Behind the Scenes with ESPN Stats and Info for Super Bowl XLVII

The following guest blog post was written by John Parolin, Statistics Analyst, ESPN Stats and Analysis.

Like 108.4 million other Americans, the people of ESPN Stats and Information tuned in on Feb. 3 to watch the Baltimore Ravens hold off a late comeback from the San Francisco 49ers to win the Super Bowl. When the final seconds ticked off and the Ravens hoisted a second Lombardi Trophy, ESPN Stats and Info went to work.

Not that it started when the game was over. The two weeks between the Conference Championships and Super Bowl were a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity, producing content daily that drove all company platforms. Veterans like Ray Lewis and Randy Moss were discussed and debated through historical context, both teams’ offensive and defensive tendencies were evaluated using Next-Level video analysis, and the sheer spectacle of the Super Bowl was dissected from all angles.

The best of the best Super Bowl information week was distributed to all content generators in a pair of packets (one per week) that totaled almost 14,000 words. That’s not including show-specific research, digital-specific articles, blog posts and research or the dozens of special requests in advance of the big game.

For the AFC Champion Ravens, the offensive coordinator switch in Week 15 provided a tailor-made comparison study to determine Jim Caldwell’s impact as the Ravens’ play-caller. With Caldwell, the Ravens rushed on 48.5 percent of plays entering the Super Bowl, up from 40.4 percent under Cam Cameron. Baltimore’s commitment to the run helped Joe Flacco maximize his downfield shots.

The quarterback switch for the 49ers’ offense in Week 11 provided similar before-and-after samples to analyze. Colin Kaepernick changed San Francisco’s offense when he became the starter, and Stats and Info examined his impact as well. The zone-read option was a huge part of Kaepernick’s offense, and defenses varied in their approach to stopping it.

The basic zone-read option play calls for the quarterback to decide to hand off or keep the ball based on the actions of an unblocked edge rusher (a linebacker in a 3-4 defense, usually defensive end in a 4-3). Kaepernick ran variations of the pistol offense in college at Nevada.

Kaepernick ran roughshod over the Green Bay Packers in their NFC Divisional Playoff, rushing for 181 yards on 16 rushes and two touchdowns. The Packers allowed Kaepernick to register 178 yards before contact in that game, and their inability to limit Kaepernick’s yards when he kept the ball was a huge part of San Francisco’s win. Kaepernick rushed seven times for 99 yards on zone-read plays alone in the win against Green Bay.

The first team to show the blueprint for success in stopping the San Francisco zone-read option was not the Ravens in the Super Bowl, but the Falcons in the NFC Championship. Though Atlanta fell short of a Super Bowl berth, the Falcons’ defense slowed Kaepernick by making a concerted effort to force the hand-off. Kaepernick didn’t keep the ball once against the Falcons, and finished with 21 yards on two rushes in the game (a scramble for 23 yards did most of the damage).

Stats and Information’s NFL video analysis team tracks every snap of the regular season and playoffs, and was in a unique position to analyze this angle of the San Francisco offense. Stats and Info compiled and analyzed the data, and pitched it to show groups, editorial staffs and television producers. The buy-in was significant, and analyzing the zone-read option was a keynote part of every Super Bowl preview across platforms. No one did it more creatively than Numbers Never Lie:

Baltimore faced 13 zone-read option plays against San Francisco, and allowed Kaepernick to keep the ball just once. Even more, the Ravens sent 260-pound Terrell Suggs after Kaepernick on almost every play, forcing the hand-off to a 49ers’ running back and hitting the 230-pound Kaepernick as often as possible.

In those two games, Kaepernick had kept on 4 percent of zone-read option rushes (3.0 yards per rush) in San Francisco’s last two games, a stark contrast from Kaepernick’s 33 percent in his first eight starts (11.7 yards per rush). This angle wouldn’t lead a standard game recap or even show up in the 60-second version of a Super Bowl XLVII highlight. However, it showed the extent of what ESPN Stats and Information can address- not just the biggest plays of the game, but the strategies that really won it.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in each post are those of the author(s) only and not those of the conference organizing team or blog sponsor.