Brian Billick, our Super Bowl-winning coach, breaks down the championship matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers by identifying five players from each team who may make the difference Sunday in New Orleans.
One area where the 49ers have made a significant improvement since switching to Colin Kaepernick at quarterback is the number of sacks they are giving up per game. Alex Smith was sacked 41 times in nine games, but in Kaepernick’s nine starts, the average has dropped to about 1.5 sacks per game. Although he isn’t 100 percent healthy, it will be Terrell Suggs’ main responsibility to change that on Super Bowl Sunday. Whether it is as simple as beating his man in one-on-one pass protection or manufacturing pressure through a blitz package, Suggs needs to make Kaepernick uncomfortable early and take advantage of the nerves he may be feeling in just his ninth NFL start.
Much in the way Ray Lewis plays for the Baltimore Ravens, Patrick Willis is the physically intimidating presence that locks down the middle of the 49ers defense. The aspect where Willis is much better than Lewis is his ability to cover tight ends in the short to intermediate parts of the field. His unique ability to stay stout in the run game while not being vulnerable in the passing game will be key for the Niners defense as the Ravens have been about 50/50 run to pass since Jim Caldwell took over play-calling responsibilities.
Anquan Boldin has made his presence felt throughout the Ravens' postseason thus far, and it is mainly in situations in which he is well covered. The Ravens do a nice job of pre-snap motion and/or route combinations to create single coverage on Boldin. Even when he doesn’t create a great deal of separation, Joe Flacco trusts Boldin enough to throw a 50/50 ball with the faith that he will outwork the defender to complete the reception. Look for the Ravens to take advantage of that on all levels of the field, but particularly in the red zone.
Justin Smith hasn’t been the same since a torn triceps injury suffered in Week 15. Not only has it affected his performance on the field, but it has greatly limited the impact Aldon Smith has had as a pass rusher. With a healthy Justin in the lineup, Aldon accounted for 19.5 sacks, but he hasn’t tallied a single one in the five games since. For the majority of the game, Justin will be lined up over rookie offensive guard Kelechi Osemele in an individual matchup the Niners desperately need him to win. If Justin poses a threat early in the game, it will force the Ravens to double-team him and free up Aldon to wreak havoc on the edges.
Bernard Pollard may have the most important role on the entire Ravens defense on Sunday. Because Ed Reed is given the freedom to roam the defense and play with gut instinct, it is critical that Pollard is exactly where he is supposed to be on any given play. He can’t afford to guess or be baited by play action or pump fakes that force him out of position and leave the Ravens vulnerable to explosive plays. Additionally, there will be some defensive formations where Pollard is called upon to be the eighth defender in the box, and they will need him to corral either Colin Kaepernick or Frank Gore from getting outside leverage on the defense.
Michael Crabtree has finally morphed into the threat everyone was waiting for since being selected 10th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft. Since Colin Kaepernick took over as the full-time starter in Week 11, Crabtree has averaged more than six receptions and 85 yards per game while scoring eight touchdowns. Crabtree’s ability to run after the catch is phenomenal; if the Ravens aren’t flying to the football, he is very capable of turning a short completion into a long touchdown in the blink of an eye.
Even with the emergence of Anquan Boldin this postseason, it is Dennis Pitta that Joe Flacco is most comfortable with. Flacco and Pitta are developing a chemistry that is very similar to Tony Romo and Jason Witten in Dallas. Flacco will look to Pitta at critical points in the game, not necessarily just third downs or scoring situations. The matchup between Pitta and Patrick Willis is very equitable and the outcome of the game could very easily come down to whoever wins this individual battle.
Two weeks ago, Vernon Davis went off for 106 receiving yards and a touchdown against the Falcons, but he had basically been nonexistent in the two previous months. In the seven games leading up to the NFC Championship Game, Davis notched just seven catches for 105 receiving yards and no touchdowns. With that said, he could become the X-factor in the play-action passing game as the Ravens could very well sell out to stop the read-option attack of Frank Gore and Colin Kaepernick. Davis may not turn in a ton a receptions, but I’d anticipate him being on the receiving end of at least one major impact play.
Not unlike other games for Torrey Smith this season, it will be his primary objective to stretch the San Francisco defense vertically. The 49ers showed a vulnerability to the deep ball against the Falcons, and while Smith is no Julio Jones, he has the speed and ability to break away with speed on a double-move route concept. Much has been said about the caliber of this 49ers defense, but it is important to note that of the 12 playoff teams, they rank 11th in passing defense while giving up more than 320 yards per game through the air this postseason. Jim Caldwell transformed this offense into a more balanced attack by attempting passes on just 49 percent of his play calls. But when Joe Flacco does drop back, it is with the intention of hitting an explosive play — and in most cases that means looking to Torrey Smith.
Even with the recent appeal and media attention to the read-option, the 49ers are still at their best when running a downhill power attack and they can do it in a variety of ways. I’d look for them to get Frank Gore his touches in the traditional I-formation, an offset or unbalanced line, the pistol, single-back or any number of formations, but the basic scheme of the plays remain the same. Gore is at his best with a lead blocker (whether a fullback or pulling lineman) and a cutback option before absorbing contact and gaining what he can. But just when the Ravens begin to crash down too hard, Colin Kaepernick can pull the handoff and take off for a big gain on the outside.