San Francisco 49ers: Proof for the NFL's Most Overrated Stat

Joe Levitt@jlevitt16Contributor IIIDecember 21, 2011

San Francisco 49ers: Proof for the NFL's Most Overrated Stat

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    The 49ers once again proved why yards allowed on defense is the most overrated statistical measure in the NFL.

    And they did so in prime-time fashion on Monday Night Football against the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 15.

    As an isolated statistic, yards allowed are noteworthy in evaluating a team’s defense. That metric proves moot, however, when evaluated next to a team’s turnover margin and scoring defense.

    The 49ers in 2011 boast a league-leading positive turnover ratio at plus-25. One reason for this accomplishment is head coach Jim Harbaugh’s resurrection of Alex Smith into an efficient, game-managing quarterback (I mean that in the positive, not pejorative sense). He has 16 TD passes (one rushing TD) to just five interceptions and seven turnovers overall with his two fumbles lost.

    The other and more pertinent reason for the 49ers' excellent turnover margin is their prolific capacity for takeaways. They are tied for second in the NFL with 21 interceptions, ranked No. 1 with 12 fumble recoveries and when added together, occupy the NFL’s top-spot with 35 total takeaways.

    Additionally, the 49ers lead the league in allowing a paltry 13.2 points/g. Credit a stifling red-zone defense and a special teams unit that places the opposing offense at the worst average starting field position in the NFL (beginning their drives at the 15-yard line, Pittsburgh experienced the worst in any game thus far in 2011).  

    So, despite being outgained in total yardage against the Steelers and in previous games this year, the Niners have emerged victorious in five of eight of these matchups (they were nearly outgained in two other victories).

    Let’s take a brief look at each of the 49ers' 10 wins and highlight the turnover ratio/points allowed vs. yards allowed/yards gained, and which statistical combination proved more influential to a victory.

Week 1 vs. Seattle Seahawks

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    Yards Allowed: 219

    Yards Gained: 209

    Turnover Ratio: +3

    Points Allowed: 17

    Final Score: 49ers 33, Seahawks 17

    Quick Notes: While some will dole out most of the credit to Ted Ginn, Jr. and his two special teams touchdowns (perhaps deservedly so), one should place equal value on the plus-three turnover ratio overcoming the minus-10 in total yardage ratio.

Week 3 @ Cincinnati Bengals

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    Yards Allowed: 228

    Yards Gained: 226

    Turnover Ratio: +1 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 8

    Final Score: 49ers 13, Bengals 8

    Quick Notes: Yes, the minus-two in total yardage ratio is essentially a wash, but the 49ers were still outgained. An INT by Carlos Rogers at 3:39 in the 4th quarter led to a David Akers field goal and a 13-6 lead. A subsequent INT by Reggie Smith with just over two minutes remaining sealed the victory. 

Week 4 @ Philadelphia Eagles

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    Yards Allowed: 513

    Yards Gained: 442

    Turnover Ratio: +2

    Points Allowed: 23

    Final Score: 49ers 24, Eagles 23

    Quick Notes: Frank Gore had the game-winning rushing touchdown, but a defensive takeaway once again sealed the victory. A relentless Justin Smith ran down WR Jeremy Maclin and forced a fumble, which Dashon Goldson recovered at the 49ers own 31-yard line with 2:06 left in the fourth. This prevented an Eagles comeback, as they were in prime range for a game-ending FG.

Week 5 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    Yards Allowed: 272

    Yards Gained: 418

    Turnover Ratio: +3 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 3

    Final Score: 49ers 48, Bucs 3

    Quick Notes: San Francisco clearly dominated in all facets of the game. However, Rogers 31-yard INT return for a TD extended the 7-3 lead to 14-3 early in the second quarter and set the tone for the 49ers' rout.

Week 6 @ Detroit Lions

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    Yards Allowed: 310 

    Yards Gained: 314

    Turnover Ratio: -1 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 19

    Final Score: 49ers 25, Lions 19

    Quick Notes: Okay, not all games fully corroborate my assertion. Ginn's 40-yard kickoff return set up Smith's clutch fourth-down pass to put the Niners ahead 22-19 in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, the defense forced a turnover on downs with 1:16 remaining that clinched the victory.

Week 8 vs. Cleveland Browns

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    Yards Allowed: 290

    Yards Gained: 348

    Turnover Ratio: +1 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 10

    Final Score: 49ers 20, Browns 10

    Quick Notes: To be sure, the Browns were an inferior team, but an Ahmad Brooks forced fumble and Isaac Sopoaga recovery ended Cleveland's first offensive drive. The takeaway contributed to a short field position, a Frank Gore TD and a 7-0 lead that they would never relinquish.

Week 9 @ Washington Redskins

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    Yards Allowed: 303

    Yards Gained: 326

    Turnover Ratio: +4 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 11

    Final Score: 49ers 19, Redskins 11

    Quick Notes: The first of Patrick Willis' two forced fumbles on the day (Donte Whitner recovery) preceded Smith's TD pass to Bruce Miller that made it a two-score lead at 13-0. The defense also recorded an INT and forced two turnovers on downs.

Week 10 vs. New York Giants

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    Yards Allowed: 395

    Yards Gained: 305

    Turnover Ratio: +2 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 20

    Final Score: 49ers 27, Giants 20

    Quick Notes: Rogers' INT of Eli Manning set up a 17-yard Kendall Hunter TD run on the very next play early in the fourth for a 27-13 advantage. Justin Smith's pass defensed on 4th-and-2 ended the game and preserved the 27-20 victory.

Week 11 vs. Arizona Cardinals

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    Yards Allowed: 229

    Yards Gained: 431

    Turnover Ratio: +6 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 7 (meaningless fourth quarter TD pass)

    Final Score: 49ers 23, Cardinals 7

    Quick Notes: The 49ers dominated this game in much the same fashion as the Week 5 matchup against the Bucs. Credit the defensive takeaways, though, that prevented the Cardinals from ever generating any sort of offensive momentum or points until garbage time in the fourth. 

Week 13 vs. St. Louis Rams

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    Yards Allowed: 157

    Yards Gained: 389

    Turnover Ratio: +3 (includes turnovers on downs)

    Points Allowed: 0

    Final Score: 49ers 26, Rams 0

    Quick Notes: A depleted Rams squad didn't even show up for this one, but a plus-three is a plus-three in the turnover margin any way you look at it. Forcing the opposition to put up a goose egg on the scoreboard is fairly conducive to victories in the NFL as well.

Week 15 vs. Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Yards Allowed: 389

    Yards Gained: 287

    Turnover Ratio: +4

    Points Allowed: 3

    Final Score: 49ers 20, Steelers 3

    Quick Notes: Big Ben Roethlisberger racked up 330 yards through the air. More notable is that he accrued most of this yardage in his own territory and outside of the red zone. All three interceptions by Rogers, Goldson and Tarell Brown occurred in 49ers territory, with two inside the five-yard line. (Talk about red-zone defense.) Roethlisberger and the Steelers may have filled up the stat sheet, but it was meaningless in the face of four 49ers takeaways.