Two months ago not many people envisioned the Baltimore Ravens making a run at the NFL title game. They were dysfunctional offensively, they lacked playmakers defensively, and they employed a quarterback that was costing himself offseason dollars with each poor performance. But as the Packers and Giants proved the previous two postseasons, sometimes all you have to do is catch fire.
Here are five storylines to follow for Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans, where the Ravens will host the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
The defense of Kaepernick.
The Falcons may have won a key battle in their loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game but they became so consumed by winning that battle that they wound up losing the war. After watching Colin Kaepernick rip off 181 yards on 16 rushes versus the Packers the week prior, the Falcons were dead set against allowing the quarterback to beat them with the option read. So they aligned linebacker Stephen Nicholas or defensive ends John Abraham and Kroy Biermann at the edge and sent them right at Kaepernick. On the first two series of the game, San Francisco was befuddled by the Atlanta’s game plan and it wound up punting on back-to-back three-and-outs. But the Falcons were so concerned about Kaepernick running at the edges that they lost sight of the fact that Frank Gore was gaining over four yards per carry up the middle. Abraham or Nicholas would fly up the edge and straight at Kaepernick, who repeatedly handed the ball off to Gore or LaMichael James and watched them run through the lane that Atlanta’s defenders had created. And when they weren’t running, Kaepernick exposed the one-on-one matchups that were available to him in the passing game (such as tight end Vernon Davis on safety Thomas DeCoud). In the AFC title game, the Ravens were physical with the Patriots’ receivers at the line of scrimmage and it disrupted Tom Brady’s rhythm in the passing game. But Green Bay got burned playing too much man versus Kaepernick, who often ran for long gains once the Packers’ defenders turned their backs to him. It’ll be interesting to see what approach the Ravens take on Sunday in terms of shutting down this prolific San Francisco offense. If they were smart they would take a page out of what the Rams and Seahawks did in the month of December when the 49ers lost twice in their final five games. Both St. Louis and Seattle won the battles on first and second down and thus put themselves in favorable third down situations. Both teams also got great play out of their linebackers, who not only stopped the run on early downs, but also generated pressure when their number was called for blitz assignments. But it all starts up front. If the Ravens can’t win their individual matchups versus the Niners’ outstanding offensive line, it’ll be a long night for Ray Lewis and Co.
The next step and the transformation of Flacco.
Two months ago Joe Flacco couldn’t win on the road and couldn’t play at a consistent level play to play nevertheless week to week. But thanks to the firing of Cam Cameron and the promoting of Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Flacco is now 60 minutes and one enormous victory away from joining very elite company. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams vertically and outside the numbers, which is difficult to do on a weekly basis. And because Baltimore’s offensive line wasn’t playing at a consistent level either, Flacco turned in some rather ugly performances from Week 11 through Week 15. But while Caldwell has kept the same formations as Cameron (mostly the use of either a two-back, one tight end set, or a one-back, two-tight end set), he’s also simplified the offense. He has allowed Flacco to work the middle of the field more and spread the ball out to several different players. Not only is Torrey Smith heavily involved in the vertical game, but Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta are allowed to work the middle of the field and/or the seam of a defense. Caldwell has also brought more balance to the Baltimore offense. For whatever reason, Cameron would often get away from his running game, which is inexcusable when you have backs like Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce. With the pressure of having to win games by throwing the ball versus defenses that knew what was coming, Flacco would often be frustrated in the middle of games. Now he’s playing his best ball of the season and most importantly, he’s comfortable and in command of the offense.
Are cracks starting to form in the Niners’ defensive foundation?
The Falcons didn’t average 26.0 points per game this year by accident. Matt Ryan is knocking on the door of playing in a Super Bowl himself and his receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – are some of the best in the game. That said, you have to wonder if Dashon Goldson wasn’t exposed a bit in coverage last week. On Julio Jones’ 46-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, there was a communication breakdown between Goldson and cornerback Tarrell Brown. For whatever reason, Brown passed Jones off to Goldson and jumped on an out route by Tony Gonzalez, even though the tight end was clearly covered. Jones then got behind Goldson for an easy score, putting the Niners in a hole early. But even if Goldson and Brown could share the blame on that touchdown, Goldson was also victimized on a 16-yard reception by Roddy White, as well as another 40-yard pass play to Jones later in the game. Again, in White and Jones we’re talking about two of the better receivers in the NFL. But with how well Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith have played this postseason, it has to be a little concerning to Jim Harbaugh that his defense was shredded 477 yards in the NFC title game. Don’t forget that San Francisco also gave up 31 points in the second half versus New England in mid-December, and 42 points to the Seahawks in Seattle one week later. Granted, the Niners didn’t have Justin Smith for that Seattle game but you have to wonder whether or not the blueprint on how to beat San Francisco’s defense hasn’t been laid out over the past month and a half. The good news is that even though he’s not generating sacks, Aldon Smith is still putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks and there has been no dip in the play of linebackers Navarro Bowman and Patrick Willis. The Ravens still have their work cut out for them on Sunday.
Which offense can stay balanced?
For as much as fans and the media want to dissect how well a quarterback can orchestrate a dynamic passing attack, balance is still the key to any NFL offense. The Saints finished tied for seventh in terms of rushing attempts the year they won the Super Bowl and were sixth in total rushing yards that season. Yes, they won in large part because of Sean Payton’s playcalling and Drew Brees’ ability to orchestrate that offense. But they were extremely effective throwing the ball because they were also a threat to pound it between the tackles with Pierre Thomas or on the edges with Reggie Bush. Defenses were constantly playing back on their heels that season, which is one of the reasons why New Orleans hoisted the Lombardi Trophy at the end of the year. For as much as everyone wants to talk about Flacco and Kaepernick when it comes to XLVII, the “matchup” between Ray Rice and Frank Gore might be more important. As previously stated, the Falcons did a great job of taking away Kaepernick’s ability to hit the edges on the ground in the NFC title game. But Gore killed them running between the tackles so if the Ravens want to focus on tying a lasso around Kaepernick’s legs too, then they better be ready to man up in the middle. That said, if Gore can’t gain traction on first and second down, the edge now swings in Baltimore’s favor because it’ll have Kaepernick in constant third and longs (which is what the Ravens want). On the other side, if Rice can’t get going against that stingy San Francisco front seven, then Flacco may become buried underneath the pressure of having to win the game on his own. Also, Baltimore can’t expect that San Francisco will be as poor tackling as New England was in the AFC title game. The Patriots missed a handful of tackles, which either kept drives alive for the Ravens or set up scores (like Rice’s 2-yard run in the second quarter when Jerod Mayo whiffed on a takedown). Rice will have to earn every yard he gets but if he’s effective, it’ll go a long way in setting up Flacco and the passing game.
Ray Lewis has racked up a ton of tackles this postseason but he’s also looked slow in coverage and he’s obviously not the same impactful player he was earlier in his career. That said, it’s apparent that his teammates want to win for him (as well as fellow veteran Ed Reed). He’s the heartbeat in that Baltimore locker room and it’ll be interesting to see what kind of an effect he’ll have from an emotional standpoint. Turnovers have also been a key to deciding wins and losses in the postseason, as no team has won a playoff game this year while losing the turnover battle. San Francisco and Baltimore came into the postseason plus-nine in turnovers, which is the lowest margin of the 10 playoff teams, so which team will avoid costly mistakes (and/or produce them in a positive way)? Special teams will undoubtedly play a factor in the outcome as well. David Akers missed a makeable field goal in a controlled environment in Atlanta and his body language following the miss would have you believe he’s a kicker with zero confidence right now. And don’t forget that Baltimore allowed a kick and punt return for touchdown in its win over Denver in the Divisional Round. Finally, how will the “Har-Bowl” factor play into the game? Considering there are only 32 head coaching positions in the NFL and so few siblings in sports (at least ones that coach against each other), it’s truly remarkable that Jim and John Harbaugh will square off in the Super Bowl. While Jim arguably has the better team, John has more postseason experience and more postseason wins. Which Harbaugh will get the leg up on the other before the clock reads double-zero on Sunday?
PREDICTION: The 49ers are the better team, at least on paper. They have the more complete offense, the better defense, and they have the ability to win in the trenches on both sides of the ball. But the Ravens have saved their best football for the end of the year, which is exactly what the Packers did in 2011 and what the Giants did in 2012.
Since Baltimore fired Cam Cameron and promoted Jim Caldwell to offensive coordinator, Joe Flacco has been a different quarterback. Cameron wanted Flacco to consistently beat teams by throwing outside the numbers and refused to stay balanced with his playcalling. But while Caldwell is running the same formations as Cameron (i.e. 12, 21 and 22 groupings), he’s also simplified things. Flacco is now instructed to use the entire field to beat defenses, including up the seam with tight end Dennis Pitta, in the short-to-intermediate game with Anquan Boldin, and yes, down field to Torrey Smith. Caldwell hasn’t forgotten about Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce either, as he’s gotten both running backs in the mix while staying balanced.
Matt Ryan and the Falcons exposed the 49ers’ safety position in the NFC title game, specifically Dashon Goldson. Where they screwed up is becoming too focused on Colin Kaepernick’s running ability. While constantly sending defensive ends and linebackers straight at Kaepernick, Atlanta created huge rushing lanes for LaMichael James and Frank Gore, who killed the Falcons up the middle. Look for the Ravens to take their shots downfield against Goldson and to stay balanced offensively. Defensively, Baltimore needs to win the battle on first and second down and force Kaepernick to make mistakes on third down. Call it a hunch, but I believe Kaepernick’s inexperience will show through at a critical moment on Sunday.
Ravens 24, 49ers 20.