Super Bowl XLVII: Breaking Down Glaring Weaknesses of the Ravens and 49ers
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Just because the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers earned berths in Super Bowl XLVII, they are not impervious to flaws.
Every team in the NFL has weaknesses, and those of the teams competing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy receive extensive transparency. It's simply a matter of the opponent having two weeks to prepare for the biggest game of the season.
Include the Ravens and 49ers previously meeting on Thanksgiving in 2011, and these teams know one another quite well. Not to mention the head coaches, John and Jim Harbaugh, are brothers.
Neither Baltimore nor San Francisco has drastically changed since last season's matchup either.
Colin Kaepernick taking over for Alex Smith is the most notable change, but each team's philosophy of running the rock, playing defense and getting physical at the line of scrimmage hasn't altered. Despite being located across the country from one another, Baltimore and San Francisco possess similar approaches.
That said, the weaknesses between them will garner significant attention on Super Sunday.
San Francisco: Pass Defense
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The 49ers may have been dominant against the pass during the regular season, but they were exposed in two playoff games.
Aaron Rodgers completed 66.7 percent of his throws in the divisional matchup and had two touchdowns to only one pick. He finished with 257 yards passing and 9.88 yards per completion.
This exploitation was inflated by Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC title game.
There, Ryan connected on 71.4 percent of his attempts and had three scores to just one interception. He amassed 396 passing yards, averaging 13.2 per completion, and San Francisco's defense was put on its heels right out of the gates.
Baltimore isn't a pass-first attack by comparison to Green Bay or Atlanta, but Joe Flacco presents the strong arm and receivers to hit the 'Niners early. And the Ravens are peaking at the right time across the board.
Baltimore: Run Defense
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The Ravens have struggled to consistently stuff the run throughout 2012.
Obviously, this is largely due to not being 100 percent during the regular season.
At the same time, however, the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos moved the rock quite well on the ground in January. Indy racked up 152 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per attempt. Rookie ball-carrier Vick Ballard accounted for 91 and helped put the Colts into scoring position.
Fortunately for Baltimore, Ray Lewis and Co. remained excellent when backed up inside the red zone.
Against Denver, Baltimore allowed the Broncos to tally 125 rushing yards, including 83 from rookie Ronnie Hillman.
Facing a veteran back in Frank Gore from San Francisco, as well as the versatility of Colin Kaepernick, the Ravens must primarily focus on the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, the Bay Area will take Super Bowl XLVII.
Both: 3rd-Down Offense
Third-down offense is a shared weakness for Baltimore and San Francisco.
In the regular season, neither was exceptional at converting to move the chains.
The Ravens ranked No. 20 at 36.9 percent (tied with the New York Jets), and the 49ers were No. 25 at 35.1 percent. Given that each offense is squaring off against a veteran defense that has remained dominant at preventing third-down conversions, these situations will play a major factor in the outcome.
On the bright side, each offense has improved on third down this postseason.
Baltimore has converted 16-of-39 in three playoff contests—equating to 41 percent—and San Francisco has gone 10-of-19, which equals 52.6 percent. The concern for the 'Niners, though, is going a mere 2-of-6 in the NFC Championship Game.
In short, don't expect either offense to convert many times on third down. The competitive advantage will be gained via first- and second-down ball movement, along with changing the field position on punts.
San Francisco: Red-Zone Defense
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For as suffocatingly as the 49ers play defense, San Francisco has had issues when backed inside the red zone.
Throughout 2012's regular season, the 'Niners ranked No. 27 in opposing red-zone touchdown percentage (59.52 percent).
Yes, San Francisco has greatly improved in key situations this postseason. And the red-zone stand against the Falcons epitomized the 49ers' capabilities when facing such crucial moments.
Super Bowl XLVII will only be a tougher challenge, however, because the Ravens fielded the No. 5 red-zone touchdown offense (61 percent) in the NFL. Baltimore has also gone 8-for-10 in converting touchdowns in the playoffs; the Ravens' previous five trips have all resulted in touchdowns.
So despite the 49ers' improving third-down defense and ability to limit overall ball movement, the Ravens hold the edge inside the 20-yard line. Considering how many big plays Baltimore has gotten from its offense in January and how many big plays San Francisco gave up to Atlanta, expect Joe Flacco to come out launching.
Even if no connections occur in the first quarter, it's the potential impact of stretching San Francisco that will set up the run. The end result is an increased chance that Baltimore will get inside the red zone with a balanced approach.
Baltimore: Punt/Kickoff Coverage
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Defending punts and kickoffs has been a major problem for Baltimore in the playoffs.
Although much of their trouble came courtesy of Trindon Holliday from Denver, the Ravens weren't entirely reliable against New England on special teams, either.
Devin McCourty returned four kickoffs for 89 yards and averaged 22.3 per attempt. That's not terrible given the weather implications and how consistently the Pats moved the ball early. It was Baltimore's defense that stepped up in the tough situations.
Receiver Wes Welker also collected 56 yards on four punt returns. Welker was able to average 14 yards per attempt, and his return ability is still inferior to that of Ted Ginn Jr.
Yes, Ginn hasn't impacted the 49ers in 2012 like they did in 2011, however, he possesses the acceleration, top speed and agility to make defenders miss in open space.
Factor in the threat of rookie LaMichael James on kickoffs and Baltimore must cover better on returns: He averaged 29.8 yards on kickoff returns.
Looking back at Holliday's 248 return yards and two scores against Baltimore, San Francisco holds the personnel to match that on Super Bowl Sunday. And that's one vital advantage regarding field position.