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Let's Talk Numbers: How much better are the Niners with Shaun Hill?

This week the San Francisco 49ers head to Texas Stadium in a game that a few weeks ago looked like a sure win on the schedule. Now, the Niners have a new head coach  in Mike Singletary that has the team playing with confidence following a big win over the St. Louis Rams. The biggest difference in this team is how the offense has played behind Shaun Hill after J.T. O'Sullivan was benched late in the first half in Singletary's first game as coach. A team that turning over the ball at an incredible rate has learned to protect the ball and scored 35 first half points last week.

But just how much better are they? Just how much better has the offense performed with Shaun Hill and is their defense good enough to subdue the Dallas Cowboys offense? What are the big difference makers in the game? All of these questions we will attempt to answer in this week's edition of Let's Talk Numbers.

Follow the jump for a stats analysis that that will make KC Joyner grin. Maybe.

San Francisco pass offense vs. Dallas pass defense

The 49ers don't put up big numbers in the passing game, but things have subtly changed for the better now that Shaun Hill has stepped under center.

Rank Pct. Yds/g Avg. TD/G INT/G Sacks/G Rating TOP
S.F. w/ O'Sullivan 19th 58.4 205.9 7.5 1.0 1.38 4.0 73.6 29:00
S.F. w/ Hill 17th 59.0 201.0 7.3 1.66 0.66 1.33 91.6 30:14
Dallas pass defense 7th 62.2 188.0 6.4 1.3 0.4 2.90 88.9

There is an obvious difference with Shaun Hill in two areas: sacks and turnovers. From what I have seen in my limited footage Hill he almost like a Tony Romo lite; he feels the pressure and moves in the pocket effectively and he is somewhat accurate throwing on the run. He also doesn't take a whole lot of chances downfield and just isn't that explosive. He will give you a conservative, no risk game that relies on ball control and the running game to open things up.

So how did the Niners explode for 35 first half points last game? I'm not totally content with the answer being that they played the Rams, after all the Cowboys didn't do very well against them. So I decided to take a look at each of the 49ers drives last game, between the first half and the second half.

First Half:

Start Plays Yards TOP Result
Own 38 2 41 0:44 Fumble
STL 34 5 34 1:54 TD
Own 31 5 69 2:48 TD
STL 16 4 16 2:01 TD
Own 40 7 60 3:14 TD
Own 44 7 56 1:15 TD

Second Half:

Start Plays Yards TOP Result
Own 32 5 13 3:23 Punt
Own 18 5 4 2:41 Punt
Own 25 3 1 1:18 Punt
Own 9 3 2 1:31 Punt
Own 4 6 45 4:05 Fumble
Own 7 3 4 1:25 Punt

A quick note: the 49ers fourth drive in the second half started with three straight false start penalties on first down. Yikes.

In breaking down what happened that allowed for such a burst in scoring the first thing that stands out is that San Francisco took every advantage of excellent field position in the first half. Every time their defense forced a turnover or they got a good return in the kicking game the offense made the Rams pay, and they did it fast. Their longest possession in the entire game was just over three minutes long.

The lack of offense in the second half is puzzling. It may be due to the fact that they had a big lead and stopped pressing as hard but you never want to let up against any NFL team, especially one with Marc Bulger. The Niners didn't enjoy the field position they did in the first half and were constantly backed up against their own end zone, and even with Frank Gore weren't able to dig themselves out. The rams brought more pressure in the second half and when Hill did drop back to pass wasn't able to replicate his first half magic.

Bottom line: The Cowboys defense has minimized the big play this season and despite what it may seem on a game to game basis they do have a top ten pass defense. The biggest difference that Shaun Hill brings is an ability to protect the ball and not turn it over at inopportune times, which doesn't bode well for a Cowboys defense that has not forced many turnovers this year. However, the defense has started to become more disruptive as of late and if the 49ers find themselves behind and forced to throw, Shaun Hill's lack of explosiveness can be exploited if he pressed. The Niners' offensive line isn't the greatest but are playing better in front of Shaun Hill; the Cowboys should still be able to apply some decent pressure and force Hill out of his comfort level.

Dallas pass offense vs. San Francisco pass defense

This will be Tony Romo's second game back from injury and it was evident that he became much more comfortable last week as the game progressed. Wade Phillips has reported that Romo is throwing much better than last week with the splint on his hand and Romo should be pretty close to his old self this weekend against the 49ers. This will also be his second game throwing to Roy Williams and this could be a breakout game for the offense.

Rank Pct Yds/G Avg Td/G INT/G Sacks/G Rating
Dallas pass offense 10th 61.2 226.3 7.4 1.8 1.3 1.7 85.6
San Fran pass defense 25th 61.8 234.9 7.0 1.5 1.0 1.8 84.9

The San Francisco pass defense is the biggest weakness of the team. They do not generate much of a pass rush and are allowing an alarming seven yards per pass attempt, compared to 6.4 yards per attempt the Cowboys defense allows. The Niners have a tough time keeping recievers in front of them and are prone to the big play, giving up eight passing plays over forty yards this season. They have a very good cornerback in Nate Clements but as Cowboys fans we have seen what happens to pass coverage when their is no pressure on the cornerback.

Bottom line: If the Dallas Cowboys offensive continues to play at the level they did against the Redskins, Tony Romo is poised to have a HUGE day against the defense. We have seen what happens when Romo has time in the pocket and if given time the Cowboys receivers will get open and Romo will find them. We should also see some actual downfield passing attacks this game because the Cowboys are deadly when facing soft zone coverage, which is the primary scheme the 49ers run.

Team scoring:

Once again we look at the only numbers that really count, how a team scores against an opponent compared to how that those team fare against the rest of their schedule. To do this, we look at the 49ers points for and points against for the season and calculate what their opponents have allowed and scored when not facing the 49ers. These numbers will tell us just where the team lies when it comes to what counts the most, points.

S.F. points scored Opponents points allowed when not facing S.F. S.F. points allowed Opponents points scored when not facing S.F.
Average 23.0 24.11 27.5 22.19

The team is near average when it comes to scoring based on the opponents season average but it's obvious the problems are on the defensive side of the ball. When teams face San Francisco, they score more than five more points on average than they do against the rest of their schedule. That is tough for any offense to overcome, much less one that has changed quarterbacks and is learning a new system under Mike Martz.

Difference maker: Special Teams

It's amazing that the Dallas special teams have become so bad that we would rather our coach go for it on fourth and two rather than kick the field goal and risk another big kickoff return. But just how bad is the Cowboys' kickoff coverage and how does it stack up against the 49ers, whose special teams is without a doubt it's biggest strength?

Kickoff Coverage:

Yds/Ret Net T.B.
Dallas 22.4 59.3 0
San Fran 23.5 65.5 7

The Cowboys are actually allowing fewer yards per return this year than they did in 2007, which is amazing considering how porous the coverage has been. It's obvious the biggest issue has actually been with the kicking itself. The Cowboys have 0 touchbacks this season but even more concerning is the net average per kick, which is dead last in the league. That means that while the kickoff coverage itself is not the worst, Nick Folk's distance has hampered the coverage unit's ability to pin opponents inside the 20. Folk is a great field goal kicker who is money when it counts, but for some reason he is just not able to kick it well off the tee.

Kick Returns:

Yds/Ret TD 20+ Ret/G
Dallas 22.2 1 25 4.2
San Fran 24.3 1 36 5.4

Allen Rossum has become a legitimate threat in the return game and is ranked sixth in the league with 27.2 yards per return.

Punt Coverage:

Avg Net Yds/Ret Inside 20 Punts/G
Dallas 44.4 36.6 9.7 9 4.6
San Fran 47.0 39.2 9.0 7 4.0

Punt Returns:

Avg TD Ret/G 20+
Dallas 6.9 0 2.3 1
San Fran 12.7 0 1.5 2

This is where is can turn dangerous for the Cowboys. Rossum is averaging a staggering 16.9 yards per punt return and the Cowboys are 22nd in the league in net punt average.

Bottom line: Special teams can be the difference in a bad team beating a good team and can turn the tide of a game in a heartbeat. The Cowboys know first hand what it is like to have poor kick coverage ruin a ballgame and there is more than a good possibility that could happen this weekend. Other than the first half of the Rams game, the 49ers offense does not generate much yardage or points and relies on their special teams to turn tilt field position in their favor. If the Cowboy allow Rossum any sort of room to get a big return the Cowboys could find themselves in dire straits against an offense that is confident when they get near the goalline.

For the Cowboys to secure a convicing win against a sub-par team, they must find a way to fix their special teams issues. There is no excuse to allow a down and out team back into the game due to poor coverage and too many times in the past two season have the Cowboys paid dearly because of special teams. The 49ers will feed off a good return and the Cowboys will find that momentum has shifted in a heartbeat if Rossum is allowed to run free.


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