We've passed the midpoint between Championship Weekend and Super Bowl Sunday, and by now, you're surely tired of hearing the same, sunny storylines recounted ad nauseum.
Enough of how superb Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick have been in January. And be gone, predictions about how they'll continue that trend in February. Why not a contrarian view to Sunday's big game?
Every Super Bowl is brimming with stars, and the honest to God truth is, every Super Bowl sees a number of those stars disappoint. It happens like clockwork, year after illusion-shattering year. And 2013 will be no different.
Let's examine three big names that might be surprising goats in New Orleans:
LB Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens
Officially, Ray Lewis has been credited with 44 tackles this postseason—the most since Carolina's Dan Morgan had 45 in 2003. That's the story being reported on SportsCenter every morning, so that's the notion some of us have subscribed to.
But many among us, myself included, are skeptical of those specious numbers. Lewis has passed the eye test since returning to action, but his marks on that exam have skewed closer to "C" than "A-plus." CBS Sports' Pete Prisco went back and further perused the game film, which led to some interesting discoveries:
His best game of the postseason came against the Broncos in the divisional round. He was credited with 17 tackles but actually had 14, including 10 solo tackles. In the Indianapolis game, he was credited with 13 tackles but had nine. Against New England in the AFC Championship Game, he was credited with 14 and I had him with 10.
So the numbers are inflated. Some of that is from Lewis getting credit for diving on piles. When in doubt, give Ray an assist.
Those tackle numbers aren't bad by any stretch of the imagination. But unlike the historic numbers he is credited with, they don't stand to compensate for his pitiful pass coverage.
In his 271 postseason snaps, Lewis has graded out as the worst coverage linebacker in all of the postseason (h/t Pro Football Focus). He's looked old and slow chasing around opposing running backs and tight ends, which could be a problem against physically gifted specimens like Vernon Davis, LaMichael James and Colin Kaepernick.
Ray is a great story who (if for no other reason than how much the NFL loves him) deserves to be listed as one of the favorites for Super Bowl MVP. But most among us would be surprised to see him actually play like one this weekend.
WR Michael Crabtree, San Francisco 49ers
We all know how well Crabtree has fared since Colin Kaepernick took over under center. And even with a so-so performance against Atlanta, his 119-yard, two TD performance against Green Bay proves that he can handle the playoff spotlight.
That's exactly what would make a Super Bowl failure so disappointing.
This isn't your daddy's (alright—your older brother's) Ravens defense talent-wise, but they're just as smart and savvy as ever. They know where their own strengths lie, they know where their opponent's weaknesses lie, and they know the best ways to conceal the former while facilitating the latter.
Against the Falcons, San Francisco utilized sundry quick smoke screens to Crabtree on first down. But Andy Benoit of Football Outsiders doesn't think that'll work come Sunday:
Don’t expect to see that kind of aerial run game extension Sunday night. It was likely a game-plan wrinkle aimed specifically at exploiting the off-coverage and meager tackling of Atlanta’s Asante Samuel. Ravens corners Cary Williams and Corey Graham are much more physical near the line than Samuel.
Benoit further expounds on how Baltimore might look to defend the Niners—and specifically how that pertains to Michael Crabtree—later in the article, saying:
It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the Ravens use a lot of man-free lurk coverage. With the exception of Crabtree, none of San Francisco’s wideouts are great at separating from press-man coverage. (And most of Crabtree’s separation comes horizontally, not vertically. He’s an intriguing and improving player, but he’s not much of a downfield threat.)
If executed correctly, the Ravens' strategy could stifle the Niners much as it stifled the Patriots. Baltimore took away the short pass and dared New England to go deep. And without Rob Gronkowski out there to stretch the field, it worked like a charm.
They'll force Crabtree to try and stretch the field against them on Sunday, but like Benoit pointed out, he's not much of a vertical threat. That could make the Niners' perimeter passing game (and Crabtree's numbers on the whole) look much worse than they have of late.
WR Torrey Smith, Baltimore Ravens
Purely a matchup decision. Two weekends ago, Matt Ryan and Julio Jones found a way to beat San Francisco's secondary deep. But that required a couple of perfect throws, a couple of circus catches, and a couple of
rare unseen lapses from the normally disciplined Niners.
I prefer a larger sample size, and from what I've seen over the course of two seasons, this team doesn't get beat in the final third. The NFC Championship Game looked more like an outlier—the exception that proves the rule.
San Francisco has physical corners on the outside, who like to play tight man coverage. As noted by Andy Benoit of Football Outsiders, that could spell trouble for Baltimore's slighter pass-catchers.
Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones are not good against tight man coverage. Neither of them is physically strong, and both have trouble maintaining efficiency in their breaks.
Smith showed in the first half against Denver that he’s capable of rising up and disproving this, but he also showed in the second half of that game, and both halves of the AFC title game, that he can be completely eliminated by an underneath man defender who has safety help over the top. That’s how the Niners will play him this Sunday.
It's possible that Smith finds a way to break over the top and make a big play. Yesterday, for that very reason, I went so far as listing him as a good value bet for Super Bowl MVP.
But the odds of him doing so are, admittedly, a long shot. Not an 18/1 long shot, but a long shot nonetheless.
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