Each week, John Lynch breaks down a dynamic NFL offensive playmaker, devises a game plan and discusses a strategy for success. This week, Lynch examines the unique challenges 49ers quarterback Alex Smith presents for the Baltimore Ravens defense.
You’ve heard a lot this week about the Harbaugh brothers and their coaching matchup Thanksgiving night, and rightly so, because it’s the first time in NFL history that two brothers will square off in a game against each another as head coaches.
But I’m here to tell you, once the game starts, it won’t matter.
How do I know? Let me take you to back to an experience I had in Nov. 1997, when I played for the Bucs and my brother-in-law, John Allred, played for the Bears. I not only married his sister, but John is one of my best friends in the world and I nearly knocked him out with a hit.
Here’s how the Chicago Tribune described it:
Bears rookie tight end John Allred was a bit dazed from the shot he took by a Bucs defender in the second quarter. But he was not so dazed that he did not recognize the offender, Tampa Bay strong safety and Allred’s brother-in-law, John Lynch.
"It’s the first time anything’s ever happened to me as far as any head deal, but I was OK," said Allred, whose older sister, Linda, is married to Lynch. "I knew where I was. I memorized three different names, so I was fine that way."
Lynch was well aware of his victim. "Usually, you just hit people and don’t see the number," he said. "But I had time to know it was him. I hated to see him lying there, but then I saw him smile and I knew he was OK. I just had to give him a shot. That’s football." And that’s Lynch’s reputation.
"Now I know firsthand," Allred said. "I watched him at Stanford, and I’ve watched him through the years, and I think he’s the hardest hitter in the NFL." And what was Allred going to say to his brother-in-law when the two had dinner with family and friends Sunday night? "I’m going to tell him, `That was a nice hit,’ " he said.
Enough said. That’s why I know Jim and John Harbaugh will put family aside for a few hours Thursday and do anything they have to do to win the game.
Speaking of the game, the Ravens defense hasn’t been the Ravens defense for a couple of games now. Sunday, the Ravens nearly blew a 17-point lead in the final 14 minutes against the Bengals and gave up 483 yards in the process. Their front seven has really gotten pushed around lately, but part of Sunday’s near collapse could be attributed to the fact that the heart and soul of their defense, Ray Lewis, missed a game for the first time since 2007 (57 games) because of a turf-toe injury. And while Lewis hopes to play against the 49ers, it will likely come down to a game-time decision.
Which doesn’t make my assignment any easier this week: Game plan for the Ravens defense against the surprising, only once-beaten 49ers.
I’m not saying Lewis missing the Bengals game is the only reason the Ravens struggled, but it certainly contributed. When you see a guy like Ray — somebody of his stature — in the huddle when things are going wrong, it’s a comforting feeling because he’s the emotional and spiritual leader of that team. I was reading where several players on the Ravens defense saying there were some communication issues with Ray being out. That’s because Ray is the quarterback of that defense. When you’ve had a guy in the middle like him for 16 years calling the defensive signals and he’s not there, it creates an enormous void.
He’s not only calling the signals in the huddle, he’s making adjustments based upon what you see the offense is going to do. The Ravens play a very complex defense that’s predicated on making multiple calls — to the line, to the secondary, etc. — so when he’s not there and you have somebody else taking on that ownership, there are multiple things they all have to adjust to, and it’s not easy.
So what’s my game plan?
Alex Smith, who is the seventh-rated quarterback in the league, has probably been the biggest surprise this season, probably because most people had given up on him. But I think you can sum up in one word the reason for Smith’s turnaround: belief.
Ok, make it three words: Belief. Jim. Harbaugh.
From Day 1, Harbaugh believed in Smith. I did the 49ers game in Week 1 for FOX and Harbaugh told me that he loved Smith’s arm, loved his athleticism and most of all, loved his smarts. When you a play for a franchise that’s had Joe Montana, Steve Young and even Jeff Garcia as their quarterbacks, the expectations are very high. So when you win, the quarterback gets the credit. But, in turn, when you lose, the quarterback definitely gets all the blame. I went back and looked at the film before doing the game in Week 1, and while Alex needed to improve on some things, everyone needed to pick up their game for the 49ers.
Having an ex-quarterback as your coach certainly hasn’t hurt Smith. Harbaugh played the position and knows how to prepare. He’s also protected Alex more by running the football smartly.
And who better to run the ball than Frank Gore, who is seventh in the league in rushing. He is as complete a player as there is at the running back position. He combines power, speed and brute strength. Another thing I love about him is that he takes so much pride in his blocking and receiving. Harbaugh called Gore the ultimate 49er.
So Gore and Smith are my top two priorities, in that order. And as much as I praised Alex Smith and the job he’s done this season, I’m still going to make him beat me. I’m going to load up eight in the box. I know that brings one-on-one coverage on the outside, but I have one of the game’s best in Ed Reed roving in centerfield.
Besides those two, tight end Vernon Davis is the 49ers’ most explosive threat. I’d have my defense meet him at the line of scrimmage and bang on him. He’s a big man (6-3, 250), but he’s tough to cover if you give him a free release because he runs a 4.3 or a 4.4 40. But you have to caution your defense, because the 49ers will lull you to sleep. They’ll run, run, run and then they’ll use a play-action with Davis.
The saying is, don’t ever take your eyes off your luggage. If you do, your defense will get caught sleeping.