One win. That’s all the San Francisco 49ers need to stake their claim as champions and take their place in Bay Area sports lore along with the five other Super Bowl teams that have called Candlestick Park their home.
Standing in their way will be a Baltimore Ravens team that has plenty of motivation of their own. In addition to sending Ray Lewis off into the sunset as a Super Bowl champion, a Super Bowl would validate all of the success that the Ravens have had over the past 13 years, and they’re just as hungry to take home the Lombardi Trophy as anyone wearing red and gold.
So what do the Niners have to do to ensure that they come back to Northern California with the sixth Super Bowl win in franchise history? Play better than the Ravens and score more points by the end of the game, of course! Let’s take a look at exactly what they’ll have to do to accomplish that.
KEYS TO THE GAME — DEFENSE
1. Stop Ray Rice
If the the 49ers want to control the game and “impose their will” as head coach Jim Harbaugh likes to say, they’re going to have to prevent Ray Rice from doing the things that make him an elite running back. While this will mostly hinge on how well the San Francisco defensive line executes against a revamped Baltimore offensive front, Rice is also an excellent pass catcher who will have to be accounted for when Joe Flacco inevitably checks down on passing plays.
As Football Outsiders’ Andy Benoit pointed outa few days ago, Rice is the catalyst for this Ravens offense. He’s a physical back that is really just
entering the prime of his career, and his versatility is what makes him so valuable. He opens things up for Baltimore’s play action passing game since defenses have to honor his abilities as a runner, and in the event that they actually give him the ball, he exhibits the same type of patience and skill going between the tackles as his counterpart on the 49ers, Mr. Frank Gore.
With that said, San Francisco’s defense is designed to stop a weapon such as Rice. While the linemen don’t often get into the backfield to make stops for losses, they are the best in the league when it comes to second level yards, i.e. how many yards they allow between the line of scrimmage and the first down marker. In other words, if and when Rice makes it past the line of scrimmage, you can be sure San Francisco is going to contain him and prevent a first down more often than not.
As far as how the secondary might do against Rice when Flacco starts throwing to him, well, we all remember how that worked out for Pierre Thomas and the Saints last year.
2. Contain Baltimore’s Big Play Receivers
Ok, so maybe “Big” is being used liberally, since none of the Ravens’ receiving corps would be found in the top 25(!) of any statistical category for receivers, but let’s do the math here.
Against the Indianapolis Colts on Wild Card Weekend, Anquan Boldin blows up for 145 yards on five receptions and scores a touchdown, while tight end Dennis Pitta finds the end zone to break the game open in the third quarter. In the divisional round, Torrey Smith goes off for 98 yards and two touchdowns on a mere three receptions. In the AFC Championship, the Patriots prevented the big plays that Flacco pulled off previously, but Boldin still scored twice and Pitta once. Are we sensing a pattern?
So what do we take away from the string of big plays that has gotten Baltimore all the way to the Big Game? Much like David Tyree’s helmet catch, you can’t really quantify these things. In the majority of those instances, Flacco made great throws, and the respective receiver made the play.
That old clichè you always hear announcers use — “The team that makes the most plays will win the game” — is actually somewhat profound when you’re trying to examine how a team like the Ravens, which looked so out of sorts that they fired their offensive coordinator 14 weeks into the season, makes it to the biggest game in all of sports.
That’s not to say that the Baltimore was lucky. These plays were all part of a game plan that had been meticulously designed, and the Ravens’ coaching staff has proven to be very adept at knowing exactly when to dial up a deep ball or a pass down the middle of the field to Pitta. So how does Vic Fangio prepare his personnel for this?
At this point in the season, you’re not going to change much from a scheme standpoint, but there are certain things to account for. First, NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will be counted on to handle Rice and Pitta in the passing game, respectively. We talked about Rice earlier, and while Willis had a bit of trouble with Tony Gonzalez against the Falcons, Dennis Pitta — with all due respect — is no Tony Gonzalez.
As far as preventing big plays from the likes of Boldin and Smith, a lot of this will come down to communication within the San Francisco secondary. As Benoit pointed out, Baltimore likes to run packages where they bunch up receivers, and if there is a slight breakdown in coverage, Joe Flacco has shown that he’ll exploit that mistake for big yardage or a score.
One thing the 49ers have to their advantage: the two most physical safeties in all of football. If Dashon Goldson can hit someone early like he did against the Patriots and Aaron Hernandez (Hernandez bobbled the ball on the next play anticipating another hit, leading to an interception by Aldon Smith), then it will set the tone for the defense and send a message to Baltimore’s receivers.
As far as how San Francisco can prevent the ball from getting to a Ravens receiver in the first place, let’s look to the third key to the game for the defense.
3. Pressure the Quarterback
This is easier said than done, as Baltimore’s offensive line has really meshed since shifting their personnel at the start of the playoffs. Compare their play to that of the vaunted “Gold Rush”, which really hasn’t bee the same since Justin Smith tore his left triceps in Week 15, and it’s clear that the Ravens have the edge in this particular matchup going into Super Bowl Sunday.
Does that mean 49ers should sit back and try to bat down passes at the line of scrimmage? Of course not. Getting pressure on the Joe Flacco will be essential in disrupting Baltimore’s passing game, and while many analysts are rightfully focusing on the disguised coverages Vic Fangio will be throwing his way, if Flacco is laid out on his back it’s going to be awfully hard for him to find his receivers for huge gains.
Fangio would be wise to look back to the AFC Championship to learn what not to do. As Sam Monson pointed out in his breakdown of that game (see the game notes at the end of the article), Flacco made New England pay when they decided to throw a blitz at him.
While the Niners don’t blitz all that often, an extra week to heal can’t hurt when it comes to Justin Smith making his presence felt, meaning they won’t need to blitz to effectively pressure Flacco if Smith is drawing the responsibility of two linemen. If that does indeed happen, things will start opening up for Aldon Smith, Ahmad Brooks or anyone else who takes advantage of such an opportunity.
KEYS TO THE GAME – OFFENSE
1. Establish the Running Game Early
While the 49ers don’t win against the Falcons without stellar performances by Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis in the passing game, everything San Francisco does is predicated on success in the running game. Interestingly enough, they haven’t faced a defense yet in the postseason that has the skill set and wherewithal that Baltimore has, and it will be much, much more difficult to run wild on the likes of Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis.
Thus it is that much more important that they commit to running the ball early on in the game. While this aspect of the game will really be decided in the trenches, it would serve San Francisco well if they gave Frank Gore a healthy amount of touches right from the start while also mixing in plays for LaMichael James and, obviously, letting Kaepernick take what the defense gives him in the read option.
That last part is especially key. Establishing the run can mean a few different things here depending on how Baltimore decides to address the daunting task of stopping an elite running game led by a quarterback that can — and will — kill you with his legs if you let him. If Baltimore commits an outside defender to containing Kaepernick on run plays, that opens things up for Gore as seen in the NFC Championship against Atlanta. If they sit back and play it safe to guard against Gore or LaMichael James, well, they can ask the Packers how that worked out.
Still, at some point San Francisco is going to have to make plays through the air, which leads us to the second key for the offense.
2. Keep Feeding Vernon Davis the Ball
Some might argue that since Michael Crabtree emerged as a top target for Kaepernick that it’s more important to get him involved. Although an
effective Crabtree is a great weapon to have in your offense, the fact remains that Vernon Davis offers much more value as a downfield target.
Earlier I mentioned how Baltimore has several big play receivers. Vernon Davis poses the same threat in the sense that like Boldin, Smith or Jacoby Jones, he can haul in a pass at any time for a big gain if the situation presents itself. Even in the event that he’s not directly involved in the play, he attracts so much attention from defenders that it opens things up for the likes of Crabtree and Randy Moss.
For example, in the Divisional Round against the Packers, Davis only caught one pass, but it was a 44-yard completion. In other words, if the 49ers decide to take a big shot, look for Davis to be involved.
3. Let Kaepernick Loose in the Second Half
Here’s what I’m expecting from San Francisco from a strategy standpoint on Sunday:
A conservative start with an emphasis on running the ball and controlling the tempo. Baltimore will look to take big shots early, as the 49ers do not traditionally play well when giving up an early lead to the opposition. Unless the Ravens take a big lead early like Atlanta did two weeks ago (does anyone really see that happening?), Jim Harbaugh will play it safe, and I’d expect to see these teams within three to seven points of each other going into the half.
However, once the second half begins, there’s no reason to hold anything back, and this is especially true with Kaepernick. One of the things that is concerning with the young quarterback is the fact that he will be exposed to big hits when he takes off in the open field. Guys like Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed live for those moments, and you can be sure they’ll try to get their licks on Kaepernick when he keeps the ball and takes off down the field.
This is the reason I expect a little bit of holding back on the part of San Francisco’s coaching staff in the first two quarters. Rather than having Kaepernick run at will in the first half and open himself up to risks that could take him out of the game, they’ll elect to stick with the things that made the team so successful in the first half of the season when Alex Smith was still at the helm.
Obviously this is all speculation, and if the 49ers start to face an uphill battle in the form of a 10-14 point deficit, turnovers or injuries to key players, all of this goes out the window. But these two coaching staffs are very familiar with each other, and it would make sense for them to keep their cards as close to the vest as possible until the time comes to throw caution to the wind and leave it all on the field.
All in all, this has all of the makings of a great game, and regardless of whether or not any of this analysis holds true on game day, it will be fun to see how it all plays out between two deserving teams that exhibit all of the qualities that a Super Bowl team should.
Enjoy the game, and we’ll see you next week when it’s time to break it all down and pick up the pieces from a great NFL season.