San Francisco 49ers second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been spotlighted leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, and for good reason.
But Kaepernick won't be the most important player for the 49ers against the Baltimore Ravens; defensive end Justin Smith will.
It's no coincidence that outside linebacker Aldon Smith fell off the face of the Earth after the elder Smith injured his triceps against the New England Patriots in Week 15. Since Week 14, the 23-year-old hasn't recorded a sack, despite racking up 19.5 sacks through Week 14.
It's also not a coincidence that Aldon appeared to get back on track against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game with Justin healthier. Aldon didn't record a sack in that contest, but he did record seven pressures (two hits, five hurries), according to Pro Football Focus.
As we've seen time and time again, Justin Smith is not only a formidable one-on-one player, but he opens things up for his teammates, drawing double teams and simply making life miserable for the opposing line.
So, what makes him more important than Kaepernick against the Ravens in the Super Bowl?
Simple. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been on fire in the playoffs and the best way to slow any quarterback down is to create pressure.
As noted by Steve Palazzalo of Pro Football Focus, via ESPN, Flacco is a completely different player when he's under duress. He ranked 24th out of 38 qualifying quarterbacks in accuracy percentage when under pressure during the 2012 campaign.
On top of that, as Palazzalo adds, Flacco has been particularly dangerous during the postseason because he's aired it out and connected with deep threats like the speedy Torrey Smith. Flacco's not only tossed eight touchdowns to zero interceptions in three postseason games, he's also averaged 9.17 yards per pass attempt, third among all quarterbacks in the playoffs. Smith has five catches of 20 yards or more, tied for first among receivers in the playoffs (partner-in-crime Anquan Boldin has four catches of 20 yards or more).
If Justin Smith is able to create pressure and open up holes for his teammates, it not only forces Flacco to throw with a hand in his face, it also takes away deep routes because Flacco won't have enough time to wait for his receivers to get downfield.
Beyond the passing game, Smith is also an elite run-stopper, which could cause problems for a Ravens team that features running back Ray Rice (Smith registered 66 tackles in the regular season, tied for fourth among defensive ends). Rice ran for 131 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore's 38-35 overtime victory over the Denver Broncos in the divisional round.
The 49ers and the Ravens each roar into the playoffs with strong defenses and offenses that can put up points quickly. In what should be a close battle, Justin Smith is tremendously important for San Francisco.
What are your thoughts?