It isn’t just the Harbaugh name that links the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens. These two NFL teams share a lot of similarities.
From defensive alignments to quality running games and quarterbacks that can make big plays, the Ravens and 49ers present an unmistakable level of parity. Football fans will be in for a treat when they square off on Feb. 3.
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So much of the identity of both teams is centered on tough defensive football and sound preparation. Defensive coordinators Vic Fangio (San Francisco) and Dean Pees (Baltimore) have done so much with what they have been given. The result is two of the best defenses in the NFL.
Because of the immense talent each team has on the defensive side of the ball, game-planning and preparation becomes that much more important heading into the bright lights of New Orleans. We’ll take a look at the offensive keys to victory for each team, and highlight the most important matchups and strategies that will secure a victory for either Baltimore or San Francisco.
Keys for Baltimore
According to Mike Sando of ESPN, San Francisco only sent five or more pass-rushers 6.9 percent of its defensive plays in the 49ers' first two playoff games. That percentage may increase during the Super Bowl, but don’t expect San Francisco to send all-out pressure very often.
The 49ers get most of their pass rush from the right side of the defense, led by Justin Smith and Aldon Smith. As long as the pass rush is concentrated in one area, Baltimore can focus on keeping the pressure off Joe Flacco’s blind side.
Baltimore would be wise to regularly slide protection to the left in this game, and also line up tight ends and running backs to the left on many occasions. Adding extra blockers to the “Smith” side will allow the Ravens to keep San Francisco’s best pass-rushers at bay without sacrificing schematic flexibility.
Because Fangio doesn’t send big numbers on the blitz all that often, it also becomes imperative for Joe Flacco to take advantage of the numbers in the passing game. He’s going to have some time in the pocket, but sending less pressure means more bodies in the defensive secondary. Flacco must make wise decisions and not force passes into deep coverage. Check-down routes will be a crucial element for Baltimore to keep the chains moving.
Still, San Francisco got beat deep on a couple plays early in its matchup with Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game, and Flacco’s decision-making will be a key element to Baltimore’s passing attack. He can’t force those deep throws, but when the opportunity is presented, Flacco must make the most of the speed of his receivers.
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The Ravens must also establish the run early in this game. San Francisco’s defense allowed just 3.7 yards per carry in the regular season as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman led the charge against opposing runners between the tackles. They comprise one of the best inside linebacker duos in the league, but Baltimore can’t be afraid to run at them.
Establishing a sound running game will aid in the deep passing game that has worked so well for Baltimore in the playoffs. Play-action passing is a big key to the Ravens’ offensive success, so keeping San Francisco’s inside linebackers and safeties closer to the line of scrimmage should serve to open up deeper routes for Baltimore’s receivers.
For the Ravens, offensive production will come down to establishing a game plan that has worked well this offseason. Getting Ray Rice involved in both the running game and short passing game will be crucial, and sound decision-making on Flacco’s part could prove to be the most important element to a Baltimore victory.
Keys for San Francisco
Keeping the chains moving will all boil down to how well San Francisco can dominate at the line of scrimmage.
The 49ers have one of the best offensive lines in the league, but it will be going up against a trio of powerful defensive linemen and some quality edge-rushers. Those linemen will be attempting to eat up as many blockers as possible and controlling the gaps at the line of scrimmage.
If San Francisco is to have any success in the running game, its offensive linemen must focus on getting to the second level and neutralizing Baltimore’s linebacking corps.
The running game will be San Francisco’s best asset in this contest. The 49ers were able to churn out 149 yards on the ground against Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game, due in large part to their ability to dominate at the line. Colin Kaepernick didn’t have to do too much, and he put together an efficient performance.
Baltimore finished the regular season ranked No. 20 against the run, but the Ravens have been much more stable this postseason. For San Francisco to open up some big plays later in the game, it needs to first dominate up front and keep Baltimore off balance with a strong effort from Frank Gore.
Ultimately, Kaepernick is San Francisco’s best big-play weapon, whether he gets it done with his arm or his legs. Kaepernick is still fairly inexperienced, though, and the 49ers have to limit the production of Baltimore’s safeties.
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Getting the running game going and forcing Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard active in the box will open up wider windows for Kaepernick in the passing game, especially in the middle of the field where Vernon Davis can do a lot of damage.
The deep routes up the sidelines will be there at times, but the window will be microscopic with Baltimore’s safeties playing back in coverage. If the 49ers hope to make big plays in the passing game, first establishing the run and setting up play-action will be critical.
Baltimore and San Francisco have been terrific on offense this postseason, but with two weeks to game-plan and prepare, both defenses will be ready for a much more low-scoring affair. Limiting mistakes and protecting the football will be a big key for both teams, and could ultimately decide the winner of Super Bowl XLVII.