One of the key tasks for the Baltimore Ravens in this Sunday's Super Bowl is to keep their quarterback, Joe Flacco, protected from the San Francisco 49ers' venerable pass rush. Flacco must stay upright and in the pocket in order to continue the passing magic that helped bring his team to the NFL's biggest stage, which means that his offensive linemen must also perform much as they did in their three previous playoff contests.
The reorganization of the Ravens' offensive line prior to the start of the postseason is a big reason why Flacco has been so successful in the weeks since. Michael Oher, who gave up 10 sacks as a left tackle, was shifted to the right, with McKinnie taking over at left. Rookie Kelechi Osemele, who saw most of his time in the regular season at right tackle, was moved to left guard. Only right guard Marshal Yanda and center Matt Birk retained their regular-season jobs.
The result was Flacco being sacked only four times during the Ravens' three playoff games, along with 23 total pressures—an average of seven pressures per game, as compared to 12 per game during the regular season. The offensive line held strong even against the Denver Broncos, whose 52 sacks in the regular season led the league.
The 49ers' front seven pose a similar threat, even though they weren't as tough both in the final stretch of the season and in the playoffs. Outside linebacker Aldon Smith ended the season with 19.5 sacks, but had none in Weeks 15 through 17 nor in the postseason, thanks in part to defensive end Justin Smith (who generally clears the way for Aldon by taking up two offensive linemen) missing time with a triceps tear.
However, Aldon will still need to be contained in the Super Bowl and kept clear of Flacco. It's not simply safe to assume that his lack of sacks will continue, especially considering how versatile he is.
Though Aldon will be lined up primarily against McKinnie, he will also likely be moved around the defensive line as an end when the Niners are in the nickel formation. That means the left tackle won't be the only one looking for Aldon nor the only one responsible for him. And, beyond Aldon, there are other dangerous members of the Niners defense who will be trying to get to Flacco.
For example, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks. Brooks, who had 6.5 regular-season sacks and nine total quarterback pressures in the playoffs, will be lined up on the left against Oher (he also shifts to defensive end in nickel situations). Though Oher is better suited to working as a right tackle and has only given up three postseason pressures (all hurries), his struggles on the left side this year aren't an entirely faded memory.
Also dangerous is inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Though his time is mainly spent in run-stopping and coverage—only nine of his total 121 postseason snaps have been in the pass rush—he may be used more often in pressure situations on Sunday simply because he'll be matched up against the rookie Osemele.
Nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga will also be important in the Niners' efforts at getting at Flacco—it will be he who collapses the pocket, allowing the linebackers or ends to make their moves.
Much like in the regular season, Flacco didn't fare particularly well under pressure in the playoffs, though he was sacked less often. In his first 16 games this year, Flacco completed just 46.3 percent of his passes when facing pressure and 51.2 percent when that pressure came in the form of a blitz. Though his touchdown-to-interception rate wasn't so terrible—three picks to eight touchdowns—it's clear that pressure, especially on crucial second and third downs, could serve to derail otherwise productive Ravens drives.
In the playoffs, Flacco's completion percentage under pressure dipped even further. He completed only 37.5 percent of his pressured passes and 47.1 when blitzed. Though he had no picks in those three games and his pressured passes resulted in two touchdowns, again, it's clear that effective pressure can certainly help the Niners force Baltimore off the field this Sunday.
For example, the Ravens never led in time of possession in the postseason except for in the second half of the AFC title game against the New England Patriots, which gave them the overall advantage on the day. They were down 11:48 to 18:12 to New England at halftime and trailed to the Broncos 40:06 to 36:36 in the previous week. They also held the ball for just 22:28 to the Indianapolis Colts' 37:32 in the Wild Card Round. Their third down conversions, especially in the first half of their playoff games, hasn't been all that good, either.
The key to Baltimore's postseason offensive explosion is their ability to turn first downs into more first downs and to convert on second down rather than third. Therefore, the Ravens offensive line as well as Flacco need to be prepared for pressure coming on any down, at any time. It won't be just a third-down tool for the Niners, so consistent diligence will be key.
Though the Niners' pass rush seemed to have slowed some at the end of the regular season and into the playoffs, it's still their most dangerous defensive tool. It's certainly the most effective way to shut Flacco down, considering that their secondary has been somewhat of a liability in relation to the way their front seven has performed this year.
Baltimore's new-look offensive line, however, proved it could handle a top-tier pass rushing unit when they took on the Broncos. That's a good start when it comes to how they'll manage against San Francisco on Sunday, but Flacco will also need to be more accurate when he does throw under pressure. Yards will be at a premium, so the Ravens cannot afford to allow any opportunity that comes their way to be wasted.