NFC Championship: Packers visit 49ers for final spot in Super Bowl LIV (a PFN OSM preview)

    Using PFN's OSM, in conjunction with NFL Next Gen Stats, we take a look at what to expect in this week's NFL playoff matchup between the Green Bay Packers and the San Francisco 49ers. Who will be crowned the NFC Champion and advance to Super Bowl LIV?

    Green Bay Packers (2) vs San Francisco 49ers (1) – Sunday, January 19, 2020, 6:40 p.m. EST

    The San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers have met each other in the NFL playoffs seven times prior to this weekend, but not in the NFC Championship since January 11, 1998, when Brett Favre led the Packers to a 23-10 victory. The Packers currently own the lead in the series by one game. The 49ers will try to even it up at four games apiece this weekend.


    Aaron Rodgers is ranked 31st overall in the NFL with an OSM of 19.6. The main reason he falls below the league average of 23.2 is the difference between his intended air yards (8.9) and completed air yards (5.4). That differential of 3.5 yards is worst in the league.

    When Rodgers’ intended air yards are less than 8.9, he’s completed an average of 66% of his passes per game. Conversely, his completion rate drops to under 57% in games where his intended air yards are over 8.9, implying he’s having difficulty completing passes when throwing deep. In fact, in those games (over 8.9 intended air yards) his completion rate is 5% below expected per NFL Next Gen Stats highlighting, even more, the difficulty in connecting with receivers downfield.

    Unfortunately for Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, they’re up against the toughest passing defense per OSM in the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers have allowed, on average, an OSM of just 14.8. To put that into perspective, while many quarterbacks have had a bad week or two, there is not a single quarterback in the league that has an overall OSM below 16.4 for the season. That’s how dominant the 49ers passing defense has been.

    When the Packers played the 49ers in Week 12, Rodgers had his worst week by far. His OSM was -0.5. That’s right, negative. The primary reason? His average air yards per completion were -0.7. He was more effective throwing the ball behind the line of scrimmage than downfield, placing more responsibility on the receivers and running backs for the team to be productive.

    To have the most success in this weekend’s NFC Championship, Rodgers should try to keep his intended air yards below 6.0, which he has yet to do this season. We already know he’s struggled with the deep ball this year, but it’s also worth noting the 49ers allow just a 56% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks when the intended air yards are more than 6.0. And, when the intended air yards are below 6.0, the 49ers allow a much higher 72% completion rate which is in line with expectations.

    The lower completion rate, when throwing more downfield, is not always due to the inaccuracy of the quarterbacks though. The 49ers defense has been rather consistent at keeping completions below expectations, nearly 8% for the season. They’ve also intercepted the ball 11 times when the intended air yards are over 6.0, compared to just twice when under 6.0.

    Jimmy Garoppolo should have an easier time against the Packers defense than Rodgers will against the 49ers. Garoppolo has an average OSM of 24.5 for the season while the Packers defense has allowed an average OSM of 23.5, both above average.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum from Rodgers, Garoppolo has the smallest differential between intended and completed air yards in the league at -1.1. In Week 12, against the Packers, Garoppolo’s completed air yards were actually higher than his intended air yards. That only happened 5% of the time for all quarterbacks in the entire 2019 NFL season. Garoppolo was the only one to do that three times.

    He tends to throw the ball short, having the 3rd lowest intended air yards overall at 6.5 and the 4th best completion rate in the league at 69%. But in those three games, he proved he’s not afraid to throw the ball deep, with accuracy, against playoff-caliber teams (New Orleans Saints in Week 14 and Seattle Seahawks in Week 17, in addition to the Packers in Week 12).

    In this weekend’s NFC Conference Championship, expect Garoppolo to play it safe on most throws and limit the number of attempts. In the Packers three losses, including Week 12 to the 49ers, opposing quarterbacks have only thrown into tight coverage (1 yard or less) on 9.5% of their attempts with an average of 25 pass attempts and completion rate of 68%.

    In the Packers fourteen wins, opposing quarterbacks were almost twice as aggressive, throwing into tight coverage 18% of the time attempting more than ten additional passes per game. However, they were only able to connect on 59% of their attempts on average.

    Running backs

    For the Packers, on the ground, expect Aaron Jones to perform similarly against the 49ers in the NFC Championship as he had in the regular season. His average OSM for the season was 12.5 and the 49ers are allowing an average OSM of 12.4.

    When the 49ers have given up an above-average OSM, opponents ran for an average 5.0 yards per carry with eight men in the box more than 30% of the time. When running backs have had a below-average OSM against the 49ers, they’ve only face eight men in the box 12% of the time while averaging just 3.6 yards per carry.

    Although the result of the play isn’t a factor in OSM, it’s also worth noting that the 49ers have also given up five touchdowns on the ground when a back’s OSM is above average, compared to just one touchdown when it’s below average.

    Jones only ran 13 times in Week 12’s matchup. Expect to see that increase to at least 15 this week. When he’s carried the ball 15+ times, his OSM jumps from an average of 7.9 to 18.1. He also averaged almost two more yards per carry and eclipsed 100 yards on the ground in every game in which he had more than 15 carries during the regular season.

    Like Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, Jones’ efficiency improves when he gets more carries, going from 5.9 to 3.9 (yards ran to gain 1 yard from scrimmage) while facing extra pressure, as defenses increased how often they placed eight men in the box by 12% on average.

    The 49ers currently have a two-headed monster in Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman heading into the NFC Championship that may be troublesome for the Packers defense. The Packers have allowed an average OSM of 12.1 to opposing running backs this season, while the 49ers have averaged an OSM of 19.4.

    Both Mostert and Coleman rank in the top seven overall for OSM, despite 30 other running backs in the NFL having more carries than either of them. Coleman tops the league in how often he faces eight men in the box, over 40% of the time. Mostert tops the league in average yards per carry, at 5.6.

    Mostert may not see 5.6 yards per carry, as the Packers give up an average of 4.5 yards per carry. However, the 49ers are 6-1 when Mostert gets at least 10 touches and averages over 4.0 yards per carry. Look for Mostert to get at least 10 carries, especially if the 49ers limit Garoppolo’s throws.

    Coleman should get around 10 carries as well but may be more limited than Mostert. Last week, we saw Coleman get nearly twice as many carries as Mostert but that’s because the Vikings place eight men in the box more often than most teams, 9th most in the NFL overall. The Packers average just 16% of the time, 4th lowest in the league.

    Mostert also faces eight men in the box a lot. Although it’s 8% less often than Coleman, Mostert is running the ball about 40% more efficiently, with a weekly average efficiency of 3.4. When the 49ers allow an efficiency of 3.4 or less, the average yards per carry improves from 3.3 to 5.7 which is right in line with Mostert’s average.

    Pass catchers

    San Francisco’s pass catchers are outperforming Green Bays per OSM with an average of 40.6 for the season compared to 34.5 for the Packers. Making things worse for Green Bay heading into the NFC Championship is that the 49ers defense is allowing a below-average 30.6 to pass-catchers while the Packers are giving up an OSM of 38.9.

    For Rodgers and the Packers, it’s obvious Devante Adams is the number one target on the team. During the regular season, he was targeted more than twice as much as any other receiver on the team. When the Packers lost to the 49ers in Week 12, Adams only caught five of twelve targets and a total of 43 yards, despite being given 6.4 yards of cushion and getting 4.1 yards of separation, which was his highest for the season.

    The average amount of cushion given to a wide receiver in the NFL is 5.7 yards. When defenses give Adams more than that, he’s not much of a threat, an average of 59% passes caught for 55 yards per game. When given less than 5.7 yards of cushion, he becomes that big threat and his targets increase by more than two per game. His catch rate also increases to 70% for an average of 129 receiving yards per game.

    The 49ers gave 5.7 or more yards of cushion to wide receivers 75% of the time in 2019. This forces offensives to stay in front of the secondary, which correlated with quarterbacks being able to complete passes more when the intended air yards are lower. Unfortunately, wide receivers getting less than 5.7 yards of cushion from the 49ers are also getting 1 yard less of separation on average, dropping their catch rate down to 50%.

    Because of this, expect Geronimo Allison and Allen Lazard to possibly get a few extra targets this week. Allison is getting 3.3 yards of separation and Lazard is given 6.4 yards of cushion on average, both of which lead the team. Allison also has the lowest average targeted air yards as well. As noted above, the Packers will likely keep intended air yards low, which may benefit Allison as well.

    Don’t expect Jimmy Graham to play a big role, at least target wise. He’s only topped five targets in two games this year, even though he’s getting the most separation of any pass catcher for the Packers. However, the amount of separation per game doesn’t impact his catch rate. Neither does the amount of cushion he’s given, which has never been above 6.0. The 49ers keep tight ends around a 50% catch rate and only see that rise when giving more than 7.5 yards of cushion.

    Expect George Kittle to continue his All-Pro efforts for the 49ers this weekend in the NFC Championship against the Packers. He finished the season 4th overall for OSM and finished in the top 5 nine times. His best week came against the Packers where he ended the game with an OSM of 54.86, which is the 2nd best OSM of the year for a tight end (Ryan Griffin, Week 11) and 10th best of all offensive skill positions.

    In that game, his targeted air yards were almost double his average from 5.7 overall to 10.2. He caught all six of his targets and his season-high yards after catch of 11.3 were the benefit of 4.5 yards of separation, also a season-high.

    Kittle has the 4th most receptions among tight ends, as well as the 4th most targets. His catch rate of 79% ranks 3rd among all tight ends, as does his 1,053 receiving yards and 7.5 average yards after catch during the regular season.

    This does not bode well for a Packers team that has allowed tight ends to rank in the top 5 of OSM on five occasions this year. They are also ranked last in catch rate allowed to tight ends at 78%, one of Kittle’s strong suits.

    The Packers defense is a little stingier when it comes to wide receivers, allowing a below-average OSM of 29.0. This is due to an allowed average separation of 2.5 yards, a completion rate of 56% and yards after catch of 3.9 per wide receiver – all below the league average.

    Deebo Samuel will likely get more looks from Garoppolo than Emanuel Sanders. Although Sanders’ catch rate is better when separation is less than 2.5 yards, Samuel has been able to get more separation than that in all but two games per NFL Next Gen Stats.

    Samuel has the 2nd best yards after catch for a wide receiver in the league, 8.5 overall, as well as the 6th best catch rate in the league. In the games where his separation is less than 2.5 yards, his yards after catch drops to 4.6 and his catch rate drops from 70% to 60%, which is still better than 65% of receivers in the NFL under the same circumstances.

    Another thing to note is Samuel is targeted about 7.5 yards downfield, compared to 11.4 yards for Sanders. Garoppolo’s intended air yards overall is just 6.5 and, we know from the last time the 49ers faced the Packers, it was even lower at 5.7 so Samuel is a more optimal target for the NFC Championship.

    Keys to the game

    The expected average OSM for the Packers in the NFC Championship is 20.7, compared to 26.5 for the 49ers. The 49ers should dominate in all aspects of the game, at least from an OSM perspective. However, never underestimate Rodgers in the playoffs.

    Expect Rodgers to play it safe most of the time, throwing primarily short passes including a number of screen plays to Jones. But, if the 49ers’ secondary creeps up at all on the line, look for a big play from Rodgers to Adams. Though the Packers won’t limit Rodgers’ attempts, they’ll be looking to feed the ball as often as they can to Jones on the ground.

    On the opposite side of the field, the 49ers will likely have a similar game plan to the last time they played. That is, keep Garoppolo’s attempts numbered with passive, catchable balls thrown in loose coverage. Look for Kittle to be the main target and Samuel to be secondary. Mostert and Coleman will likely split carries, but slightly in favor of Mostert as he matches up better against the Packers run defense.

    This game is the 7th time in the past ten years in which either the Packers or 49ers have played in the NFC Championship. However, it’s the first time they’ve met each other in the conference title game since 1997. The Packers won that game at San Francisco but, this time, the 49ers defense will likely be too much for even Aaron Rodgers to overcome.

    Prediction: San Francisco 49ers 24, Green Bay Packers 20

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