The 49ers are solid favorites to beat Washington Sunday. San Francisco is 5-0, coming off a big victory over the NFC West-rival Rams, and its offense and defense are humming along efficiently. Washington has won just one of six games.
Oddsmakers have the 49ers as 9- to 10-point favorites.
Yet Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan – whose team ranks No. 3 in the NFL in total offense and No. 2 in total defense – still wants to see more from his team.
"We’re 5-0, which is a great thing, but we’re not playing our best ball," Shanahan told reporters this week. "We can do a lot of things better than that. We can continue to get better on offense. We can continue to get better on special teams. I also think our defense is just getting started, too."
It’s San Francisco’s defense that is getting most of the attention so far. The 49ers group leads the NFL in forcing opponents to go three-and-out, at a rate of 48 percent. It also ranks first in the NFL in red-zone efficiency, allowing touchdowns at a rate of just 25 percent. And, it just throttled a Rams team that has been one of the NFL's most explosive the past three seasons.
But there’s another obscure stat that points to the 49ers’ passing-game prowess – on both offense and defense – that may be the foundation of the team’s success, and an indicator of more good things to come.
Michael Salfino and Neil Paine of the statistical-analysis website FiveThirtyEight.com wrote this week that the 49ers are the best in the NFL in a statistic called yards per dropback. The 49ers average 7.5 yards every time quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo drops back to pass (minus yards lost in sacks), plus the defense gives up just 4.4 yards every time an opponent drops back to pass. The 49ers’ 3.1-yard differential in those categories makes the team No. 1 in the NFL, just ahead of the NFL’s only other undefeated team, the New England Patriots (at 2.9).
Salfino and Paine write that historically, this differential is significant.
"The statistic, along with turnover differential, is one of the most predictive of success in football," they wrote. (The Niners are tied for sixth in the league in that category, at plus-2, with 12 takeaways on defense and 10 turnovers on offense – an area that Shanahan no doubt wants to improve.)
The FiveThirtyEight writers point out that the five NFL teams with a 2.0 or better differential in this yards per dropback stat are 22-7. Teams with a differential of 1.0 or worse are 12-31-1.
Also, the 49ers’ 3.1 differential in yards per dropback is better than any of the five previous 49ers teams that won the Super Bowl.
The authors caution that the 49ers’ success could drop, with still 11 games left to play – but it may be unlikely.
Write Salfino and Paine: "Can the 49ers sustain this level of dominance? Ideally a team’s passing differential would be built more on a foundation of offense than defense, since defense is less reliable (in this offense-dominated era of the NFL).
"While the 49ers rank second in limiting yards per pass play (4.4), they are no slouches in gaining these yards, either, ranking fifth (7.5). So both units would have to regress a fair amount to push the team below a level of 2.0 net yards – a mark that, on average, results in a 12- to 13-win season."
Sunday’s game in Washington is set to kick off at 10 a.m.