NFL Week 6: California Love

Yes, I know – it has been a while. Three weeks ago my dog had to have his knee surgically repaired, and the recovery has been slower than anticipated with some unexpected hurdles along the way. But he is showing progress and is doing a lot better these days, which means I have time to sit down and put together one of these write-ups for you fine folks.

The model thus far is 19-14 (57.6%) for +6.66 units (12.5% ROI). I’m pretty pleased with those marks given that there have been 13 quarterback changes in the first five weeks and they are the largest and arguably the most difficult adjustment to make to a team’s evaluation. If you are interested in joining, the model plays have been prorated down to $349 for the rest of the season given that a month of plays is already in the books.

San Francisco 49ers (4-0) vs. Los Angeles Rams (3-2)

The matchup I’ll be looking at this week is one that I anticipate a massive divide on across handicappers, modelers, and bettors everywhere. The Rams and Sean McVay have been adored by the analytics community for quite some time now and for good reason. In 2018, they finished 2nd in offensive DVOA including finishes of 5th in passing DVOA and 1st in running DVOA. As a result the Rams only trailed the Chiefs last year in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. With Cooper Kupp returning from injury this year, there were expectations that this offense could generate similar (if not better) results in 2019. Kupp has been more than advertised, averaging 8.2 catches and 101 yards per game and has been responsible for more than half of all of Jared Goff’s touchdowns (4 of 7).

Despite that, a lot of data points suggest that this Rams offense has taken quite a step back, especially through the air. A lot of it has to do with the inefficiencies from the offensive line and Jared Goff. After finishing seventh last year in yards per attempt (8.1), Jared Goff now ranks 17th with 7.4 yards per attempt. Much of this comes from the fact that the Rams offensive line has graded poorly in pass blocking this year, allowing the 12th most QB hits per game after allowing just the ninth fewest in 2018. That obviously doesn’t bode well for a quarterback who only completed 41% of his throws while under pressure last year.

Those numbers alone should be concerning for the Rams, but it gets much uglier when you look at the defense they have to face on Sunday. For as much attention as the Patriots’ defense has received this year, the 49ers have been just behind them as a complete unit. On a per game basis, the 49ers currently rank:

  • 4th in points allowed
  • 2nd in yards allowed
  • 2nd in defensive DVOA
  • 1st in pass defense DVOA
  • 5th in rush defense DVOA
  • 5th in sacks
  • 7th in adjusted sack rate
  • 8th in 3rd down conversion rate
  • 2nd in interceptions
  • 3rd in penalties committed and penalty yards

Credit needs to be given to the 49ers’ front office for the amount of defensive talent they have accrued through the draft. In the last five drafts, the 49ers have hit on the following Day 1 and Day 2 picks on defense: Nick Bosa, Fred Warner, Solomon Thomas, Ahkello Witherspoon, DeForest Buckner, Arik Armstead, and Jacquiski Tartt. That is quite the haul, and having a Kyle Shanahan offense to practice against for the past two seasons has undoubtedly played a huge role in their development.

To make matters worse for the Rams, Brandin Cooks is currently in the concussion protocol and Todd Gurley might be limited in some significant capacity. Cooks brings a deep threat element to that offense that will be hard for Josh Reynolds to replicate, which would make the jobs of Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, and Gerald Everett (who just came off of a game in which he logged career highs in targets, receptions, and yards) much more difficult. Gurley’s impact is a bit more arguable, depending on where you stand in the “Do running backs matter?” debate.

But the Rams aren’t the only ones with noteworthy injuries coming into this week’s game. Starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey will be out for the next 4-6 weeks, which hurts a bit more than usual given that starting left tackle Joe Staley is already out and with the 49ers leading the league in rushing rate (57%). Fullback Kyle Juszcyk is also out, but the 49ers are arguably the deepest and most versatile team at the position and will surely find a way to distribute his touches.

Being deep and versatile best describes the 49ers as a whole so far this season. Sure, they have the capability just like any team performing well to start the season to come falling back down to earth. As for now, they currently rank 10th in pass offense and 7th in rush defense, and rank 2nd in pass defense and 5th in rush defense. Altogether, the 49ers are the second strongest team in my model as of this writing. That was certainly not something I expected heading into this season. In fact, the 49ers have outperformed my priors so much that their expected wins vs. league average has increased by 2.67 wins through just five weeks. The next best improvement has been New England, who has improved by 1.65 wins so far this season. To provide more context, there were only four teams through Week 5 last year that saw an improvement of one win or more, and only one team improved by two or more: the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Rams on the other hand have regressed a bit more than I had expected, finding themselves as the tenth best team in the model and decreasing their expected wins vs. league average by 0.67 wins. As for this week’s matchup, the model has this game made to be LAR -0.2 after accounting for game specific factors, rest discrepancies (Rams coming off TNF, 49ers coming off MNF), injuries, etc. That makes SF +3 +104 good for a 1.4 unit play.

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