There’s a reason analysts are so divided in picking a winner for Super Bowl XLVII: Baltimore and San Francisco are evenly matched in nearly every way.
The Ravens and 49ers are eerily similar in many senses, none more obvious than at the head coaching position. But even defensive schemes and personnel matchups are fairly consistent, and predicting the outcome of the game is a very inexact science.
Both teams are incredibly talented, and it didn’t happen by chance. Both Baltimore and San Francisco feature a roster with a balanced blend of youth, experience, speed and aggressiveness. We’ll break down each team’s roster and examine some of the matchups we’ll see in Super Bowl XLVII.
Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick play very different styles of football, and it’s difficult to give an edge to either player. Both quarterbacks have a big arm and a lot of talent in the vertical passing game. Few things separate the two, but there is a stark contrast in their styles.
San Francisco employs a lot of read-option looks designed to confuse defenses and get linebackers out of position to make plays at the second level. Kaepernick’s athleticism and ability to do damage with his legs makes him a versatile threat in both the running and passing games.
Flacco isn’t a very mobile quarterback, but play action is also an important element for Baltimore. The Ravens work Ray Rice between the tackles regularly, setting up play-action vertical passing to some very speedy receivers.
If both teams can establish a sound running game early in this contest, Flacco and Kaepernick stand a much better chance of putting up big numbers in pursuit of the Lombardi Trophy.
Advantage: San Francisco
Frank Gore and Ray Rice are two of the best all-purpose backs in the league, and each can do damage between the tackles, off the edge and catching the ball out of the backfield. Rice gets the edge in versatility as he is used much more as a receiving threat out of the backfield, but Gore is certainly capable of turning short passes into big gains.
One of the key matchups to watch during this game is Gore versus Baltimore’s inside linebackers. San Francisco runs behind its guards regularly, and Gore’s bruising running style allows him to hit holes in the middle of the line and keep moving after contact. He’ll have his work cut out for him with Ray Lewis looming in the middle of the field, though.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
It’s hard to compare the receiving corps of Baltimore and San Francisco. The Ravens feature some talented deep-threat receivers in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones on the outside and a couple excellent possession receivers in Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta.
The 49ers’ receivers don’t have as much speed as Baltimore’s, but Michael Crabtree will be the most talented all-around receiver in the game on Sunday. With Randy Moss and tight end Vernon Davis rounding out its receiving crops, San Francisco has a trio of very talented pass-catchers.
Still, San Francisco is lacking a true deep-threat receiver, and while Crabtree is developing into a terrific all-around receiver, the Ravens have a little more versatility in the passing game.
While both teams have some terrific pieces in place, San Francisco has one of the best offensive lines in the entire NFL.
Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati and right tackle Anthony Davis anchor an offensive line that ranked first in the league in adjusted line yards, according to FootballOutsiders.com rankings. The adjusted line yards statistic measures the effectiveness of a team’s linemen in the running game, and San Francisco leads that list with a mark of 4.49 yards.
Bryant McKinnie assumed the left tackle role for the Ravens late in the season due to injuries shuffling around the rotation, and he’s been terrific in that role. Michael Oher shifted to the right tackle position—where he is a better fit for the Ravens—and Baltimore’s offensive line has been terrific in the playoffs.
The Ravens field a quality offensive line, but it just doesn’t compare to the youth and size of San Francisco’s mauling offensive line.
Advantage: San Francisco
Both teams utilize a 3-4 base defense with big, powerful defenders tying up blockers at the line of scrimmage. These linemen do the dirty work and don’t get much recognition for it. Stats are not the most efficient measure of 3-4 defensive linemen.
Justin Smith and Haloti Ngata are the two premier defensive linemen in this game, and they both anchor down the right side of their team’s defensive line. Ngata weighs about 55 pounds more than Smith, but both are terrific at attacking gaps and eating up blockers for their linebackers to make plays.
It’s hard to give an edge to one defensive line unit over the other. Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Isaac Sopoaga each play the nose tackle position with tremendous force, and Ray McDonald and Pernell McPhee have been valuable assets at the left side of their defensive lines this season.
There is a changing of the guard at the linebacker position, and San Francisco now has arguably the best linebacking corps in the NFL. Ray Lewis is set to retire this offseason and Terrell Suggs has been banged up and ineffective, paving the way for Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Aldon Smith to step in and claim the title.
Lewis is still a dominant defensive presence in the middle of the field, but Willis and Bowman simply fly. They cover tons of ground and each accounted for more than 120 tackles in the regular season. Baltimore’s Josh Bynes has been solid next to Lewis, but he isn’t on the same level as San Francisco’s inside linebackers.
Once regarded as one of the best edge-rushers in football, Suggs didn’t produce in 2012 as he usually does. Smith, however, had one of the best campaigns of any pass-rusher in league history. He’s strong, fast and athletic, and his production speaks for itself.
Baltimore has had one of the best groups of linebackers in the league for years, but it’s time to pass the torch to the 49ers.
Advantage: San Francisco
The four best defensive backs in this game will all be playing the safety position. Both teams field a trio of quality cornerbacks, but Donte Whitner, Dashon Goldson, Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard are on a different level.
Goldson and Pollard are terrific at flying all over the field to make big hits. Reed is perhaps the best ball-hawking safety in the league, and Whitner is an imposing presence whether lined up in the box or in the middle of the defensive backfield.
San Francisco cornerbacks Chris Culliver and Tarell Brown will be covering Baltimore’s speedier receivers on the boundaries while veteran Carlos Rogers will be matched up with Anquan Boldin on several occasions. Baltimore’s vertical passing game may wear out the 49ers secondary over the course of the game, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see a coverage breakdown resulting in a big touchdown strike at some point in this game.
Corey Graham and Cary Williams lead the Ravens’ cornerbacks in attempting to shut down Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss. Both corners are big and physical, and they’ll have to play tight coverage to allow Baltimore’s pass rush to get to Kaepernick.