When the Baltimore Ravens take the field against the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's Super Bowl, they'll need solid performances out of every single player on offense, defense and special teams, that's a given. However, it stands to reason that some members of the Ravens will play more integral roles than others in their attempt to bring a second Lombardi Trophy back to Baltimore.
Let's take a look at the most important Ravens to watch in the Super Bowl.
QB Joe Flacco
Without question, the spotlight is firmly on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco in this game. This playoff run in particular has been heavily dependent on what Flacco has been able to accomplish—eight touchdowns, no interceptions, 853 yards and a quarterback rating above 100 over the past three games. And if the Ravens are to defeat the 49ers on Sunday, Flacco will again need to put forth another strong performance.
This isn't about whether or not Flacco deserves to be counted among the NFL's best quarterbacks, nor about how much money he could stand to make with a Super Bowl win to his name. It's simply about the Ravens putting forth their best possible offensive performance, and that means exploiting the Niners' weaknesses in coverage.
Flacco is likely to see a great deal of pressure on Sunday—San Francisco boasts one of the best pass rushes in the league—and how he responds to it will dictate how well the Ravens' offense in general fares. He'll need to stay accurate regardless of who is trying to get into his face and he will need to show off his strong arm and get the ball down the field.
Considering that the Ravens have trailed in time of possession in all but one half of their three playoff games thus far, Flacco must continue to take advantage of the opportunities he's given, because he may not see that many.
The past three games for Flacco have served to prove that his ceiling is much higher than it appeared after his previous four seasons. However, he'll need to keep up the pace, make intelligent decisions, and read the complex 49ers defense in mere fractions of a second. It's important that Flacco has a big game on the NFL's biggest stage.
LB Paul Kruger
With three postseason sacks, five quarterback hits and 10 hurries, Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger has been their most effective pass-rusher, and on Sunday he has a chance to make a household name of himself against Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his offensive line.
Though Kaepernick is always a threat to take off running while under pressure, most of the rushing duties in the postseason have fallen to running back Frank Gore, with defenses keyed in on the possibility that Kaepernick runs with it. He's had just six runs in the playoffs on 60 dropbacks—i.e. he's managed to scramble away from pressure only 10 percent of the time he's planned to pass, but he's only been sacked twice.
There's no doubt that Kaepernick is both elusive and well-protected, so it will take some creativity on behalf of Baltimore's pass rush to get pressure on him effectively while not being burned by his mobility. Though fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs will also play a major role in this endeavor, it will likely be Kruger who ends up getting the sweeter end of this particular deal.
Foremost, Suggs has spent the majority of the 2012 season plagued with injuries—first, a partially-torn Achilles' tendon he suffered last spring and then a biceps tear that happened in December. Though he's easily played his best football of the year during the postseason—with two sacks, two hits, three hurries and over a dozen combined tackles—he may be more useful as a decoy to eat up San Francisco's offensive line's attention while Kruger does the majority of the dirty work.
The key will be Kruger's ability to keep up with whatever may develop for the Niners—whether run or pass, whether it's Kaepernick or Gore taking off with the ball. The linebackers aren't the first line of defense, of course, but it's up to them to make the stops, while the defensive line ahead of them occupy and confuse the offensive line. The quickness of San Francisco's offense cannot prove to be too much for Kruger, because he's become the glue that holds the linebacking corps together.
It's not as though Kruger doesn't have experience this season against an offensive attack akin to San Francisco's. In Baltimore's 31-28 Week 14 loss to the Washington Redskins, Kruger was their top performing linebacker, with two sacks and seven hurries, and he wasn't thrown to in coverage once.
No, the Ravens didn't win that game, but that's not important here. What is, however, is how Kruger was able to deal with a mobile quarterback like Robert Griffin III, who, like Kaepernick, is also a very real threat in the passing game, and how he was able to balance out his assignments to neither let Griffin scramble effectively nor give up yards in trade to their star running back Alfred Morris. At left outside backer, Kruger gave up only 17 rushing yards to Morris and Griffin himself had only 30 rushing yards in the game.
With Kruger only getting better once the playoffs arrived and there being very real evidence that he can handle an offense like the 49ers, he's certainly the top Ravens defender to watch on Sunday.
RB Ray Rice
Baltimore's run game will play a significant role in how its offense fares against the 49ers on Sunday; though it won't carry with it the same importance as Flacco and his ability to stare down pressure, having a balanced approach to the offense as well as a creative one will be necessary and will require a heavy dose of Ray Rice.
That means that Rice will need to be effective in the pass and the run game as well as in protection. Rice will need to be a weapon, but he'll also need to stave off San Francisco's pass rush and pick up the blitz—and so far in the postseason, he's been strong in that latter area, giving up no quarterback pressures in his 30 pass-blocking snaps.
As a running back, Rice has also been quite good in the postseason. Though his 3.9 yards per carry over the past three games is dwarfed by the 6.3 average of his teammate's, Bernard Pierce, where he's particularly excelled is after contact. Though Rice had 249 total yards on his 64 carries, 131 of those came after first contact. With the Niners defense ranking third in the league at present against the run, Rice's ability to stay standing after the first tackler gets in his space is a major asset.
Rice can also be used to speed up Baltimore's passing game, which could be incredibly important depending on how often Flacco is pressured. Though Rice was thrown to less in the postseason than in the regular season—he had just eight targets and four catches, for 69 yards, while he was typically thrown to around five times per game in the regular season—his tackle-breaking ability will prove extremely useful when the Ravens need to get yards on the outside, quickly.
Like any running back, the majority of the passes thrown to Rice this year have been of a distance of nine yards or less—42 from the line of scrimmage to nine yards and another 42 from behind the line of scrimmage, with those passes netting him the greatest yardage. With plays potentially breaking down under pressure, Rice needs to make himself available for the quick screen or a dump-off.
All facets of Baltimore's offense should involve Rice on Sunday. Luckily, he has shown both in the playoffs and the regular season that he's more than capable of succeeding at the many tasks he'll be asked to do.
CB Corey Graham
In some ways, Ravens slot cornerback Corey Graham came into his own over the course of the playoffs, but in others, he's still a fairly raw player asked to do quite a bit of work. Brought in initially to bolster their special teams, Graham has found himself a starter in the nickel defense, thanks to a constant stream of injuries among Baltimore's cornerbacks.
Graham has played nearly ever single defensive snap in the playoffs this year, and while he grades out the highest in coverage among all Ravens defenders, his performances on a weekly basis in the postseason make him kind of a wild card in the Super Bowl.
Graham was the most tested of the Ravens' coverage team against the Indianapolis Colts, with 13 passes thrown to his receivers. Only six of those passes were caught, however, for 71 yards and no scores, and he successfully defensed two of those throws.
His performance the next week, against the Denver Broncos, was both good and bad. He allowed six of eight passes thrown his way to be caught (bad), for 61 yards (good), two touchdowns (bad) and two interceptions (good)—including a pick-six and the one that set up the Ravens' double-overtime win (very good).
Against the New England Patriots, he only dealt with one man—Wes Welker. This time, there was little upside to his game. Welker caught five of six passes thrown his way, resulting in 78 yards and a touchdown.
Though the Niners don't have a slot receiver they rely upon regularly, they may just have a few tricks up their sleeves on Sunday to help exploit the inconsistency that Graham has shown over the past few weeks.
That may mean more looks to A.J. Jenkins, who has played only seven postseason snaps. It could result in Graham being paired up with tight end Vernon Davis, especially if Ed Reed provides safety help against Michael Crabtree and Bernard Pollard is involved with helping out the front seven. Or Graham could see Crabtree himself, with the 49ers trying to create a mismatch between their top receiver and a relatively green corner.
With the Ravens likely looking to force the Niners into one-dimensionality by cutting off the run game and forcing Kaepernick to throw, Graham needs to limit the damage receivers do on his defense. He cannot give up a touchdown or two as he has in the last two weeks—he needs the interceptions without the mistakes. With the rest of Baltimore's secondary downright scary, Graham will be tested, and he needs to pass if the Ravens defense is going to have any success executing their vision.