The Super Bowl and the Long Ball
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Analytics and Sports

The Super Bowl and the Long Ball

I have written this season about the importance of the long ball in the NFL. I've even written about Flacco's skill and propensity to throw the long ball. So now it is time to turn that analysis on the Super Bowl and see why the 49ers should win this Sunday.

First, the long ball (passes longer than 15 yards in the air) helps explain why the 49ers made the switch from Smith to Kaepernick, even though Smith was completing 70% of his passes. Turns out that even though Smith and Kaep both complete long passes at about the same rate (54%) and well above league average (41%), Kaep throws deep nearly twice as often as Smith did. The average NFL team throws deep on 19% of their pass attempts, while Smith was launching only 13% of his down field. Kaep however launched nearly 24% of his regular season passes more than 15 yards down the field. Frequent deep balls lead to more points, so Kaep, on pass selection alone, makes the 49ers a better offense.

Flacco, like Kaep, is a deep ball thrower. He in fact throws them deep with the same frequency that Kaep does - which is one of the major reasons why the Ravens are still playing. Flacco has not been as accurate as Kaep though, completing only a league average 41%. The Super Bowl is not a battle between Kaep and Flacco though, and that is where we can see the real edge that the 49ers have.

The chart below shows the long ball completion percentages for the two QBs and the defenses they will face this weekend.

The 49ers allow only 36% of the long balls they face to be completed and Flacco completes only 41%. This suggests that the 49ers D will be able to greatly reduce the effectiveness of one of the Ravens' most important weapons. The Ravens defense however allows an about average completion rate on deep balls while Kaep is well above that, suggesting the Ravens D will have difficulty slowing the regularly improving 49ers offense.

The long ball is of course just one dimension of a multidimensional game. Both teams focus on their ability to throw deep, though so it is a pivotal matchup to consdier. Since the 49ers have a clear edge in this matchup on both sides of the ball, they have a clear edge in this game.



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