Super Bowl 2013: Defensive X-Factors Who Will Decide Outcome of Harbaugh Bowl

Justin OnslowContributor IIJanuary 22, 2013

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 16: Tight end Joel Dreessen #81 of the Denver Broncos makes a catch past safety Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens in the third quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 16, 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Denver Broncos won, 34-17.(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The NFL has evolved into an offensive league, but it is defense that has decided the fate of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs this year.

Both the Ravens and 49ers feature impressive defensive units that have played phenomenal football this postseason, led by some of the best players in the league. Veterans like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are motivated by what may be their chance at a Super Bowl ring, while Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith are out to prove they are the new face of defense in the NFL.

Baltimore didn’t have the same statistical success as San Francisco this season, but statistics mean nothing with one final game to play this year. It will be preparation, determination and execution that decide a winner in New Orleans on February 3.

We’ll take a look at some of the defensive players who must play their best football to propel their team to a victory in Super Bowl XLVII.


Haloti Ngata

Ngata isn’t a flashy player, and he doesn’t put up huge numbers. That isn’t his job.

Ngata is the cornerstone for Baltimore’s 3-4 defensive front. His huge frame and high motor results in opponents being forced to double-team him, opening up lanes for Baltimore’s linebackers to make plays.

Ngata will be going up against a good San Francisco offensive line and one of the best guards in football in Mike Iupati. Iupati is a mauler, and he’ll be asked to block Ngata all game long. If Iupati is able to block him one-on-one, the 49ers will have a numbers advantage up front.

If Baltimore’s front seven is to get pressure on Colin Kaepernick and also stop Frank Gore in the running game, it will have to play more physically than San Francisco’s offensive line. Ngata has to set the tone at the line of scrimmage.


Patrick Willis

San Francisco’s linebacking corps is the best in the NFL, and Willis is a big reason for that distinction. He can do it all, and he’ll have to do a lot to lead his 49ers past the Ravens.

Stopping the run starts in the middle. It will be Willis’ job to set the tone by playing aggressive run defense against Ray Rice and Baltimore’s offensive line. If the Ravens can’t effectively run the football, Aldon Smith and the 49ers' pass rush will be able to tee off on Joe Flacco.

Willis will also be asked to cover a lot of ground in defending Baltimore’s short passing routes, especially with Rice being so effective out of the backfield. Remaining disciplined in his assignments while also playing aggressive run defense will be the key to a successful performance for Willis and the 49ers defense.


Tarell Brown

Anquan Boldin had a huge game last week against New England, and Carlos Rogers will have his hands full covering him in the slot. Someone has to cover Torrey Smith, though.

Brown will be given the task of covering Smith on a lot of deep routes, and if San Francisco has trouble stopping the run early, its safeties won’t be in much of a position to give Brown a lot of help. Brown has to stick with Smith and not let him get behind coverage.

Flacco sometimes struggles with placement on deep throws to Smith. If Brown can stay close to him and not allow much separation, Flacco won’t have much of a window to get Smith the ball.

San Francisco’s pass rush thrives on stunts and twists up front, but that much movement requires more time than a straight rush. San Francisco’s defensive backs won’t have to make huge plays against Flacco as long as they play tight coverage and give the 49ers front seven enough time to get pressure on the Ravens' quarterback.


Ed Reed

This may be Reed’s last chance at a Super Bowl ring, and he’ll be ready to play from the very first whistle.

Reed is the best ball-hawking safety in the league, but against a run-heavy San Francisco offense, he will have play intelligent and disciplined football, especially against the run.

The 49ers run a lot of play-action and zone-read offense, requiring opponents’ linebackers and safeties to make quick decisions. Bad decisions lead to defenders being out of position to make plays, and Reed must avoid making falling victim to misdirection.

Reed will likely play closer to the line of scrimmage early in the game to help in run support, but that means he’ll also have to be ready to cover a lot of ground to defend San Francisco’s intermediate and deep routes in the middle of the field. If Reed can keep San Francisco’s offense in front of him, the 49ers won’t be able to make the big plays that can swing the momentum of the game.