As it relates to the Ravens, they shocked the football world by knocking off the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots (both on the road) en-route to New Orleans. Joe Flacco, a primary reason for their success, is playing the best football of his career.
Yes, both teams are for real.
That being said, San Francisco has some built-in advantages here.
Colin Kaepernick and the Read Option
Let's get right down to it. This second-year quarterback seems to have ice in his veins. Kaepernick's coming out party of sorts was against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots on the road at Gillette Stadium on Sunday Night Football in Week 15.
None of us could have foreseen just exactly how much that was a prelude of things to come.
Kaepernick clearly outplayed Aaron Rodgers in the divisional playoffs before leading San Francisco's dynamic offensive attack to a really nice performance in the second half against Atlanta. He just doesn't seem to be phased by anything at this early stage in his career.
Equally as important, Baltimore is going to have a heck of a time defending the read option. It could go the route that Green Bay did a couple weeks back. Play the run between the hashes and allow Kaepernick all the green he wants on the outside. Well, we all saw how that worked.
It could also utilize the same type of scheme that Atlanta did in the championship game. That would be to use a spy in order to keep Kaepernick between the hashes. The results weren't too great for the Falcons there as LaMichael James and Frank Gore combined for three rushing touchdowns, plays that they were barely even touched.
In addition, Baltimore doesn't seem to have the personnel to match up against the read option. It cannot use Ray Lewis as a spy because Kaepernick will easily beat him to the outside on every play. Utilizing Dannell Ellerbe here would also create mismatches for Baltimore going up against the likes of Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker at tight end (more on that in a bit).
In short, there really is no reason to believe that Kaepernick won't have a huge game come Sunday evening. All the indicators are there for him to dominate on the offensive side of the ball.
The Tight Ends
I fully understand that Walker has struggled catching the ball this season. By no means does that indicate he will not match up well against the Ravens on Sunday. This doesn't even take into account Davis, who seemed to start getting more looks in the passing game against Atlanta.
How does Baltimore even begin to set a plan against these two ultra-athletic tight ends?
Either Lewis or Ellerbe will be used to spy Kaepernick if that is the route that Baltimore decides to go. This leaves the other linebacker up against Davis with coverage from Ed Reed over the top. There is no way that John Harbaugh and company have to like that matchup.
Davis, as one of the most athletic players on the 49ers, will have a field day if Baltimore assigns Lewis and/or Reed to go up against him. While both are future Hall of Fame players, they are clearly passed their prime.
If Baltimore decides to double Davis between the hashes, that will leave Michael Crabtree in single coverage on the outside. No player in the Ravens secondary will be able to stop the talented young receiver in man coverage.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and head coach Jim Harbaugh have to be drooling at the idea of calling plays against a unit that just doesn't match up well versus their skill position players.
Look for Davis to have a huge game here unless Baltimore defensive coordinator Dean Pees draws up a ridiculously good game plan in order for that unit to have success. I don't see it happening.
The Run/Pass Mix
As Jim Harbaugh has gone on record saying multiple times, Kaepernick isn't just a read-option quarterback. He has one of the strongest arms in the NFL and has been surprisingly accurate throughout his first nine NFL starts. I say "surprising" considering that accuracy was considered a weakness for the Nevada product when he entered the league in 2011.
If Baltimore plays nickel or zone to stop San Francisco's improved passing game, you will see Frank Gore and LaMichael James find huge holes at the line of scrimmage. Both have the field vision, cutback ability and speed to break long runs in those situations.
If Baltimore stacks the box against the run, a likely scenario early, Kaepernick shouldn't have a huge problem finding Crabtree, Davis, Walker and Randy Moss down the field as long as protection holds up for him.
One of my favorite terms recently is "stuck between a rock and a hard place." That term will best define Baltimore's defense come Sunday evening when it goes up against one of the most unconventional offenses in recent NFL history.
Later in the week I will focus on what advantages the underdog Ravens might have in Super Bowl XLVII.
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