Whose team fields a stronger defense, the Ravens or 49ers? Equivalently, who wields a longer peepee, Shaquille O’Neal or Ron Jeremy? (It’s a toss-up.) The latter will remain a mystery, but we can reasonably argue if one 11-man unit is more effective than the other.
Based on regular season statistics, there is a large disparity. San Francisco ranked 3rd in the NFL in yards allowed per game (294.4), whereas Baltimore ranked 17th (allowing 350.9). We will undermine these numbers, however, since the Ravens have struggled to overcome big injuries this year, losing Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Lardarius Webb for a combined 28 contests. The 49ers have been more fortunate health wise.
Postseason performance tells another story. Both defenses have contained high-powered offenses on their path to the Super Bowl, and their box score results have been much closer. San Francisco and Baltimore have allowed 414.5 and 415 yards per playoff match respectively, but the Ravens have conceded 19 points per game compared to the 49ers’ 27.5 (according to NFL.com). San Francisco has also given up nearly two more yards per play than Baltimore, while the Ravens edge the 49ers in takeaways (8 in 3 games vs. 4 in 2 games for the red and gold).
Both teams run a 3-4 base alignment, so let’s compare their personnel by position:
We have two hobbled All-Pros on two different teams. San Francisco’s Justin Smith and Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata will not be close to 100%, battling nagging tricep and knee woes correspondingly. Regardless, the right ends shouldn’t be underestimated.
The 49ers’ starting front three (which includes Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga) has been superior to the Ravens’ as far as playmaking ability, but Baltimore employs better depth, which is crucial for late-game situations. Nose tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu has fully recovered from a ruptured Achilles tendon in 2009 to become an immovable rock for Baltimore. Left end Arthur Jones has not looked back since earning the starting role, and reserve nose Terrence Cody may dish the pain. It will be entertaining to watch both units push and shove against elite offensive protection.
Homicide, deer antler spray, whatever. Lewis is an NFL legend, but his athleticism started to fade several years ago. The media hype will be focused squarely on the 13-time Pro Bowler, but the best middle linebacker in the Superdome will be undisputedly Patrick Willis. (No disrespect to Lewis, who is still a vital playmaker at his advanced age.)
Along with Navorro Bowman, a respected run-stopper, and sack-machine Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks is another threat to bat down balls and elude pass blockers. San Francisco’s linebacking corps is quite intimidating.
But let’s not forget Suggs, a future Hall-of-Famer who is finally returning to form following a devastating offseason Achilles injury. In his absence, 2009 second round pick Paul Kruger has come into his own, collecting 9 sacks in the regular season. Ravens inside backer Dannell Ellerbe is a consistent force who doesn’t mind roaming in Lewis’ shadow. Courtney Upshaw, Jameel McClain and Albert McClellan are stable backups at Sam, Mike and Will.
San Francisco’s starting back four is undeniably well-rounded. While Carlos Rogers is overrated as a “shutdown” corner, Terrell Brown is close to overtaking his teammate in the next few years. San Francisco’s cornerback depth is a strength, deploying gay-basher Chris Culliver in the nickel and sturdy Perrish Cox in the dime. Free safety Dashon Goldson channels Ronnie Lott, and 2011 free agent acquisition Donte Whitner has revived his career with the 49ers.
For Baltimore, the absence of Webb induces a steady migraine, but they have survived without him. In particular, Corey Graham has done a sensational job filling in for the crippled star. Signed from Chicago for his special teams skills, Graham has proved he can handle the responsibility. Right corner Cary Williams has improved every season since 2008, and 2011 first rounder Jimmy Smith has been effective covering the slot.
The Ravens boast their own pair of elite safeties; aging God Ed Reed and hammerhead Bernard Pollard. They will look to expose Colin Kaepernick’s inexperience in regard to foreshadowing throws.
The Verdict: This is an abundance of defensive talent heading into Super Bowl XLVII, and they will be guided by experienced hands. Baltimore coach Dean Pees was previously New England’s defensive coordinator (2006-09), and San Francisco’s Vic Fangio formerly coached the Ravens’ linebackers before joining Jim Harbaugh at Stanford (in 2010). These men will hold nothing back, so players’ execution will be a key, and Lewis/Willis will hold everyone accountable.
Nonetheless, Baltimore is missing its top cornerback, so the 49ers possess a better defense. The end.