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Will the 49ers Be Able to Slow Down Baltimore's Passing Attack?

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Will the 49ers Be Able to Slow Down Baltimore's Passing Attack?
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The San Francisco 49ers have already defeated two star quarterbacks en route to making Super Bowl XLVII.

The Red and Gold are tasked in doing that one more time against Joe Flacco.

The Baltimore Ravens signal-caller has been superb this postseason, passing for eight touchdowns and zero interceptions in three games. 

The way San Francisco's offense is rolling, it's likely that the 49ers defense won't have to completely shut down Flacco to win this game.

But the 49ers will need to at least slow down the fifth-year quarterback.

Let's break down how San Francisco's pass defense matches up with Baltimore's passing attack.

 

What the 49ers Want to Do

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The 49ers want to get pressure with only four rushers, and they've shown time and again that they have the personnel to do that.

In the regular season, San Francisco ranked fourth in passing yards allowed per game and 11th in total sacks. There were concerns going into the playoffs about San Francisco's pass rush, as Aldon Smith was in a drought and Justin Smith was recovering from a triceps injury.

But the 49ers defense was plenty good enough against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay offense, holding them to just two offensive touchdowns in the first 59 minutes of San Francisco's 45-31 divisional round win.

It was Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons, however, who might have given the Ravens a blueprint to beat San Francisco's defense.

In the first half, Ryan passed for 271 yards and the Falcons scored 24 points. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was stubborn in his calls, opting not to unleash many blitz packages. 

When San Francisco got pressure, Ryan got rid of the ball quickly. When the 49ers didn't—which was happening more often than not—he was able to pick apart the 49ers secondary. 

After Julio Jones' 46-yard touchdown catch, the 49ers did a good job of keeping the Falcons receivers from getting behind them. They made Ryan march down the field with short and intermediate throws. 

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And he did just that for an entire half of football. 

Ryan finished the game with 396 passing yards, but he had two second-half turnovers—rather unforced, I should add—that contributed to the Falcons being shut out in the final 30 minutes. 

San Francisco deserves credit for taking advantage of his mistakes, but don't pretend that Ryan's first half was a fluke. The 49ers haven't been getting a lot of pressure for the last four games, and a quality quarterback—like Flacco—is capable of beating this secondary if the lack of pressure continues.

If the 49ers get tons of pressure with only four rushers, they should easily win Super Bowl XLVII. If not, Fangio may have to risk allowing some big plays to pressure Flacco

It may have been a coincidence that Ryan's first turnover came directly after San Francisco's only sack, but generally speaking, quarterbacks perform much worse when they are getting hit. It's undetermined how they'll do it, but the 49ers must hit Flacco early to get him out of his rhythm. 

 

What the Ravens Want to Do

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In the regular season, Flacco was fairly inconsistent, particularly when the Ravens abandoned the run game.

Lost in Flacco's playoff greatness has been the performance of Baltimore's rushing attack. The Ravens have rushed for 149 yards per game in the playoffs. 

The best way to keep the 49ers pass rush honest is to stay balanced, but San Francisco's rushing defense is so sound that I believe Baltimore will feature a pass-heavy attack.

This Super Bowl could very well come down to Flacco leading his team down the field play after play in shotgun, three-receiver sets. 

The Falcons had very little help from their running game against San Francisco, and yet they still put together a first-half aerial assault. 

When making intermediate throws, Flacco has had most of his success targeting Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta. Baltimore would be wise to mimic Atlanta's game plan that made Tony Gonzalez so successful in the NFC title game. 

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Virtually every time the 49ers didn't press Gonzalez on the line, the tight end ran a quick out. When the 49ers had a linebacker press Gonzalez, the Falcons had Jones and Roddy White run deeper hitch and dig routes in the area vacated by the linebacker. 

Of course, what would really tip this matchup in Baltimore's favor is if Torrey Smith has several 20-plus-yard receptions. San Francisco would be wise to keep a safety over the top at all times on Smith's side. His size and speed would give any cornerback fits (just ask Champ Bailey).

Lastly, look for the Ravens to try to take advantage of Carlos Rogers in the slot.

Jacoby Jones and Smith are both capable of absolutely burning Rogers, who has been San Francisco's weak link at cornerback this year.

 

Verdict

There are two important stats about this matchup that should be considered. 

First, Flacco has been far worse passing against the blitz (h/t Bleacher Report's Andrea Hangst) this season.

Second, the 49ers allowed only three touchdowns that traveled at least 21 yards in the air, tied for second fewest in the league (via ESPN.com).

I don't expect Fangio to blitz every down, but he really ought to mix it up more, as the 49ers have only blitzed 6.9 percent of the time this postseason (via ESPN's Mike Sando). Making Flacco weary of a rush would likely make him less confident when standing in the pocket. 

Overall, I expect the 49ers to blitz a bit more than usual, but Fangio is stubborn for a reason. His defense is one of the best in the league, and it forces teams to sustain long drives to score. 

Flacco should have success on his short and intermediate passes, but his deep passes to Smith won't be open against Dashon Goldson and San Francisco's secondary.

Expect Flacco to throw for nearly 300 yards, but to also post his worst yards-per-attempt average and toss his first interception of this year's postseason. 

And that would signify that the 49ers "slowed him down."

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