Super Bowl XLVII is jam-packed full of compelling plot lines and stories beyond the game itself. There’s the fact that neither team, the San Francisco 49ers nor the Baltimore Ravens, have been to this hallowed contest for 18 or 12 years respectively. This makes for franchise freshness featured on the forefront of football fascination worldwide. Then there’s the new starting QB for the Niners, Colin Kaepernick, who replaced the incumbent Alex Smith after an injury in Week 11. Also Raven’s QB Joe Flacco is trying to prove to the world that he is an elite QB in the NFL. The pending retirement of Future Hall of Fame LB Ray Lewis and whether he’ll conclude his career with a championship ring is another. And perhaps the most interesting drama is the Head Coaches Jim and John Harbaugh facing off brother vs. brother to see who gets to wear the ring at the dinner table in the Harbaugh house. But for those who cheer for football and not soap operas, there’s plenty of compelling entertainment in the X’s and O’s of this contest.
We have heard, and will continue to hear hype about the QBs on both sides. But upstart QBs aren’t what made these offenses Super Bowl worthy. It’s solid running games that foremost define the prowess of these teams. For Baltimore, RB Ray Rice is a workhorse in one of the NFL’s few remaining single running back systems in the league. While RB Bernard Pierce has come into the fold lately to occasionally share time, Rice is the heavy contributor in both the running game, where he’s supported by Pro Bowl FB Vonte Leach, as well as in the passing scheme.
Looking to the other side, the 49ers feature a solid run game as well. RB Frank Gore is a Pro Bowl veteran that can smash your face or run in space. This mix of power and speed makes him a homerun threat as well as a consistent ground gainer. Sure, he has some mileage on his body, but that’s why rookie RB LaMichael James has been so valuable in the post season. James missed a large part of the year with an injury and is coming back at the right time to not only contribute on special teams with return yards, but also to ease the load placed on the rugged shoulders of Gore. Additionally, the FB corps is the most solid that the league has to offer. At a position that has fallen out of vogue with the passing-heavy culture of the league, Jim Harbaugh has 2 on his roster in Bruce Miller and Delanie Walker that can both not only bore holes in defensive fronts, but are surprise check down threats in the air as well.
With both organizations bringing bruising backfields, there’s less press delivered to deep threats in the air attack. While Ravens WR Torrey Smith seems to be stuck in the shadow of the seasoned WR Anquan Boldin, Smith represents a main cog in the success of this offense. Teams who come in keying on Rice and the running attack soon find themselves giving up 20+ yard gains or TD receptions on a single play. This then scares the exploited defense to focus attention to the long ball and loosen coverage for the rest of the skill players .
We saw this happen against the Broncos in the Divisional Round when they positioned their best corner to play Smith. Despite NFL CB Great Champ Bailey’s assignment in coverage, Smith caught 2 30+ yard TDs — and it could have been 2 more if Flacco’s passes were on target. However, if the opponent relies on safety help as the Patriots did during the AFC Conference Championship, not only do you take a man out of the box and ease pressure on Rice in the run or short pass, but now Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta are set up to move about in more isolated coverage that could lead to match up problems no defense can reliably control.
San Francisco also scraped their way through the playoffs with the help of a deep threat as well. Although unorthodox compared to a typical fast and tall WR, TE Vernon Davis is essentially that same receiving threat of speed with more size than the Ravens’ Smith. The question then becomes who do you utilize to cover the Davis downfield threat? LBs are too slow to keep up, CBs will be out-muscled, and devoting a Safety to the job then brings us back to a similar conundrum of freeing up the running game for Gore and the passing game for WRs Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, and Ted Ginn as well as Miller and Walker from the FB spot.
With all that both teams offer on offense, defense is where they are better known. The 49ers have twin Pro-Bowl Inside LBs in Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman while the Ravens boast Pro Bowlers Terrell Suggs and Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis who will be playing his final NFL game that night. Baltimore has Safety Ed Reed who will likely end up in Canton someday himself while San Francisco relies on the swift breaking speed of Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson. The Niners boast DEs Justin and Aldon Smith on the D-line, while Haloti Ngata (Hil-o’-tee NOT’-a) anchors his front from the DT position.
Both these crews have talents on all 3 levels, but pressure on the QB will be more critical for the Ravens who aren’t as good in coverage in the short game. To complicate matters more for Baltimore is the running game of Kaepernick from the QB spot. Since the defense of the Purple and Black will have to contain the outside edge to prevent the mobile signal caller from gaining yards or TD scampers, coverage will have to be held longer to account for the slower, more conservative pass rush. Spreading the D-line will also offer more opportunity to double team Ngata and neutralize him as a threat.
As I see it, the key factor in the game is the 49ers performance on the defensive front. Flacco is not a mobile QB which means a difficult task for his O-line to protect him in the pocket. Taking advantage of this is important to not only create sacks and fumble recoveries, but if Torrey Smith doesn’t have time to get down the field or Flacco’s accuracy is affected, that could lead to INTs. The game will still be close if the Niners achieve this, but ultimately Ray Lewis’s football journey may end with him representing the final hurdle for the Niners’ travels to San Fran-six-o.
Written by Kyle Nash
Founder of The Student of the Game
Lead NFL Writer for The Sports Chronicles
Senior Contributor forThe Football Reports Online
On Special Assignment to Pro Player Insiders
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