Kaepernick/Gore vs. Ravens’ Linebackers
The two leading men in this year’s Super Bowl will have many chances to go head to head. Young star Colin Kaepernick and seasoned veteran Ray Lewis will most certainly take on one another as the San Francisco run game will look to overshadow the retirement party for perhaps the greatest linebacker of this generation.
San Francisco has nearly perfected their run option attack with Kaepernick at the helm. The 49ers’ offensive line does the job well with big physical play, which gives Kaep and powerhouse Frank Gore opportunities to take holes for big gains. In addition to Gore, the emergence of LaMichael James in the backfield as a potential speedy running back truly adds to the already dynamic running game Jim Harbaugh has at his disposal.
On the other side of the trenches are the Baltimore linebackers which carry more than star powered names. Lewis and Terrell Suggs are the Pro Bowlers of the group, but every one is an athletic hammer. Suggs’ specialty is rushing the passer which means if Kaepernick is not quick on his reads, he will likely be flat on his back. If the option takes Suggs out of the play, Lewis is likely the next biggest threat in the middle of the field. Fortunately for San Francisco, Suggs and Lewis are no longer spring chickens and age is not usually kind on speed, something the Niners have plenty of. James and Kaepernick will have their best chances getting to the outside on the Ravens aging defense. Suggs and Lewis have also been hampered by injuries this season which puts them at even more of a physical disadvantage.
However, Lewis is one of the best defensive playcallers and brightest defensive minds on the field. What he lacks in speed he makes up for with knowledge of play development. More often than not he will be right where he needs to be when he needs to be, and age has not diminished his power. He also will guide his young counterpart Courtney Upshaw to be in the right spots. That is where Gore comes in. Frank has never been one to shy away from a hit and will likely look to drop his shoulder on some Baltimore defenders. The game plan for San Fran should be to let Gore smash and Kaep and James fly. The backfield threat will be too dynamic for even the great Ravens defense because in the grand scheme of it all, there is still Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis somewhere on the field getting doubled up.
Joe Flacco vs. 49ers’ Secondary
In this weekend‘s Super Bowl, the controversially elite Joe Flacco will look to prove himself on the biggest stage and against one of the best defenses in the NFL. In the regular season, Flacco put up solid numbers, amassing 3,817 yards and 22 touchdowns while only throwing 10 interceptions. Not quite as impressive as the knowingly elite players, but good nonetheless. However, come the post season Flacco turned up his game. He has thrown eight touchdowns in three games and has not been picked off. He also defeated the likes of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the two best quarterbacks of this generation.
Against the Broncos, Flacco was not as impressive as the numbers or the score may tell. The Broncos lost due to poor coverage and bad play from future hall-of-famer Champ Bailey than spectacular play by the Ravens quarterback. Nevertheless, Flacco hit Torrey Smith with close coverage for huge touchdowns, proving he can throw the ball with the game on the line.
Looking to stop Flacco’s air attack this time will be the 49ers’ secondary. Over the course of the season, the Niners allowed on average just 200.2 passing yards per game. However impressive the defense may be, the strength of San Francisco lies in their front seven and crushing the opposing team’s running game. If the Niners can stop Ray Rice and all but remove the play action pass from Flacco’s repertoire, they can be in good shape. That being said, Joe Cool is no slouch. He has a powerful and accurate arm, so it will take solid coverage from Carlos Rodgers and Tarell Brown to stop the big physical receivers of Baltimore. Anquan Boldin has already shown in the playoffs he is a reliable target for Flacco, but the threat of the 49ers linebackers might cause him to shy away from crossing routs and stick to the wide-out patterns that Smith runs so well, leaving him with little check down options.
If the Ravens can’t run the ball well, it will come down to the vertical game of Joe Flacco against the defensive backs of San Francisco; if Champ Bailey and the Broncos couldn’t stop him from finding the end zone on the deep ball, neither will Rodgers or Brown. Against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, the 49ers gave up 31 points. Rodgers didn’t light up the score board but he got the job done, which Flacco is likely to do as well. San Francisco won that game due to a powerful offensive game, not by stellar defense. So, when it comes down to it, Flacco is a better quarterback than the 49ers have a secondary.
49ers’ D-line vs. Ravens’ O-line
No matchup on Sunday will be more important in deciding the outcome of the game than the battle between the 49ers’ defensive line against the Ravens’ offensive line. It will be pivotal for San Francisco to stop the Ravens from establishing the run game early on, as it will set up big passing play opportunities for Joe Flacco.
Doing that, however, will be easier said than done as the 49ers’ best lineman, Justin Smith, enters the game hampered by an injury sustained in the final games of the regular season. Having to wear a brace to support his partially torn triceps tendon, Smith will have to play just as dominantly as he did when he was healthy. At full strength, Smith constantly demands double-teams to stop his pressure.
More importantly, if Smith is capable of attracting multiple blockers, it will open the way for linebacker Aldon Smith, who was second in the league this year in sacks (19.5), to rush the quarterback.
Justin Smith will have to contend against a Baltimore offensive line that has only given up four sacks in three games this postseason. After starting Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and moving Michael Oher to right tackle at the start of the playoffs, the Ravens have found the right formula to protect Joe Flacco and set up Ray Rice in the backfield.
With Justin Smith not being at 100 percent, there has been a noticeable dropoff in the production of the 49ers’ defense, a disadvantage the Ravens will surely exploit.
Ravens Secondary vs. 49ers Receivers / Tight Ends
For years now, Ed Reed has been the anchor in the Ravens’ secondary, but many forget that Reed was not part of the dominant Baltimore defense that won Super Bowl XXXV.
Nevertheless, Reed is one of the hardest hitting safeties in the game alongside strong safety Bernard Pollard. The two combine to make the most fearsome tandem of safeties in the league and will seal the middle of the field for the Ravens.
Despite Colin Kaepernick being able to run outside of the pocket, he has been just as effective in getting the ball to his receivers, primarily Michael Crabtree. Since Kaepernick took over as quarterback, Crabtree has averaged 29 more receiving yards per game and has been hot in the playoffs, totaling 176 yards and two touchdowns in two games.
It will be interesting to see if the Ravens can contain the multitude of weapons in the 49ers’ offense, but you can’t overlook the hard hitting ability of Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard, especially when it comes to creating turnovers.
49ers O-line vs. Ravens D-line
The 49ers’ offensive line is one of the best in football, especially when run blocking. Joe Staley and Mike Iupati are All-Pro talents on the left side with the ability to gash through a defense and pave the way for Frank Gore to be the primary feature of the offense. John Goodwin, Alex Boone and Anthony Davis are all core players as well, giving SF possibly the deepest offensive line in football.
The Raven’s D-line is not shabby either, but their defensive scheme revolves more around mixing pass rushers and allowing Ray Lewis and Haloti Ngata to clog up the middle. Ngata has been the best defensive tackle in the game for years now, but this year has shown a slight dropoff in explosiveness and athleticism. He is still a dominant force in the middle and should be more effective with Lewis and Terrell Suggs healthy and supporting him.
This is a tough matchup to award an advantage to, with both sides featuring a lot of star power. However, the 49ers O-line depth and consistency gives them one of the elite front fives in football. This group will power San Fran’s offense and be a deciding factor in the game.
49ers Linebackers vs. Ravens Backs
As good as Ray Rice is running the ball for Baltimore, this matchup is not even close. If you were to place every player in the Super Bowl on waivers and draft them, the top three picks might very well be San Francisco linebackers. Patrick Willis is the best linebacker in a generation. For all the talk about Ray Lewis’s last game, Willis is Lewis 2.0. There are no weaknesses in his game, as he can stop the run, rush the passer and protect in coverage. The fact that Willis has two All-Pro linebackers lined up next to him borders on unfair.
Navarro Bowman came out of nowhere last year to team up with Willis and turn the Niners defense into the league’s best. Bowman improved his game even more in 2012, expanding his skill set and refining his reads.
Adding outside linebacker Aldon Smith to the front seven makes this unit a nightmare for every offense in the NFL. Smith is a pass rush specialist who can control any offensive line and make a quarterback wish he had a lifetime supply of Vicodin. Expect Joe Flacco to spend ample time getting up off the ground after one of Smith’s monster sacks. On the other side, Ahmad Brooks is no slouch either.
Rice is an elite running back, but asking Rice to run around the best front seven in football is a tall order, and if the Ravens’ offense is to flourish, it will be Flacco running the show.
A version of this article appeared on page 6 of January 30th, 2013’s print edition of the Nexus.