Haloti Ngata will be the most important member of the Baltimore Ravens defense in Super Bowl XLVII. He hasn't quite been at his dominant best this season, due to a series of niggling injuries. However, Ngata showed evidence of a return to form in the playoffs, particularly against the New England Patriots.
That's bad news for the San Francisco 49ers, who must control Ngata if they hope to get their prolific ground attack going. Here is a look at some of the ways Ngata can impact the Super Bowl.
Wrecking the Running Game
Ngata must lead the charge for the Ravens against the 49ers' punishing and versatile running game. Baltimore's famed toughness against the run waned this season, with the Ravens finishing 2012 ranked 20th in rush defense.
However, things improved in the playoffs, and Ngata remains the focal point of the run front. It starts with his alignment. The screen shot below shows how the Ravens have utilised Ngata this season.
The highlighted portion shows Ngata aligned as a 3-technique in the guard-tackle gap on the weak side. He has replaced Cory Redding as the 1-gap tackle in Baltimore's hybrid 3-4. Rather than move him around the formation like in seasons past, the Ravens often position Ngata next to Terrell Suggs.
This dictates where offensive lines slide their blocking and how they stack their fronts. In this example from the AFC Wild Card Round, the Indianapolis Colts have done exactly that. They have positioned two tight ends on Ngata's side of the field.
What makes Ngata such a force against the run is his ability to control the interior and dictate the flow of a run. The screen shot below shows how.
At the snap, Ngata immediately draws a double-team, shown in the highlighted portion. What this does is create clear lanes of pursuit for inside linebackers Ray Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe. Their potential paths of attack are indicated by the red arrows.
Ngata creates a dilemma for his two blockers. If one leaves him and steps up to the linebacker level, Ngata has a one-on-one matchup.
Even without being at full strength, Ngata is still too strong for a single block. The screen shot below shows what happens when one member of the double-team leaves Ngata.
Colts left guard Seth Olsen (73) leaves Ngata and moves up to block Lewis (52). This leaves Ngata one-on-one with tackle Anthony Castonzo (74). Ngata overpowers him and works down the line to envelop the running back and hold him to a minimal gain.
By aligning Ngata next to Suggs, the Ravens can create more one-on-one matchups for Ngata. The two tight end stack naturally focuses on Suggs, leaving the tackle and guard to split their focus between Ngata and Baltimore's inside linebackers.
Any time Ngata faces a single block, particularly from a tackle, he will win. The 49ers use a lot of stacks with tight ends and extra linemen. They don't usually rely on combination blocking, but they would be wise to use any additional blockers to help subdue Ngata.
With Ngata in the lineup, the Ravens also boast the capability to stuff the run even from their nickel defense. The screen shot below, from the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots, is one excellent example.
Ngata is shown in the highlighted portion, again aligned next to Suggs. This time he is on the strong side in a shaded technique over the right guard.
The screen shot below shows how Ngata is able disrupt any runner who tries to expose this undermanned front.
The highlighted portion shows Ngata again drawing a double-team at the snap. Ryan Wendell (62) and Dan Connolly (63) are occupied by Ngata. This keeps at least one inside linebacker free and gives Lewis a clear route to the ball, indicated by the red arrow.
Again, Ngata creates a dilemma for his blockers. The screen shot below shows how.
The highlighted portion shows Wendell leaving Ngata to block the advancing Lewis. As soon as he does, Ngata is one-on-one with Connolly. He quickly powers through the single block and hunts down Shane Vereen (34), shown by the red arrow.
The 49ers often mix their alignments and personnel to get defenses into undermanned fronts. They always trust their ground game to win against nickel personnel.
However, Ngata's presence makes that anything but a certainty. The Ravens also do most of their familiar zone blitzing out of nickel packages.
With Ngata occupying the middle, Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees can feel confident about combating the 49ers' powerful rushing attack, even from the nickel.
Boosting the Pass Rush
Ngata's impact is hardly ever limited to just the running game. He is an underrated force in the Ravens' ability to pressure the pass pocket. The screen shot below, from Baltimore's emphatic Week 16 win over the New York Giants, demonstrates the threat he poses.
The Ravens are in their hybrid 3-4 base defense. The highlighted portion shows Ngata aligned as a 3-technique on the strong side.
With Suggs (55) taking a wide rush angle next to him, the Ravens are certain to get a one-on-one matchup for Ngata. The screen shot below shows how well it works.
At the snap, Ngata wins his pass-rush matchup by combining his natural strength with superior technique. In particular, he uses his hands extremely well.
First he swats right guard Chris Snee to the inside with one arm and then swims over the top with the other. This creates an outside pass-rush lane, indicated by the red arrow.
Once he is around Snee, Ngata closes on quarterback Eli Manning. This is indicated by the red arrow in the screen shot below.
Although he can pressure the edge, Ngata should avoid the outside against a quarterback as mobile as Colin Kaepernick. His biggest contribution to the pass rush will be collapsing the interior.
The screen shot below, from the AFC Championship triumph over the Patriots, shows how Ngata creates havoc in the middle.
Ngata is highlighted again aligned next to Suggs. This time he is up against the center in a shade technique, threatening the weak-side A-gap.
This is a useful alignment for Ngata in obvious passing situations. With the offense often utilising four- and five-wide receiver spread sets in these situations, Ngata will often only be single blocked.
The screen shot below shows how easily he can defeat one-on-one blocks with initial quickness and strength.
The highlighted portion shows Ngata immediately rocking left guard Logan Mankins (70) back on his heels. He is quickly out of his stance and shoves Mankins off the line with a powerful stiff arm.
As well as his obvious strength, Ngata succeeds as a pass-rusher thanks to his deceptive agility. This is shown in the screen shot below.
Notice how Mankins has gone to the ground in an attempt to cut Ngata low. However, despite his mammoth 6'4", 340-pound frame, Ngata is just too quick and athletic for this move.
He hurdles Mankins and alters his path to Tom Brady. This is indicated by the blue arrow. From here, Ngata flattens Brady and forces a key incompletion, shown in the highlighted portion of the screen shot below.
Given how the Ravens will need their front to first contain Kaepernick, Ngata can play a vital role. As much as they need Suggs and Paul Kruger to maintain outside rush lanes, the Ravens must hold the middle. Ngata can collapse the pocket from the inside and help keep Kaepernick boxed in.
Ngata as Pass Defender
The Ravens' hybrid schemes only work thanks to the versatility of their athletes. Ngata is a prime example of such versatility. His size is no limit to the role he can play as a pass defender.
The screen shot below shows how Ngata is athletic enough to disrupt a screen pass in the open field.
The highlighted portion shows Ngata aligned at 1-gap defensive tackle on the weak side. In the red box is Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker.
He is coming in motion, as the Patriots set up a wide receiver screen. The screen shot below shows how quickly Ngata reacts.
Ngata quickly recognises the screen and turns in pursuit as soon as Welker catches the ball. His pursuit path is indicated by the blue arrow.
Thanks to his uncanny quickness for a big man, Ngata is able to chase down even a receiver as nimble-footed as Welker. This is shown in the screen shot below.
This level of athleticism makes Ngata a key member of the Ravens coverage schemes. Not only can Pees trust him to diagnose and disrupt screen plays, he can also use Ngata as an underneath pass defender in certain zone blitzes.
The 49ers are fond of screens, particularly early in games, to help Kaepernick establish some rhythm. Their screen-play designs must account for Ngata.
The spotlight will shine on Ray Lewis in his final game. However, it will be Ngata who will determine the success of the Ravens defense.
He is Baltimore's best weapon against the 49ers running game. He can also create plenty of problems in the passing game.
The 49ers often trust their powerful offensive line to win one-on-one. However, they won't find it easy against Ngata. If they use double-teams or stacked sides against Ngata, the Ravens may be able to blitz the undermanned sides.
If Ngata dominates, the Ravens will shut down the powerful and versatile San Francisco offense.
All screen shots courtesy of CBS Sports, Fox Sports and NFL.com GamePass.