While admiring the sheer size of the Miami Beach Convention Center, the central hub for Super Bowl LIV, I came across a back room in a relatively un-trafficked part of the Convention Center. Peeking into the room, the presentation slides on the screens bracketing the dais said, “Zebra Technologies”. I decided to attend the scheduled conference.
Considering how out of the way the room was, literally as far from the infamous and chaotic ‘Radio Row’ as possible while still being in the same building, it should have been unsurprising how few members of the media showed up for the presentation. They largely ignored this little room, preferring to see staged shouting matches between UFC fighters, or to rub elbows with Jim Rome, Peter King, etc.
Some of the most fascinating and revealing information about the matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs featured in that secluded room. The benevolent geeks (it’s OK for me to call them that since I count myself among them) at Zebra Technologies and the NFL’s Next Gen Stats platform were kind enough to share the sweet nectar of analytics with the three or four of us who found our way in.
First, a little bit about Zebra Technologies. They implant radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in every set of pads and every football used by NFL teams on game day. They have a complex network of sensors in every NFL stadium which tracks all locations and movements of these chips throughout the games. Using the data, the NFL and Zebra are able to model and recreate every movement that happens on every play in the game, measuring distances and speeds along the way.
(Side Note: The Miami Dolphins happen to be one of about ten or so teams in the league that have also contracted with Zebra independently to have the same chips and sensors installed in their practice facilities, adding to the library of data they are able to analyse for everything from training to scouting.)
The NFL puts out analytics derived off this data through its Next Gen Stats platform.
During the presentation, we learned a number of conspicuous factoids about the cream of the conferences. The overarching theme, the primary takeaway if you’re a Miami Dolphins fan and you want to know how to get to the Super Bowl?
Did you know that the #1 and #2 fastest ball carrying teams in the NFL ended up facing one another in the Super Bowl this year? Kansas City ball carriers (including receivers after the catch) averaged a speed of 13.36 miles per hour during the 2019 season. San Francisco ball carriers averaged 13.35 miles per hour.
One team did it with receivers like Mecole Hardman (21.9 miles per hour and 21.7 miles per hour) and Sammy Watkins (21.3 miles per hour), the two together having recorded 3 of the top 20 speeds measured on a player carrying the ball in the 2019-20 season.
The other team did it with a set of running backs like Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert, who reached at least 15 miles per hour on 29% of their carries this year, trailing only Dalvin Cook’s 30% figure.
The 49ers and Chiefs also recorded 7 of the top 12 speeds achieved in the NFL playoffs.
The speed leads to separation, as the Chiefs led all NFL teams in average separation of receivers (3.7 yards), while the not-too-shabby 49ers ranked 6th (3.2 yards). The separation helped the teams rank 3rd and 5th, respectively, in pass plays of 15+ yards.
The 49ers added the wrinkle of a speedy ground attack which ranked 2nd in the NFL in run plays of 10+ yards. This achievement was all the more impressive since the data show that all three of San Francisco’s running backs (Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, and Raheem Mostert) were among the most likely in the NFL to be running against an 8-man box on any given run play.
Speaking of speed, the 49ers pass rush deserves mention, particularly when Dee Ford is healthy and participating. Ford, we learned, is the 3rd quickest pass rusher in the NFL when it comes to time it takes to cross the line of scrimmage after the snap. When he was in the game this season, the 49ers pass rush was able to pressure the quarterback on 34% of pass plays. When he was out, that number dipped into the mid-20’s. Easy to see why the 49ers seemed to get a boost in performance as Ford came back for the playoffs.
The matchup with Kansas City could put this increased pass rush efficiency even more in the spotlight, as Patrick Mahomes proved to be the most dangerous quarterback in the NFL this season when allowed 2.5 seconds or longer to throw the football. He averaged 10.1 yards per attempt on such plays.
The 49ers are able to generate nearly identical pass rush efficiency with just four pass rushers as they are when they rush five or more. That should be convenient for San Francisco, since Mahomes had a 116.5 passer rating versus the blitz this season. The guess is that San Francisco will sit back and allow their four-man front to harass Mahomes, if they can get away with it.
On the back end, the most effective deep passing game in the NFL, led by Patrick Mahomes and those speedy receivers, will face off with far and away the stingiest deep pass defenders in the NFL. While Mahomes has led the NFL in deep pass completions and touchdowns since 2018, the 49ers defense only allowed a total of NINE deep completions during the entire 2019-20 season. That is astounding, and was the best number in the NFL by a margin.
The data on these two teams, the speed they share in common, is fascinating because of how differently they’re constructed. While it’s easy to imagine how the Chiefs are able to produce these speed and separation measurements with explicitly fast players like Tyreek Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Sammy Watkins, the 49ers are not staffed the same way. They have been able to achieve speed figures through misdirection, spacing, decisiveness, and run after catch skills.
While the Dolphins may have multiple roads they can take to get there, the goal should remain the same. For the Miami Dolphins to take the next step, they must learn to play faster than the competition. If they can do that, perhaps the next secret nerd meeting at a Super Bowl convention will feature slides on Devante Parker, Albert Wilson, Jakeem Grant, … and Tua Tagovailoa?