Spotlighting the Weakest Links in Super Bowl XLVII
Teams and players may try to sell some overused cliché about how they prepare for the Super Bowl just as they have any other game, but we all know that every play, every matchup and every moment in this championship game is magnified.
Players who have been serviceable and reliable all season against quality opponents may now find themselves targeted and exploited by their Super Bowl opponent.
Weakness on a Super Bowl roster suddenly becomes highly relative. In a game as big as this, on a stage where legacies are forged for all time, even good players can become the weakest link.
Ray Lewis in Coverage
Ray Lewis may be a powerful emotional leader for the Baltimore Ravens, but it's his limitations in pass coverage that could be a difference-maker in the Super Bowl.
Lewis has received tons of praise for his ability to will the Ravens to three inspired postseason victories. However, it's no secret that he has slowed down dramatically over the years. Baltimore has tried to hide his deficiencies in pass coverage by allowing him to roam free, but teams are still finding ways to take advantage.
According to Pro Football Focus, in the playoffs alone, Lewis has been targeted 19 times, with receivers making 15 catches for 178 yards. Those are big numbers against a linebacker covering the intermediate zones of the passing game.
Very rarely will you see Lewis trying to run with a receiver or running back in man coverage. He's usually the designated "hole" dropper if he isn't thrown into the rush, which means he would be responsible for the middle of the field between five and 10 yards deep.
With the size and speed of Vernon Davis, the 49ers should be able to generate favorable matchups against Lewis. He will not be asked to cover Davis alone much, if at all, but formations and personnel groupings could force the Ravens' hand at times.
This will clearly put much of the burden of covering Davis on guys like Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. But that will also force Lewis to run with the backs out of the backfield.
Expect to see deep routes by the running backs, designed to isolate the coverage on Lewis without much safety help over the top. If his 37-year-old legs are not up for the challenge, he may cost his team first downs and several big plays.
Colin Kaepernick's Inexperience
Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Sure, Colin Kaepernick hasn't shown much nervousness thus far in the playoffs. His poise and confidence in his first nine starts have been nothing short of amazing.
But showing up on the biggest stage in all of sports as a second-year pro with less than a full season of games under his belt could prove to be more than the youngster can handle, especially when he is forced to outsmart two of the smartest, most experienced defenders in the game.
Ed Reed is one of the greatest ball hawks the sport has ever seen. He and Ray Lewis were even able to outsmart the uncanny preparation and cognitive ability of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.
To neutralize his inexperience, Kaepernick will have to take full advantage of his rare athletic ability. This element of his game will definitely keep Baltimore defenders up at night and open holes in the secondary.
Bottom line: There is no telling how a QB as inexperienced as Kaepernick will respond in the biggest game of his life.
Bryant McKinnie at Left Tackle
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Yes, Bryant McKinnie was benched for most of the season for underwhelming the coaches in practice and showing up vastly overweight. But he has since been reinvigorated, showing determination, power and a Jedi-like focus.
All of this considered, come Sunday, the Big Mac protecting Joe Flacco's blind side could be in for the battle of his career. He is going to be tasked with the challenge of stopping Aldon and Justin Smith, who team up for one of the best pass rushes in the NFL. They have been known to downright embarrass unsuspecting tackles with their loop stunts.
Aldon Smith finished the regular season with 19.5 sacks. He has the speed, strength and body control to give a guy like McKinnie fits if he isn't 100 percent prepared for battle.
In the four games since McKinnie has taken over at left tackle, he has given up two sacks and allowed seven QB hurries, according to PFF.
The Smiths are also highly active in the running game, as they are two of the hardest guys in the league to block. If the Ravens have any hope of establishing a run game, they'll need a big day from Bryant as a run-blocker as well.
Delanie Walker's Hands
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports
According to PFF, over the last three games, Delanie Walker has been targeted 10 times. Of those targets, he's caught four for 87 yards and dropped three, and he has not scored a touchdown.
As an athletic, undersized tight end, Walker has been most effective for the 49ers when used as a utility guy valued for his versatility.
However, his athleticism and versatility could be all for naught if he continues to miss on big opportunities.
Walker has been an unreliable target. He's had 11 dropped balls and only 23 receptions. That's a terrible catch/drop ratio, making him one of the 49ers' biggest weaknesses heading into the Super Bowl.
Given the limited depth they have at receiver due to injury, the 49ers will need to get big plays out of Walker this Sunday. If he continues to struggle, it could cost them in the Super Bowl.
Kelechi Osemele's Inexperience
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Kelechi Osemele made this list for a number of reasons.
First, he's a rookie offensive lineman who is going to start in the Super Bowl. Just as mentioned in the Kaepernick slide, this is a monumental responsibility for anyone, let alone someone with such little experience.
Most linemen take two or three years to find their groove in this league, Osemele is being asked to expedite this process on the biggest stage imaginable.
Second, and perhaps most important, Osemele will be asked to block Justin Smith, one of the most dominant interior linemen in the NFL. Smith not only will run you over with brute strength and power, but also possesses perhaps the most relentless motor in the league. While other guys are wearing down and gasping for air, Smith is still going strong.
This means if Osemele is going to have a good game, he must match Smith's focus and intensity on every play.
For Osemele's sake, let's hope there's no validity to this whole rookie-wall phenomenon.
Randy Moss as a No. 2 Receiver
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The great Randy Moss was brought to the 49ers to provide the offense with a deep threat that could take the top off a defense. Unfortunately, Moss has not delivered on that expectation. In fact, Moss has only seven receptions of more than 20 yards.
Furthermore, Moss has not been much of a reliable option as a No. 2 receiver. Including the regular season and playoffs, only once has Moss exceeded 50 receiving yards in a game. Every other game he has failed to generate any substantial production despite assuming a bigger role in the offense in the second half of the season due to injuries at the position.
Moss is nearly 36 years old and in the twilight of his career. Winning a Super Bowl is an accomplishment that has eluded him in his Hall of Fame career. This Sunday, for the second time in his career, he'll find himself one game away from this feat. Hopefully, he will find a way to dig deep and sacrifice his body for one last game.
This would require Moss to do the things he has long left behind in his game, things such as taking hits across the middle, breaking tackles, blocking with vigor and lowering his shoulder into would-be tacklers.
There is no doubt seeing this type of effort from Moss would inspire his teammates to fight that much harder. It may also be the difference in a win or loss.
Joe Flacco vs. the Blitz
Yes, Joe Flacco has had an amazing run in the postseason. He's definitely opening up the debate as to whether he belongs in the select group of "elite" quarterbacks. Throughout the playoffs, Flacco has thrown for eight touchdowns without a single interception.
But Flacco still has a weakness. It appears that Mr. Joe Cool may not be all that cool under pressure. In watching tape, you can see there are times when he is rattled in the pocket, which clearly affects his accuracy and decision-making.
According to PFF, when Flacco is not being blitzed, he has a 63 percent completion rate and is averaging 7.7 yards per completion. But once a defense decides to bring the heat, Flacco has a tendency to panic, and his efficiency goes way down. His completion rate falls to 50 percent and his yards per attempt to 5.9.
If the 49ers do decide to bring the heat, Flacco will have to do better than a 50 percent completion rate if the Ravens are to have any chance at winning the championship.