Pierce should be the No. 1 Back? Super Bowl XLVII RB Projections

Ray Rice was our No. 2 most-efficient back during the regular season. But then, he and Bernard Pierce had this Freaky Friday moment, and...

Remember earlier on in the offseason, when I was complaining about the lack of running teams in the playoffs and praising the virtues of passing?

Yeah, about that. So it seems that this running thing has some relevance.

Gone are the number one through four quarterbacks by value this year, with No. 1 and 3 (Brady and Manning) beaten by the Ravens and No. 2 and 4 (Ryan and Rodgers) beaten by the 49ers. And what are we left with? The No. 2 and No. 4 overall running backs by value this year in Ray Rice and Frank Gore, respectively.

The best teams don't just pass (sorry, Green Bay) and they don't just run (sorry, Minnesota). The best teams are balanced, and both Baltimore and San Francisco got to this game through utilizing one facet of the offense to complement the other.

Yesterday we examined the quarterbacks, so now it's only fair to take a look at their counterparts. So just how will the backs perform this Sunday as a vital part of their teams? That's what we intend to examine, through the numbers of course. This is a Super Bowl XLVII preview as only numberFire can: behind the statistics.

Inside the Numbers

Before we proceed to break down this bad boy, let me give a brief explanation of what these numbers you'll see mean. NEP refers to Net Expected Points, one of the main statistics that numberFire uses to determine a player's effectiveness and worth to his team.

I broke this down in a past MVP Watch article, but here's the short version: you want to add points to your team, right? Well, every situation on the football field has an expected amount of "points" that the average team would score on that drive. How much does each play with a certain player increase or decrease that expected total? That's NEP.

From there, we can analyze the numbers a bit further. Since passing is more efficient than rushing at increasing an expected points total, passing NEPs are often positive (above league-average) while rushing NEPs are often negative (below league-average). Since QB scrambles are often big gains since the defense is expecting a pass, QBs often have higher NEP per rush totals than RBs. And a player's rushing "success" rate can be determined by seeing how often their rushes increase a team's expected point total.

San Francisco RBs by the Numbers

Forget Kaepernick's scrambling ability for a second, and you'll see that the 49ers run game begins and ends with Frank Gore. Of the 46 San Francisco running plays so far this postseason, 36 have been in Gore's hands. He's going to be the key to complementing Kaepernick, and by all indications, he should have New Orleans rocking.

Frank GoreRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %ReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season261-4.57-0.0237.9%28+0.3777.8%8.72

Because of the relative inefficiency of running the ball, only six backs finished the year with both a positive NEP value and at least 200 carries: Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, Ahmad Bradshaw, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch, and Doug Martin. And of NFL backs, only Peterson and Bradshaw had better NEP per rush averages than Gore's -0.018 average this season. That places Mr. Gore in some elite company; not bad for a supposed fourth-round fantasy draft pick.

During the postseason, that efficiency has actually increased, showing that late-season tiredness will likely not be a factor in the Super Bowl for Gore. In his 44 rushes, Gore has averaged 0.06 points gained per rush for the 49ers, an average that matches his highest two-game output since Weeks 1 and 2 of the regular season. In total, his 6.77 NEP gained - or over a field goal of value per game for the 49ers - comes dangerously close to his season-long total.

But of course, running the ball is easy when your offensive line is able to cut like a slice of fresh Wisconsin cheese. They tore the Packers apart to the tune of 323 rushing yards in the Divisional Round, 119 of those heading Gore's way. But that surprised absolutely nobody in the know - the Packers ended the year as the No. 11 most-efficient pass defense but No. 18 in run defense efficiency. And it didn't surprise numberFire either when Gore washed down the cheese with some Atlanta coke a week later, as the Falcons ended the year No. 7 in pass defense efficiency but No. 24 in run defense efficiency.

Will that pattern continue? If the 49ers look at the numbers, Baltimore's weakness matches almost to a T what they saw the past two weeks in Green Bay and Atlanta. Finishing the year with 54 points allowed over expectation, the Ravens finished the year with the No. 15 pass defense efficiency. But at only 22 points under expectation, the team finished No. 21 in run defense efficiency this season, creating the same type of disparity between the front seven and the secondary that the 49ers saw against Green Bay. And remember what happened that game? Maybe crabcakes as a finisher aren't out of the question.

The gamechanger could come with LaMichael James as a third-down, change of pace back. In the first two playoff games, James was exceptionally adept as converting third downs, which sent his NEP figures sky-high in limited action.

LaMichael JamesRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %ReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP

With his explosiveness, he should be a dark horse candidate to score a touchdown for the 49ers in this game. In fact, despite being projected to only have about 15 percent of Gore's total carries, we project him with 25 percent of Gore's total touchdowns.

Baltimore RBs by the Numbers

Unlike San Francisco, the Baltimore backfield is a bit more muddled thanks to the other Ravens' Bernard that didn't try and murder the entire Patriots team: Bernard Pierce. And while Ray Rice was the clear No. 1 back during the regular season (he was our No. 2 overall RB this year, after all), might his incredible number of touches/hits finally be catching up to him?

Taking a look at the numbers, it sure seems that way. Look at the difference between Rice's and Pierce's numbers from the regular season and the playoffs. The two pulled a Freaky Friday some time before the Wild Card round, and it's paid off for Pierce. I'm going to assume that Pierce is currently equivalent to Jamie Lee Curtis in Lindsay Lohan's 2003 body, because any scenario where Lohan doesn't have her own craziness is the best for everybody.

Ray RiceRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %ReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season256-18.15-0.0733.2%61+0.3873.5%13.39

Bernard PierceRushesRushing NEPNEP/RushRush Success %ReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season107-16.78-0.1627.1%7+0.2763.6%-13.82

Let's repeat this one more time: Bernard Pierce has been the single most efficient back in these playoffs thus far. Mind blown? Mine too. He's led Baltimore in rushing yardage in two of their three playoff games; he finished with 52 yards on 9 carries in the conference championship while Rice had double the carries and four less yards. Only in the Denver game, when Rice had 30 carries to Pierce's 5, did the lead back truly shine.

Rice, meanwhile, has performed in the playoffs with the rushing effectiveness of Wile E. Coyote. So far these playoffs, Rice has lost the Ravens an average of 0.16 points every time he's rushed the ball. For some soul-crushing context, only five backs with at least 200 carries during the regular season were less efficient - Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson, Michael Turner, Mikel LeShoure, and Trent Richardson. And even the "tougher competition" argument is tough to make considering Pierce's numbers and that the rushing defenses they faced ranked No. 5 (New England), No. 7 (Denver), and No. 31 (Indianapolis).

But Zach, my regular numberFire readers may point out, you've said in the past that rushing isn't Rice's game. It's all about the receiving out of the backfield!

You're right, my stats-minded friend. And that's what would worry me even worse if I was a Ravens fan.

Rice has been targeted 10 times this postseason. He's only made four of those catches, an abysmal 40 percent catch rate, albeit in limited opportunities. Of those four catches, one went for 47 yards, against the league-worst secondary of the Indianapolis Colts. The other three catches (on six targets) went for only 22 yards, and Rice was shut out receiving in the Denver game completely.

Considering how large of a portion pass-catching is to Rice's game - he led all RBs in NEP gained through the air this year - he's going to have to magically improve his pass-catching in order to be a factor whatsoever. He was only effective in that Denver game because of a season-high 131 yards rushing; he only topped 100 yards rushing five times in 21 games this year. And good luck to him - the 49ers haven't allowed over 50 yards receiving to opposing backs in their last six games, since Week 13 against St. Louis.

The Projections

RushesRushing YardsRush TDsReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TDs
Frank Gore16.8781.650.582.3218.360.04
LaMichael James2.5612.910.141.3213.910.06
Ray Rice16.1762.170.403.3825.730.09
Bernard Pierce7.4523.020.141.2510.750.00

Nothing's too surprising here; so let's break it down in bullet point form:

  • As our stats have shown, Frank Gore was one of the most efficient runners in the NFL this season and miles ahead of Ray Rice on the ground. No surprise, then, that he has nearly 20 more projected yards on the ground.
  • Rice tops Gore in the receiving department, but not by much: his recent misgivings come playoff-time as well as San Francisco's defense sees our expectations tempered a little for him receiving.
  • We don't believe that Bernard Pierce will cut into Rice's carries too much, because that's just not the way Baltimore has played this season. But if Rice struggles early, we also wouldn't be surprised to see a heavy Pierce load in the second half considering his recent effectiveness.
  • LaMichael James won't contribute much in terms of yardage, but his touchdown-vulture potential (0.20 projected TDs) should have both the Ravens defense and bettors on high alert.

Come back tomorrow as we examine the wide receivers in the third of our four-part skill position breakdown leading up to Super Bowl XLVII! It'll be more fun than rickrolling Roger Goodell on Reddit.