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Family Affair in the Big Easy
Both John and Jim Harbaugh have grown into the same profession as their father Jack, achieving head coaching status. Clearly, both brothers were inspired by their father and are living their childhood dream. Now they’ll be coaching against each other on the grandest stage of football for the Lombardi Trophy.
Super Bowl XLVII Feb. 3, 2013 6:30 PM ET
Mercedes-Benz Superdome New Orleans, Louisiana
Baltimore Ravens (4) 13-6 vs. San Francisco 49ers (2) 13-4-1 – TV: CBS
Super Bowl XLVII features more than just a battle of sibling head coaches going after the Lombardi Trophy. It features a legendary future Hall of Fame linebacker like Ray Lewis who’ll be playing his last game of his illustrious career, a receiver like Torrey Smith who overcame the loss of his brother in the early stages of the season helping his team reach the big dance, a quarterback change that’s sparked the 49ers offense and an organization looking to become the second team in history to win its sixth Super Bowl title. The stage is set, the stars are aligned and it’s time for me to breakdown one of the more intriguing matchups the football world will endure.
49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s implement on Kaepernick and the read-option: Having an athletic quarterback like Colin Kaepernick gives you the luxury of formulating a game plan that can confuse any defense. 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman has the opposition guessing with the read-option. Defenses don’t know what the quarterback is going to do. Kaepernick can run, hand off to the running back or throw. And playing quarterback and running back behind a solid offensive line that is dynamite at pass-protecting and run-blocking makes this revolutionized offensive approach work.
Frank Gore is a power running back that can wear down a defense running between and outside the tackles with the ability to catch out of the backfield. Tight end Vernon Davis is a tremendous talent that can stretch the field getting behind the linebackers, and receiver Michael Crabtree is an excellent route runner, particularly on shallow crossing routes. So the opposing defense has their hands full. If the linebackers come up to stuff the run on play-action, tight ends Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker could be left open in the middle of the field or singled up with a favorable matchup. If you play the pass, then Kaepernick, Gore or LaMichael James can stifle you with the run. Ultimately, Roman’s offense has you stuck in a chess match. You have to be able to read and react with speed to put a halt to this offense.
What the emergence of tight end Dennis Pitta means for Baltimore’s offense: The elevation of Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta has gained respect around the league. “Pitta is starting to emerge as a top guy for them,” 49ers defensive back Donte Whitner said. “He’s getting behind the defense, he’s scoring in the red zone, and he’s becoming just a reliable, all-around guy for them, developing into a top tight end in the National Football League.” Having a tight end the defense needs to account for in the middle of the field can create favorable one-on-one matchups for receivers on the outside. The Ravens passing attack likes to stretch the field vertically and Pitta has been a big reason why the passing game has opened up for their offense behind Joe Flacco’s arm.
In the postseason, Pitta has caught 10-passes for 137-yards and 2-touchdowns on 14-targets. His second touchdown catch came against New England in the AFC Championship game that gave the Ravens the lead for good. When in the redzone, Pitta becomes a dangerous threat, particularly on corner routes. He can also create mismatches on seam routes. If Pitta gets behind San Francisco’s dynamic linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman from the get-go, this could get one of their safeties to cheat on either the free or strong side, leaving a corner on an island with Ravens speedy receiver and deep-ball threat Torrey Smith, not blazing, but fast enough with great hands Anquan Boldin or tall and lightning bolt fast Jacoby Jones. That’s the importance of having a tight end like Dennis Pitta, because he makes the passing game a well-rounded group that can attack the secondary at all angles.
49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith’s torn triceps: Smith is an absolute stone-cold animal on the San Francisco D-line. On Wednesday, the 12-year veteran said about 50 percent of his left triceps tendon was torn, but the injury isn’t keeping him off the field. “I’m not going to retire after this year,” Smith said. “I would like to come back and try to get here again. I realize my career is definitely winding down. I’m not saying I’m going to play another eight years or something like that. I want to play at a high level.” Although Smith’s motor continues to run through the pain, his play has taken somewhat of a downward spiral, and without Smith being a dominant force, pressure from the outside has taken a backseat.
His sidekick, outside linebacker Aldon Smith has been silent in the sack department in his last five games. Getting pressure up the middle is a vital part for any defensive front to get pressure from the outside off the edge. If the 49ers defense struggles at providing pressure, they may be forced to manufacture pressure by blitzing. You don’t want to get caught in that kind game with Baltimore. The Ravens have a solid offense line and running back that can pick up the blitz. Baltimore running back Ray Rice is dangerous, but at the same time discipline in his assignments, especially at picking up the blitz from an inside linebacker or pressure off the edges on passing downs. He can also bluff at staying back as an extra blocker and then leak out of the backfield as a receiver, catching the defense off-guard. Once Rice gets his hands on the football in the open field, he makes big plays.
Baltimore’s safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard’s ability to cover so much ground on the backend: Ed Reed is clearly a future Hall of Fame safety. His ability to cover so much ground on the backend of the defense, taking away the deep-pass and being able to read and react is perhaps the best the game has ever seen. Reed may not be as dangerous as he was in his prime when intercepting a pass, becoming a threat of taking it back for six points, but he can still make game-changing plays. Reed constantly keeps the quarterback looking in his direction before the snap and forces quarterbacks to audible at the line of scrimmage if they see Reed in position to make a play.
Strong safety Bernard Pollard may not have made it to the Pro Bowl in his seven year career, but he’s starting to get the recognition of being a hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety that is also solid in coverage. Because of Reed and Pollard’s ability to make game changing plays by either forcing fumbles or intercepting passes, they’ll gamble on crossing and seam routes to try to intercept the football. Pollard more so is the safety that will lay the bone-crushing hit, Reed will go for the interception. Both of these safeties are fundamentally sound in coverage and chances of them missing assignments are slim. They rarely get beat deep and stay over the top helping the cornerback’s on the outside on crossing, slants and seam routes. Bottom line, Reed and Pollard make life much easier for cornerback’s.
Change that influenced success for both teams: The 49ers made a quarterback change at midseason going with a much more athletic quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Alex Smith played within his strengths, but kept the passing game limited. With Kaepernick’s ability to make improvising throws, the talent the 49ers have at receiver has blossomed, especially receiver Michael Crabtree, a 4-year pro out of Texas Tech who sported his best season of his young career catching 85-balls for 1,105-yards and 9-touchdowns. In his first three seasons, Crabtree never broke the 1,000-yard mark and many wondered if he would ever turn out to be the player expected to be at the pro level.
Kaepernick not only has influenced Crabtree, he also makes tight end Vernon Davis, a star-studded talent relevant again. Davis is by far much better than what his regular season numbers tell us, and in the NFC title game, Kaepernick and Davis gave a solid Falcons defense fits. Davis caught 5-passes for 106-yards and a score in route to San Francisco’s first Super Bowl appearance since the 94 season. Look for 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s game plan to work Baltimore’s linebackers by moving Davis around by sending him in motion or lining him up in the slot.
Davis has an advantage if singled up in coverage on Baltimore’s linebackers. Roman will also look to get Frank Gore involved early to get positive yardage on first down that’ll put Kaepernick in shorter down and distance situations on passing downs. If Gore and Davis get going early on, the Ravens may elect to move safety Ed Reed or Bernard Pollard up, and that can single up Randy Moss for a favorable one-on-one matchup on the outside for the deep ball. Will Randy Moss come back to life? It’s possible, but I don’t stand by his statement of saying he’s the best ever to play the game. That belongs to Jerry Rice.
On Dec. 10, the Ravens replaced Cam Cameron with Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator. Since Caldwell has taken over the play-calling duties, the Ravens offensive production has improved. Most importantly, the play of the offensive line has been outstanding and is keeping quarterback Joe Flacco upright in the pocket. In the postseason, Flacco’s been masterful completing 51 of 93 pass-attempts for 853-yards. What stands out most is his touchdown to interception ratio, 8-0. He’s playing mistake free football and the offense as a whole is clicking on all cylinders.
Having said all that’s positive, Caldwell knows that this will be the most difficult matchup the offense has faced. Why? San Francisco’s linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman’s ability to stuff the run, blitz and read and react to drop back in coverage to cover the tight end or running back that leaks out of the backfield. Although Flacco has been the bright star for the Ravens offense, running back Ray Rice is the main man the offense centralizes around. Caldwell knows that it’s important for Rice to be effective on the ground, picking up the blitz and as a receiver out of the backfield. You must have a balanced attack to have an effective offensive performance for four quarters against San Francisco’s defense. Atlanta threw on the 49ers in the first half scoring 24-points, but didn’t score any points in the second half of the NFC title game once the 49ers defense kept them one dimensional.
My Pick: San Francisco’s defense has been quietly dreadful in its last five games allowing 28.8-points per game. They’re also allowing 391.4-yards per game and are averaging an alarming slim 1.6 sacks per game. Baltimore’s defense with Haloti Ngata clogging the middle, providing pressure up the middle, a healthy Terrell Suggs rushing off the edge and Ray Lewis leading the pack, are back to being a stingy group at the point of attack. The solid play of the defensive front is giving the defense the luxury of mixing and matching by winning battles at the line of scrimmage and manufacturing pressure by blitzing. Although the defense put a halt to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, this is a much more different matchup for their defense going up against a non-conventional type of offense. We have matchup problems for both defenses. In this case, we get a better than just hard-hitting defensive battle. In the grand scheme of things, I like the matchups San Francisco’s offense has better than Baltimore’s. 49ers 31, Ravens 26.
MVP: Linebacker, Patrick Willis, 49ers – 14-tackles, interception return for touchdown, 2-sacks, forced fumble.