Short Routes and High Expectations: Super Bowl XLVII WR Projections

The Niners throw it short while the Ravens bomb it deep: which style will win out Sunday? Why not both?

On Monday we examined the quarterbacks and on Tuesday it was the running backs' turn. Now, we turn our our rapt attention to the playmakers on the outside, the wide receivers.

I'd really like to know how Randy Moss thinks that he's better than Jerry Rice, especially considering that he plays in, you know, San Francisco. (Spoiler alert: he's not.) But is he even the best receiver in this game? And should he be the one that Colin Kaepernick targets the most? That's what we intend to find out.

It's a Super Bowl XLVII preview like only numberFire can: behind the stats.

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. A player's rushing "success" rate can be determined by seeing how often their rushes increase a team's expected point total. And a player's catch rate is simply the percentage of targets his way that he was able to corral in.

San Francisco WRs by the Numbers

An interesting trend emerges with the 49ers' receivers in the two games so far this postseason, and it has everything to do with the 49ers' offensive game plan. Take a look at the NEP per catch and catch rates of both Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss, the two main 49ers receivers, below.

Michael CrabtreeTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season127850.8566.9%112.68

Randy MossTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season50280.7856.0%38.93

While both players maintained a league-average NEP per catch rate during the regular season, both have seen their NEP per catch dip during the playoffs. There is one easy explanation for this: Randy Moss has not caught a single touchdown this postseason and Crabtree only has two in 15 catches, so their big-payoff receptions that would net them high expected points aren't there. But of course, that wouldn't make a difference when compared with the regular season: Crabtree's TD payoff rate is higher in the playoffs (13 percent of catches) than the regular season (11 percent of catches), while Moss only caught three touchdown balls all year.

The key, then, lies in the catch rate, which makes me believe that the low NEP per catch figures were part of the plan all along. Crabtree's catch rate has increased by over 15 percent since the regular season; Moss's has increased by over six percent. And that's with San Francisco playing Green Bay and Atlanta, both top-11 NFL secondaries in pass defense efficiency.

This tells me that the 49ers are opting for shorter, easier to be completed, but low-upside throws. The result is that Kaepernick's completion rate is sky-high (he completed 14 of 17 throws to Crabtree, Moss, and Vernon Davis against Atlanta), but the yards aren't going to necessarily be there (only 209 yards to those players in that game). Bill Walsh is somewhere in San Francisco jumping for joy while watching Kaepernick work the field in a West Coast-style offense.

So far, it's worked: both receivers have a lower NEP per game average in the playoffs than they did in the regular season, but the Niners gained about nine points over expectation through the air in both games. Those performances were San Francisco's sixth (Atlanta) and seventh (Green Bay) overall most efficient passing performances of the season.

Against the Baltimore defense, it would be a good idea for the 49ers to continue the same trend. Over their past ten games including playoffs, the Ravens are 6-4. They're 5-1 when holding opponents to under 60 percent completion percentage, but they're 1-3 when allowing opposing QBs to complete at least 60 percent of their passes. The only 60+ percentage win came in that Divisional Round game against Denver, when Peyton Manning played excellently all the way up until the late Papa John's delivery interception that gave it to Baltimore.

You could argue that those three 60+ completion percentage losses were simply overwhelming QB performances... but you'd be wrong. Of the three, only Charlie Batch's 276 yards in Week 13 topped the 250 yard mark. That's just what the doctor ordered for San Francisco. Expect a lot of short, high-completion routes for Moss and Crabtree this Sunday.

Baltimore WRs by the Numbers

Imagine two kids on opposite sides of the playground. One is the geek, having done the research and figured out that slow-and-steady is the way to go. On the other side is the jock, who is presented the information and says, "Nah, we're just gonna chuck it up there and see what happens! Go big or go home! Woooo!" Really, the second one might seem like it describes both Harbaughs. But in terms of style of play, it's only the Ravens all the way.

The most interesting statistic to me when it comes to the Ravens is that catch rate. Remember that Crabtree above put up a 67 percent catch rate on the season (and Mario Manningham was at 74 percent), then just look at the numbers for Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin below. It's a stat that shows Baltimore's unique, undeniable gameplan.

Torrey SmithTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season111490.7244.1%71.15

Anquan BoldinTargetsReceptionsNEP/CatchCatch RateTotal Adj. NEP
Regular Season112650.8058.0%87.09

Yup, that would be a 44 percent catch rate for Torrey Smith. And yup, that would be the worst rate of any starting NFL receiver, just behind Denarius Moore and the afflicted-with-the-Skeltons Larry Fitzgerald. Anquan Boldin's rate doesn't look too bad until you realize that he posted a catch rate of at least 66 percent in each of his final three years in Arizona. Unlike San Francisco, high completion percentages are just not a priority in Baltimore.

And know what? It works. Beautifully. Boldin finished 26th among all receivers in total NEP gained this season, and Smith finished 32nd. That's not bad for a passing offense that finished No. 19 in completion percentage and No. 15 in yardage during the regular season. This year, both Smith and Boldin added at least four points of value to the Ravens per game.

When it all comes together, it's a thing of beauty. Neither one has dramatically increased their catch rate in the postseason, but by seeing more targets than the Duck Hunt dog, they've been able to maintain their high level of play. Both Smith and Boldin have averaged at least six targets per game; by comparison, Crabtree is the only 49ers player to see that mark this postseason. And more often than not, those receptions are coming downfield. Torrey Smith is tied for the lead in these playoffs with five (of his nine) receptions of 20+ yards, and Boldin is right behind him with four.

It's a strategy that sure seemed to suit the Falcons well in the first quarter last week. They completed four passes of at least 20 yards on their first three drives, resulting in 17 Falcons points. But after a minute into the second quarter, Matt Ryan did not complete another 20+ yard pass until six minutes left in the game. By that point, it was almost too late: the Niners had the 28-24 lead already. Ryan completed 15 passes in the interim, all under 20 yards: it resulted in seven Falcons points.

But I don't think Ravens fans will need to worry about Joe Flacco not taking his shots. And if last week's San Francisco secondary - as well as how the Ravens passing game this postseason - is any indication, the plan should work nicely.

The Projections

ReceptionsReceiving YardsReceiving TDs
Michael Crabtree4.7172.100.51
Randy Moss1.6624.500.17
Torrey Smith3.8267.890.47
Anquan Boldin3.9962.950.46

It should be no surprise that we expect Crabtree to be the main receiver in this game: he has the highest catch rate of the four as well as the most average targets per game during both the regular season and the playoffs.

Due to Baltimore's chuck-it-down-the-field style, however, both Smith and Boldin are right behind Crabtree in terms of expected touchdowns. In that regard, Randy Moss just can't keep up. That does make sense, as Crabtree and Davis are much more preferred red zone targets.

We're almost there, just one positional preview left! Tomorrow, it's the tight ends who get the numberFire treatment. Sunday's inching closer, and it's almost football time.