of the game. However, there is a clear impact if we look at the Baltimore team on form, rather than on their full season. If we look at Baltimore since they began to play better, and especially on defense since the return of Ray Lewis and the announcement that this would be his final season in the league, we see a far different team. The Ravens team that enters the Super Bowl does so on a run of form that far outstrips their baseline for the season, and makes them a much closer rival for the 49ers.
On form, San Francisco maintains its edge on both offense and defense, but it’s suddenly a much closer race. Don’t discount the Ravens because of what you saw them do earlier in the season. They enter this game on a much higher plane of performance.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam