Simple narratives produce simple results. Those simple results are often wrong when we fail to dig a little deeper. At first glance, it would appear that the San Francisco 49ers defense broke against the Philadelphia Eagles. When you surrender 31 points you usually aren’t going to have a happy ending. Still, when we break the numbers down we realize DeMeco Ryans’ defense played pretty well.
If we break down their performance in all three playoff games we could get a pretty good idea of what might be coming to Houston. This is where competing narratives can cancel themselves out. On the one hand, the 49ers defense clearly has more talent than the 2023 Houston Texans defense will. Even if the Houston Texans used all eleven draft picks on defenders it isn’t likely that they will bring as much talent as the 49ers did on Sunday.
On the other hand, if we look at a seventeen game schedule it is likely that any given NFL team will face league average offense in the aggregate. The 49ers faced three playoff teams and all of them had offenses that ranged from pretty good to awesome. So, when we combine these two narratives we probably get something resembling the truth. The Texans won’t be as good next season. Yet, they won’t face overall opposition nearly as good. They cancel each other out.
The Texans Numbers
If we break down the Lovie Smith defense on a per game basis we will see some stark differences. Let’s ignore points allowed for the moment. As Sunday’s game would indicate, there are a ton of things that go into that without even including the quality of the defense. If Josh Johnson does not fumble at the end of the half, the Eagles do not score a touchdown. If they 49ers don’t go for it on fourth down the Eagles don’t score either. Maybe the Eagles score 20 points in a normal game.
Total Yards per game: 379.5
Rushing Yards per game: 170.2
Passing Yards per game: 209.3
Rushing attempts per game: 33.0
Passing attempts per game: 33.7
Rushing Yards per attempt: 5.1
Net Passing Yards drop back: 6.3
Sacks per game: 2.3
Turnovers per game: 1.6
Everything in terms of statistics is about a frame of reference. Keep in mind that these results occurred over 17 games. That includes bad offenses like the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, and Indianapolis Colts (twice) in addition to good offenses like the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, and Kansas City Chiefs. So, when we compare the 49ers and Texans we have to remember that the 49ers played three top ten offenses in these three games. So, you would expect those teams to be better in terms of turning the ball over, allowing sacks, and gaining yards.
San Francisco 49ers Playoff Defense
Total Yards Per Game: 294.3
Rushing Yards Per Game: 109.3
Passing Yards Per Game: 185.0
Rushing Attempts per game: 30.3
Passing Attempts per game: 34.0
Rushing Yards per attempt: 3.6
Net Passing Yards per drop back: 5.4
Sacks per game: 1.7
Turnovers per game: 1.3
At first glance, it would appear that the Texans were actually better in some key categories. This is where I remind you that Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott, and Geno Smith were all top ten quarterbacks this season. Their offensive lines were also better at preventing sacks than a league average offense would have been. The Seattle Seahawks were not particularly good at running the football, but the Cowboys and Eagles were two of the best rushing offenses in the NFL.
What does it all mean?
Will the Texans put up these numbers next season? That’s hard to say. I’d imagine that they won’t get there in terms of yardage allowed, but they will probably get more sacks and more turnovers by virtue of the fact that at least some of the teams on their schedule will be bad. There are still isolated voices out there that think Lovie Smith should have gotten another season. The numbers above (on both counts) hopefully prove otherwise.
If you talk to many historians, a hefty percentage will say that either Jim Brown or Barry Sanders were the best running backs in NFL history. Others might point the finger at Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith, or a few others. Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry. He is the only back in history (minimum 1,000 carries) to average more yards per carry than the Texans surrendered last season.
The 1972 New England Patriots used to be the gold standard for bad rushing defenses. They surrendered 194 yards per game rushing. No team after that point has come close to that sum on a per game basis. They surrendered just 5.0 yards per carry. So, you could argue that the 2022 Texans had the worst rushing defense since the merger between the AFL and NFL in 1970. That’s 52 years of football.
The 49ers lost on Sunday. They surrendered 31 points. Yet, none of their running backs nor Jalen Hurts averaged even four yards per carry. They surrendered 148 yards rushing, but the Eagles also had 44 attempts. Hurts had only 121 yards passing. In other words, they surrendered fewer than 300 total yards. Give me some more of this next season and I’ll gladly take my chances.