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Super Bowl is a tough one to call
Every Wednesday until the Super Bowl, Brian Billick will write a weekly column looking in-depth at different aspects of the modern NFL and will discuss experiences and insights he gained while coaching and broadcasting.
This Super Bowl has a fresh look and feel about it. No Steelers, no Patriots, no Giants, no Packers. There hasn’t been a game matching two quarterbacks playing in their first Super Bowl since the 2007 showdown between the Colts and the Bears.
Someone is going to emerge from Sunday’s game with the label of a championship quarterback. One of the things that we learn in the NFL is that championship quarterbacks don’t often come on the scene gradually, winning one more playoff game each season and then scaling the peak when they’re most expected to. No, championship quarterbacks present themselves when the matter is still in doubt, either by stepping up well before people are ready to anoint them, or rising to the top when people are still arguing over their relative merits.
So it will be this year. Either the 49ers will win and Colin Kaepernick will be treated as the second coming of Tom Brady — a young quarterback who wins it all without even a full season of starts under his belt — or the Ravens will prevail, and all the questions about whether Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback will be silenced for good. Like Troy Aikman before he won his first Super Bowl, Flacco is a talented quarterback and rock-solid leader who has put up spectacular numbers; the only thing missing from his resume is the Lombardi Trophy.
We’ll hear a lot, in the days ahead, about the last matchup between these two teams, the Thanksgiving Night game in 2011 in which the Ravens ground out a 16-6 win over San Francisco. Forget about it — those were two different teams. The 49ers were still finding their identity, trying to build an offense around Alex Smith, who was sacked nine times (and one of the key players to give Smith fits that evening was Lardarius Webb, the Ravens’ shutdown corner who has been out for the season). The Ravens were still charting their own course, not having fully integrated then-rookie wideout Torrey Smith or tight end Dennis Pitta into their offensive scheme. So while I expect it’s going to be another hard-fought game, I’m not sure how much you can read into the previous result.
What these teams have in common — besides excellent head coaches named Harbaugh — are two classically physical defensive units that dictate the tempo of games by taking opposing offenses out of their desired modes of attack, and offenses that began to really hit their stride in January.
Since entering the NFL, Flacco has eight playoff wins, the most by a starting quarterback during that period (if you’re counting, that’s five more than Tom Brady and six more than Peyton Manning over the same span). Flacco has started 80 consecutive regular-season games, never missed a start, and in this postseason he’s thrown eight touchdowns and zero interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 114.7, leading all passers in the postseason. I’d call that elite.
Kaepernick, at 105.9, is the second-rated quarterback this postseason, and has already led the 49ers on a 17-point comeback, the second-largest rally in team postseason history. You can also see how Kaepernick’s mobility has made the Niners offense more dynamic. Alex Smith was sacked 29 times in nine games this season; Kaepernick has been sacked only 14 times in his nine games since, and hasn’t taken more than a single sack in any game since Week 14. He’s had three rushes longer than 50 yards since taking over (Michael Vick, by comparison, has had only three in his entire 10-year career). But the difference between Kaepernick and most other read-option quarterbacks is that he’s a potent passer and hits on the big play with his arm, not just his legs. Need proof? He’s completed more than 50 percent of his passes deeper than 20 yards down the field, the best rate in the NFL.
The game will ultimately be decided by which team’s offense can continue to hit on all cylinders. The Ravens have been more daring and vertically threatening since Jim Caldwell began calling plays, not in quantity so much as emphasis. They have thrown only 49 percent of the time (compared to 59 percent under Cameron), but are allowing Flacco to make more ambitious throws, creating more big plays down the field. The increased touches have gone to rookie Bernard Pierce (who has actually outrushed Rice, 401 yards to 397 since Caldwell began calling plays), giving Baltimore two fresh runners with which to pound teams.
The Ravens now have three viable passing threats. Anquan Boldin doesn’t necessarily create great separation from defensive backs, but the Ravens have a good pre-snap motion package and route concepts that free him up in single coverage, and Flacco trusts him to catch the ball even when he is covered. The 49ers showed a vulnerability to the deep ball against the Falcons, and Baltimore will undoubtedly try to exploit it with Torrey Smith, who can be lethal on deep routes or double moves, forcing the Niners to remain technically sound in their coverage. Then there is tight end Dennis Pitta, the receiver with whom Flacco has the best chemistry. Pitta is emerging as a serious threat in the intermediate level of the field, particularly on third down and within the red zone.
Don’t worry — Ray Rice will still get his touches. John Harbaugh has told me many times that the Ravens don’t want to merely turn around and hand the ball off to Rice, they want to strategically give him the chance to get the ball in space (the Chargers found out, on fourth-and-29, what happens when Rice gets into space). This quality over quantity approach will surely continue, giving the Ravens a wide array of weapons with which to work. My guess is that the Niners will count on their stout line to bottle up the Ravens’ rushing attack and pay special attention to making sure Smith doesn’t burn them deep.
When the 49ers have the ball, people will talk about the read option and how it creates explosive running plays. That is true, but the 49ers have actually perfected the ability to run play-action and create bigger plays in the passing game, and that has had a major effect, finally turning Michael Crabtree into a legitimate threat at wideout. He was unable to develop to that degree when Alex Smith was quarterbacking.
Crabtree has supplanted tight end Vernon Davis as the No. 1 receiving option as Davis had basically disappeared from the offense over the last two months. Davis broke out of his slump in the NFC Championship Game, but that may have been more about the Falcons defensive scheme (they had given up a game-high 142 receiving yards to Zach Miller the previous week against the Seahawks) than his ongoing role in the offense under Kaepernick. Davis had 106 receiving yards against the Falcons, more than his previous seven games combined. Although, with two weeks to prepare, they may come out with a new look to ensure that Davis is involved in the offense early.
The Niners’ read-option scheme is the most diverse we’ve yet seen at the pro level.
Not all of their plays are designed for Kaepernick to simply read the end and pull it. Most are actually called runs for Frank Gore in the huddle, but made to look like read-option plays to freeze the end from crashing down on Gore. Although Kaepernick gives them an added wrinkle, San Francisco still very much prefers to be a downhill power running football team.
Nonetheless, they have more variety in their read option than most teams. The 49ers change it up with Kaepernick actually becoming the “dive” player when the end keeps contain and will hand it off to Gore to exploit the crashing end when available, but the majority of those times you will see Kaepernick give it rather than keep it. It saves him hits and still keeps the defense honest.
The 49ers also run plays out of the pistol rather than the traditional shotgun running approach, in which the back has to take a side step or run only to one side of the field. In the pistol, Gore can be running downhill to either side of the line and still have cutback ability.
Baltimore may decide to be brutally disciplined in its outside containment to prevent Kaepernick from ruining them with his running ability the way he did to the Packers. But they’ll have to do a much better job than Atlanta at stopping San Francisco’s passing game; often times you have to forfeit one to gain advantage on the other.
No predictions here: It’s nearly a toss-up, and ought to be a terrific game, but I can assure you that the Ravens really wish they still had a healthy Webb at one corner.