In a few days, the Baltimore Ravens will arrive in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII. They will arrive there as a vastly improved team from the regular season version, which limped to a 10-6 finish and an unimpressive fourth seed in the AFC Playoffs.
There are a lot of reasons why the Ravens have upped their play enough to make their Super Bowl run. You can look at the superb quarterback play of Joe Flacco over the last three games and also the success of their newly improved offensive line. You can also look at the emotional edge provided by Ray Lewis's return and a mistake-free defense that has been playing with increased intensity.
When it comes down to it though, a key factor to the Ravens' Super Bowl run has been that they've been scoring more points. They've averaged 30 points per game during the playoffs, which is a big improvement from the 24.9 points they averaged per game during the regular season.
Even with Flacco playing great, it's also worth noting that the run game has also been explosive during the playoffs. Bernard Pierce topped 100 rushing yards in the Wild Card win against the Indianapolis Colts and Ray Rice topped 100 rushing yards in the divisional win against the Denver Broncos.
Rice has 247 rushing yards, which leads all backs this postseason. Pierce isn't too far behind though, as he's currently ranked sixth with 169 rushing yards.
While it's fair to say that the Ravens' running game has been doing great, they've got quite the intimidating assignment in Super Bowl XLVII. During the regular season, the 49ers were ranked fourth in the NFL, only giving up 94.2 rushing yards a game and seven rushing touchdowns the whole season.
It doesn't look like this run defense has gotten any worse this postseason either. In the divisional round, DuJuan Harris led the Green Bay Packers with a mere 53 rushing yards. In the conference championship, Jacquizz Rodgers led the Atlanta Falcons with 32 rushing yards.
So how do the Ravens buck this trend and successfully run the ball against the 49ers? Is it worthwhile to keep the offense balanced or should the Ravens do what they did in the second half against the New England Patriots and become a pass-heavy offense?
While it's clearly difficult to run on the 49ers, it is not impossible. The main defensive lineman responsible for the success of the run defense is Justin Smith and even though he's still recovering from torn triceps, he'll typically eat up any running plays that try to go up the middle.
Even if the running back makes it past Smith, behind him are two of the best linebackers in football in NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis. Both inside linebackers are first-team All-Pro's and they are excellent run defenders.
Take runs to the outside though and you're looking at defensive linemen Ray McDonald and Isaac Sopoaga, both of whom are not as stout against the run. Therefore, by sending Rice or Pierce to the outside, the Ravens could potentially still find some running lanes against the 49ers.
Obviously expectations will have to be adjusted for this game. It's unlikely that either Rice or Pierce will have a 100-yard game or that the Ravens approach anywhere near 200 total rushing yards.
Still, the run offense can keep chucking away and picking up small gains, particularly with outside tosses or counters. The Ravens will need to run to open up the pass and do their best not to make their offense too one-dimensional as they prepare for their time on the biggest of stages.
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