Before we get to my preview, I feel the need to point you to some excellent Super Bowl previews I saw this week:
- Bill Barnwell at Grantland with his excellent Super Bowl preview
- Chris Brown on the Ravens defense against the 49ers offense and the Ravens offense against the 49ers defense, both also at Grantland
- Aaron Schatz brings his Super Bowl Preview to Football Outsiders
- Sam Monson at Pro Football Focus also previewed the 49ers offense (and how to stop it) and the Ravens plan of attack
- Scott Kacsmar picked the Ravens in an upset and updated his impressive library of career playoff drive stats for quarterbacks
- Brian Burke is a big Ravens fan, but his model gives them only a 38% chance of success
- Last but not least, my old comrade Jason Lisk has been chronicling all things Super Bowl at the Big Lead
The Ravens can stop the zone read, but at what cost?
In Colin Kaepernick’s nine starts, the 49ers have averaged 159 rushing yards per game on 4.9 yards per rush and have rushed for 14 touchdowns; at the same time, they’ve averaged 8.1 ANY/A through the air. That makes them close to unstoppable, much like the Seahawks when Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch were dominating defenses over that same stretch.For San Francisco, their dominance starts up front, and their offensive line needs only sustained success to rival what the lines of the ’90s Cowboys or ’00 Chiefs delivered. According to Pro Football Focus, left tackle Joe Staley is the best tackle in the league, while right tackle Anthony Davis is the second best run-blocking tackle in the league (behind only Staley). PFF ranks both Mike Iupati and Alex Boone as top-five guards in the league, and places both of them in the top three when it comes to run blocking. Center Jonathan Goodwin also ranks as an above-average center, and the 34-year-old veteran is more than capable of anchoring a line filled with Pro Bowl caliber players. As if that wasn’t enough, Vernon Davis is one of the top two-way tight ends in the league, while TE/H-Back/FB Delanie Walker and FB Bruce Miller provide excellent support in the run game.
Without any schematic advantage, the 49ers have enough talented beef up front to have a dominate running game. But add in what Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman have been able to do with the Pistol formation and the zone read, and you have a running game that borders on unstoppable.
We saw that against the Packers, as Colin Kaepernick broke the single-game rushing record by a quarterback. The beauty of the zone read is that it gives the offense an extra blocker, an advantage the 49ers didn’t need. After the Packers were shredded by Kaepernick, the Falcons focused on containing the quarterback. Take a look at the photograph below, courtesy of Ben Muth of Football Outsiders.
Atlanta is a 3-4, and the ROLB — which would probably be Terrell Suggs — is the player the 49ers will read. Fullback Bruce Miller and TE Vernon Davis are aligned to the offense’s right, giving San Francisco seven blockers against seven defenders. But because both Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore are capable of running with the ball, the Falcons essentially have one fewer defender on the field. The play will be run to the left, so Staley and Iupati are able to double the defensive end. Against a player like Haloti Ngata, this advantage is critical, and even Ngata isn’t good enough to fight off a block from two players the caliber of the men occupying the left side of the 49ers line. This means Miller needs to block Ray Lewis or Dannell Ellerbe, but he’s capable of doing that.
Unless Terrence Cody or Ma’ake Kemoeatu can have a huge day at nose tackle, it’s going to be hard for the Ravens to fight through the 49ers line. The outside linebacker will be read, and if you’re the Packers, you’ll crash the line (allowing Kaepernick to excel) and if you’re the Falcons, you’ll stay wide (and allow Gore and LaMichael James to rack up the yards).
The Pistol offense is not a trick formation, and the zone read isn’t a fad. Math is a constant everywhere in the universe, especially on the football field. There are two real ways to defend such an offense. The first is to simply field better players. Nevada had their occasional struggles against more talented teams, although during his senior year, Colin Kaepernick and Nevada embarrassed an outstanding Boise State defense in the second half of a game in Reno. But the Wolfpack did not have a line anywhere near as dominant as what Kaepernick’s playing behind in San Francisco. The Ravens defense is good, but at its best, the front seven is merely the equal of the 49ers offensive line + Walker + Miller. Eliminate one of those defenders with the read, and the Ravens are shorthanded.
That leaves just one option to defend San Francisco: put an extra man in the box. In the Super Bowl, you have to imagine the Ravens aren’t going to let Kaepernick run free for large gains the way the Packers did; as a result, expect Suggs or Paul Kruger, as applicable, to force the run inside. San Francisco will still be able to get a double team on the defensive end where the play is running, so the battle will come down to whether Lewis and Ellerbe can fight off their blocks to prevent a big gain. That’s unlikely to happen, as the 49ers have averaged 5.8 yards per carry when facing seven in the box. To truly stop the running game, they’ll need to have an eighth man in the box.
That means Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss will face a lot of single coverage. Even at 35, it’s hard not to give safety help to a cornerback covering Moss, and look for Kaepernick to test the Ravens deep early in the game. Crabtree is simply too good to leave in single coverage; he’s played like a top-five receiver over the last two months. Throw in Vernon Davis and the ability of Kaepernick to run when the pass play breaks down, and even forcing Kaepernick to beat you through the air doesn’t sound very good.
But if the options are (a) crash the edge rusher and try to tackle Kaepernick in the open field, (b) let Gore/James run behind double teams all day, and (c) try to force Kaepernick into some mistakes, I expect Baltimore to go with choice (c), even if it is only the least ugly option.
And it doesn’t have to be so black and white. The benefit of having veterans like Bernard Pollard and especially an instinctual player like Ed Reed is that you can play head games with the opposing quarterback. Reed can play 12 yards off the ball, convincing Kaepernick to go with a run play, and then time the snap so that he’s only four yards from the ball at the line of scrimmage. That’s what a crafty safety can do. Conversely, Reed can try to confuse Kaepernick by moving pre-snap, looking like an in-the-box player but retreating before the snap, allowing Baltimore to cover Moss deep and provide help on the players covering Davis and Crabtree. It’s not an easy task, but a chess match between Reed and Kaepernick might be the best advantage the Ravens defense has.
Third Down Woes?
You can’t be a sportswriter if you aren’t going to note that the key to winning the game is to win on third down at least once a month, so I have now fulfilled my quota. If there’s a weakness on offense for San Francisco, it’s their inexplicable troubles on third down. The 49ers converted just 68 of 194 third-down opportunities in 2012, a 35.1% success rate that placed them in the bottom quarter of the league.
But that’s actually misleading. The 49ers are so successful on early downs that they end up avoiding third down: on first and second down, the 49ers have picked up a first down 30% of the time, third in the league (barely) behind New England and Washington.
What’s interesting is that while the 49ers have been less successful on earlier downs with Kaepernick, they’ve been better on third downs, converting 37.5% of the time. In two playoff games, San Francisco has converted 34% of first/second downs for first downs, and have converted 10 of 19 third downs for first downs. I think we can put that worry to rest.
Can Flacco keep up?
The 49ers offense is going to have success: they’re going to be able to control the game on the ground and/or produce points through the air. The big question, then, is whether or not Joe Flacco can keep up in a 1970s-style shootout. Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have had some good runs in the playoffs, but I don’t see how the Ravens can win the game by running the ball.Everyone knows that Flacco loves to hit Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones with the deep ball, and that Flacco has been excellent at avoiding interceptions on those risky throws. Since moving Michael Oher from left to right tackle, and bringing Bryant McKinnie back from the dead, the Ravens offensive line has been excellent. Center Matt Birk and LG Marshal Yanda have been very good all year, leaving RT-turned-LG Kelechi Osemele as the only real weakness on the line. Justin Smith and Aldon Smith both line up on the offense’s left, so McKinnie and Osemele have their hands full. The Smiths played well when the 49ers faced the Ravens on Thanksgiving 2011, and that was when Baltimore still had Ben Grubbs. Considering Flacco loves to throw to the right, protecting his blind spot is paramount. On the snap, watch McKinnie and Osemele, who will have to effectively neutralize more decorated players for the Ravens to win.
Patrick Willis and Navorro Bowman may be the two best inside linebackers in the league. Both excel in the running game and in coverage, which means Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson are in for a long day. San Francisco has a great front seven that often makes opponents one-dimensional, and I see no reason to think the Ravens will be any different. For the Ravens to win, it won’t be because of big games from Rice or Pitta, but from dominant performances from Smith and Anquan Boldin. I expect Flacco to hit a few big bombs, but I don’t think he can be consistent enough to keep up with what San Francisco will do on offense.
If there’s an area where the Ravens have an advantage, it’s in the kicking game. Justin Tucker has been arguably the best kicker in the league, excelling on both kickoffs and field goals, while David Akers has played the role of goat often this year. The 49ers placekicker has missed 13 field goals this year, the most by any kicker since 2003 (when Jacksonville’s Seth Marler also missed 13 kicks). On the other hand, perhaps this will incentivize an already aggressive Jim Harbaugh in fourth down situations, so don’t consider this a negative for the 49ers just yet. Both teams have good punters, so no real edge there. But don’t be surprised if John Harbaugh, a former special teams coach, has something special he’s been waiting all year (or longer) to unleash.
It’s hard to pick against the 49ers. When I did my season-in-review articles, here’s how I finished my piece about San Francisco:
In the second half of the year, Colin Kaepernick had his moments, but the 49ers still lost to the Rams and Seahawks and nearly blew a 28-point lead against the Patriots. In the end, their playoff story will be the only story that counts, but their 2012 season was more disappointing than impressive for arguably the league’s most talented team.
After the season, six 49ers were selected as first-team All-Pros, and I have no reason to change my opinion that San Francisco has the most talented roster in the NFL. On top of that, they probably have the best coaching staff in the league. Again, you just sort of wonder why this team wasn’t more dominant this year, as they have the ceiling to be an all-time great team.
San Francisco 27, Baltimore 21