This year’s Super Bowl is awash in interesting story lines, from the Harbaugh brothers, Ray Lewis’ final game, the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, the elevation to elite status of Joe Flacco and many more. This article, however, is about what I think should, and will happen on the field.
The 49ers and Ravens are very similar in philosophy and attitude. They believe in hitting hard on defense, trying to dominate the line of scrimmage in the run game and aggressively attacking downfield looking for big plays in the pass game. They go about these things in very different ways. Baltimore has a more traditional pro-style offense featuring a prototypical pocket passer who is adept at using play-action to throw deep down the sidelines. Whereas San Francisco uses a variety of personnel packages and formation shifts to create mismatches that allow them to either overpower the defense when running or break receivers into wide open spaces to run after the catch. On defense, the Ravens strength is their intelligence and preparedness. They are great at anticipating an offense and being in the right place at the right time. The 49ers defense is a unit that uses its speed and athleticism to chase down plays and swarm to the football. They are excellent tacklers and don’t allow many yards after contact.
When the Ravens have the ball - New Baltimore offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will try to get Ray Rice involved very early with a lot of runs on 1st and 2nd downs and screen attempts because he wants the 49ers safeties to have to account for him on every play. This will allow Flacco to get one-on-one match-ups down the field with his wide receivers. After seeing how effective the Atlanta Falcons deep passing game was against the 49ers’ secondary last week, the Ravens will want to replicate that success. The Ravens’ running game is much more dangerous than Atlanta’s which means they will be able to use play-action even more effectively. Defensively the 49ers will not be trying to re-invent the wheel. Their agenda is always the same-get pressure with the front four, use the speed at linebacker to clean up anything underneath, and let the safeties help deep and punish receivers when they do catch the football. The 49ers believe that they can match-up with anyone in their base personnel, so you will not see very many exotic blitz packages or coverage schemes. ILBs Navorro Bowman and Patrick Willis will be responsible for taking away the middle of the field and not allowing the Raven’s running backs and tight ends to get involved in the passing game.
Key Match-up - Raven’s LT Bryant McKinnie and LG Kelechi Osemele vs. 49ers’ OLB Aldon Smith and DE Justin Smith. To stop the Raven’s deep passing game, the 49ers need to get constant pressure on Joe Flacco. Smith and Smith were a two-man wrecking crew for 13 ½ games this season before a triceps injury caused Justin Smith to miss the team’s final two games. He will benefit from the two week break before the Super Bowl more than anyone and if he returns to form then the Baltimore offensive line will be hard-pressed to keep Aldon Smith away from Flacco. Since moving McKinnie to LT, the Ravens OL has looked like a brand new unit, with better run blocking and pass protection. If McKinnie and Osemele can hold up against Smith and Smith without needing extra help, the Raven offense will be able to be very aggressive downfield.
When the 49ers have the ball – Since coming to San Francisco as offensive coordinator last season, Greg Roman has proven to be a very wily and inventive thinker who excels at creating confusion in opposing defenses. The 49ers will run the football from a number of formations and personnel groupings. They will bring in extra offensive lineman, use a fullback, run from the pistol formation with read option, have their tight ends come in motion and crack down on defensive tackles and let Colin Kaepernick try to get to the edge. They will also throw deep, but they will use seam routes to the tight ends, hoping to get them isolated on linebackers and safeties. If the 49ers are able to get consistent yardage in the run game, they will try to control the clock and tire out Baltimore’s defense before pushing the ball downfield to the wide receivers and tight ends. The Ravens will attempt to both stop the run and disrupt the pass with constant and unrelenting pressure. The blitzes will be plentiful and they will come from every conceivable angle. Committing to this type of pressure will leave the Raven corners out on an island against the 49er receivers, so Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard will have to help in coverage and make plays from the safety position. The Baltimore D is smart and disciplined, but it isn’t fast. If they blitz and it doesn’t work then they will be gashed for big yards all over the field.
Key Match-up – 49ers TEs Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker vs. Ravens ILBs Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. San Francisco has maybe the most athletic pair of tight ends in the league, and if they can consistently get single coverage from either of the Ravens inside linebackers, it will be a nightmare for Baltimore. Ellerbe and Lewis are great at stopping the run and picking up running backs as they leak out of the backfield on screens, but if they have to run with Davis and Walker, they will be out of their depth. The 49ers will use constant pre-snap motion to identify the situations where they can take advantage of these opportunities, while the Ravens will use their nickel corners and safeties to take coverage responsibilities away from the linebackers.
My Prediction - This game will feature more big hits and violent collisions than any Super Bowl in recent memory. On Special Teams both teams have experienced and explosive kick returners, but the 49ers coverage team is better than the Baltimore’s which means I give a field position edge to the 49ers. Conversely in the kicking game, the Raven’s Justin Tucker was brilliant this year going 30-33 in FG attempts including a perfect 4-4 in field goals of 50+ yards, while the San Francisco’s kicker, David Akers has struggled all season and led the NFL in missed FGs so if it comes down to a late kick, the Ravens have to be favored. Ultimately I think the key will be the overall team speed of the 49ers. At almost every spot on the field other than wide receiver, the 49ers will have the faster, more athletic players. This is not the Baltimore defense of 6 years ago and the longer the game goes, the more evident it will be. The Ravens need to get a lead early and hope to hold it, capitalizing on the less experienced 49ers’ mistakes. The 49ers need to be aggressive at the outset and keep Baltimore on their heels, reacting instead of attacking. I say the 49ers beat the Ravens 27-20.