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Thursday Night Football Preview: 49ers at Chargers

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Normally, I write the AFC West Preview today, but with a special Thursday Night Game (sorry Boss, need to leave early today) it just makes more sense to focus on today's game and leave the rest of the West for later in the week. So, let's do this.

As a refresher, here's the Chargers DVOA numbers for the season:

Overall Offense Defense Special Teams
DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Passing Rank Rushing Rank DVOA Rank Passing Rank Rushing Rank DVOA Rank
21.6% 6
19.8% 4
2.9% 11
-12.0% 3
-16.2% 2
-6.6% 12
-10.2% 32

And here we have the 49ers:

Overall Offense Defense Special Teams
DVOA Rank DVOA Rank Passing Rank Rushing Rank DVOA Rank Passing Rank Rushing Rank DVOA Rank
-9.1% 21
-6.8% 26
-2.5% 21
0.5% 13
10.8% 21
-11.6% 6
-1.8% 22

It's easy to see here that in this game you have one of the most balanced teams in the NFL in the San Diego Chargers. The game also has 49ers team that's established themselves as a team in the bottom third of the league (albeit at the top of that bottom third). Be that as it may, both teams are in the playoff hunt and are coming off of big wins this past weekend. Those are the basics, let's see if we can dig a little deeper.

All VOA, DVOA, YAR and DYAR statistical values are developed, calculated and reported by Football Outsiders. Their explanation can be found here. Team efficiency ratings can be found here.

A stat I've heard a few times this week id that the 49ers are one of the worst in the league at giving up deep balls. I heard that from both ESPN's Mike Sando and from former Charger and 49er and current 49er employee Gary Plummer. If that's true we should see that show up in DVOA since it hates defenses that give up lots of big plays. Here's what we see:

Pass Defense
Vs #1 WR Vs #2 WR Vs Other WR Vs #2 TE Vs RB
10.8% 21
20.6% 28
29.7% 30
13.6% 27
-23.0% 2
5.5% 14

Wow. I could almost just stop the preview right there. Just seeing those numbers gives me a giddy feeling of the Chargers marching down the field with long bombs and 15 yard comeback routes. The 49ers are terrible against all kinds of WRs and the Chargers have Philip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd all playing in this game. The Bolts also don't plan to be very dependent on throwing to the TE with Antonio Gates out, and that seems to be the 49ers' only strength on pass defense. I had also heard Gary Plummer say that the 49ers struggle with screens, but truthfully I wouldn't bother with throwing to RBs outside of using them as checkdown options. The 49ers run defense numbers look to be quite daunting, so if I were a betting man I wouldn't wager on the Mike Tolbert or Ryan Mathews having big roles today. That is, unless they are just out there getting tough yards to run out the clock.

One thing I should mention is that the 49ers pass defense did come up big last week. They picked off Matt Hasselbeck 4 times and were instrumental in the large margin of victory for San Francisco. That being said, Rivers is not Matt Hasselbeck (although Rivers has thrown two head-scratching picks in two consecutive weeks). Also, the 49er pass defense's DVOA for that game was only -16.3%. By comparison, the Chargers pass defense put up -98.6% against KC, -37.8% against Indy, -25.0% against Denver, -60.2% against NE, -54.7% against Arizona and -35.3 against Jacksonville. Those are all better than what SF did last week, and in most of those games didn't even get 4 interceptions like the Niners did. I think that says something about how vulnerable the 49er pass defense is when they aren't producing turnovers.

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On the other side of the ball, the 49ers are without Frank Gore and the Chargers have done pretty well stopping the run. I don't expect a very interesting matchup there. So, let's focus on the passing game and, in the interest of fairness, look at the pass defense DVOA breakdowns for the Chargers:

Pass Defense
Vs #1 WR Vs #2 WR Vs Other WR Vs #2 TE Vs RB
-16.2% 2
-50.4% 1
-13.2% 6
-19.3% 6
15.5% 22
14.5% 23

Ron Rivera's crew likes to protect themselves against the deep ball and they do it really well. The 49ers top 3 WRs are Michael Crabtree, Josh Morgan and Ted Ginn and I expect you won't hear their names called much tonight. Or if you do it'll be for 6 yard gains on 3rd and 8 or 2 yard pickups on bubbles screens on 1st and 10. Michael Crabtree has down a pretty good job of minimizing himself lately (1 catch last week for 1 yard) and won't find any respite against Jammer and Cason since he's their #1 WR and the Bolts are the best in league at shutting down those guys.

The area that seems the most vulnerable is the underneath stuff to the TE and the RBs. The 49ers have a good TE in Vernon Davis and an excellent receiving back in Brian Westbrook. The 49ers could have plenty of opportunities to dink and dunk the Chargers and tackling will be key to minimize those gains. One thing to keep in mind though is that a lot of Vernon Davis' success this year has been splitting seams and getting open downfield. As I said earlier, Rivera likes his charges to close off the deep stuff and leave more space underneath. It'll be interesting to see if the 49ers use Davis a little differently or challenge Kevin Burnett, Stephen Cooper, Eric Weddle and Paul Oliver over the middle.

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Sorry if I've offended all the Marion Butts, Natrone Means and Lorenzo Neal grind-it-out-running crowd with my focus on the passing games, but they both just jumped off the page as the most interesting aspects of the game. Maybe these two teams come out and surprise each other by trying to pound the rock. I certainly hope the 49ers do because I think that is to the Chargers advantage. But in my opinion, the correct strategy for this game is Rivers attacking the outside with Jackson and Floyd and Alex Smith getting the ball out quick and throwing underneath. Let's see what happens.