Ravens vs. 49ers: Unsung Heroes Who Must Step Up in Super Bowl XLVII
Ray Lewis, Colin Kaepernick and the brothers Harbaugh have dominated the storylines leading up to Super Bowl XLVII, but it won't only be those infamous faces who help determine Sunday's ultimate result.
As is the case in just about every Super Bowl in history, there will be at least one player who bursts onto the big stage with an unforeseen huge game. Last season, it was Mario Manningham whose incredible sideline grab helped spur the New York Giants' final drive to defeat the New England Patriots.
Looking at the rosters for the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, there are a ton of Manninghamian performances that could be waiting in the wings on Sunday. With that in mind, let's take a look at a few players whose ascent is critical to their team's ability to come away with a Super Bowl championship.
Randy Moss (WR, San Francisco 49ers)
When a receiver considers himself the "greatest" of all time, unsung usually isn't the first adjective that comes to mind. But we're discussing the 2013 Super Bowl—not one being played a decade ago. For those purposes, Moss is undoubtedly one of the more vital (and, yes, unsung) players in San Francisco's offense on Sunday.
Moss' role has waxed and waned throughout the 2012-13 season, but has taken a far greater importance since Mario Manningham tore his ACL in Week 16. Since then, Moss has gone from a vacillating role where one week he's the team's second receiver and the next he's nonexistent, to an unquestioned WR2 role.
That hasn't exactly helped his production much, as Moss has been targeted exactly four times in each of the three games since Manningham's injury.
Nevertheless, if San Francisco simply looks at trends in Baltimore's defense, then Moss should excel on Sunday. According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Ravens ranked third-worst against opposing WR2s, a trend that has continued during the postseason on a relative basis.
If the NFC Championship Game taught us anything, it's that Greg Roman is willing and able to tailor his game plan around the weaknesses of the opposing team. Covering tight ends was a massive weak spot for the Atlanta Falcons, and Roman employed an offensive plan that saw Vernon Davis eclipse his yardage total from the previous six games with Kaepernick under center.
Moss may not have 100-plus yards in his system anymore, but don't be surprised if he finds his way into the end zone or comes up with one vintage big play.
Jacoby Jones (WR/KR/PR, Baltimore Ravens)
If the Ravens' season had ended during their double-overtime thriller against the Denver Broncos, Jones could have rested fine knowing he made the biggest play of Baltimore's season. It was Jones who was at the receiving end of Joe Flacco's 70-yard heave that sent the game to overtime and left Broncos fans frothing at the mouth about Rahim Moore's misplaying of the ball.
However, the Ravens may need Jones to have an even bigger coming out party in order to win on Sunday. He led the NFL in kickoff return average, and had three total return touchdowns while helping spur an excellent Baltimore special teams.
According to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, the Ravens had by far the best special teams in the league. Their 9.0 percent value over average is nearly three percent better than the second-place Cleveland Browns, and that's mostly thanks to Jones and kicker Justin Tucker.
Football Outsiders measures Baltimore's kick and punt return teams being worth about 15.8 points better than replacement-level. Though San Francisco's punting ability with Andy Lee may hurt Jones on those attempts, the Ravens return specialist should be able to find success on kick returns.
Per the same measurements, the 49ers' kickoff team was one of their poorest units in the league due mostly to the continued struggles of David Akers. On Akers' kickoffs, opposing teams started at the 25.3-yard line, which is 26th among kickers who attempted 50 or more kickoffs during the regular season.
That means the opportunity will be there for Jones. He's arguably the league's best returns man, facing a coverage unit that hasn't been very good all season.
As most know, the paradigm of NFL games shifts constantly on big plays, especially ones in the special teams. All it will take is that one big play from Jones to perhaps spur the Ravens once again to victory.
Tarell Brown (CB, San Francisco 49ers)
After slowly working his way up through the 49ers depth chart over his six-year career, Brown has finally emerged as the team's top cornerback option. He's received top assignments for almost the entire season, including the NFC Championship Game where Julio Jones made seven of his 11 catches against Brown.
Where Brown was able to mitigate Jones' effect was in long gains. Per Pro Football Focus, Jones' long catch when lined up across Brown was a mere 20 yards, while All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson was the one torched down the field.
Assuming that Brown covers Torrey Smith rather than Anquan Boldin (which he should considering the limitations of Carlos Rodgers), Brown's ability to stop big plays will be essential to the 49ers' victory chances.
The Ravens' passing offense subsists mainly on big plays down the field. Only Andrew Luck attempted more passes than Flacco of 20 or more yards during the regular season, which is a part of the reason the Ravens quarterback's completion percentage is low.
Heading into the Super Bowl, Flacco has completed only 54.8 percent of his passes. But he's been able to mitigate his inaccurate tendencies by hitting continual deep strikes. Flacco's 9.17 yards per attempt is third among playoff quarterbacks, and has been sustained over 93 passes.
What's more, Flacco's ability to stretch the field has had more of a direct correlation between wins and losses for the Ravens than all but two of the 11 starting quarterbacks in the postseason (excluding Joe Webb for obvious reasons).
In victories, Flacco's yards per attempt average was a robust 8.11, which would have ranked second in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III. In losses, however, Flacco's rate dips down to a paltry 5.52 yards per attempt, which would have been the worst among qualifying quarterbacks by nearly a half-yard.
To put it bluntly, the Ravens simply don't win if Flacco fails to make consistent downfield connections. If Brown is able to mitigate the effect of Smith, the 49ers defense could suffocate a huge portion of Baltimore's passing game.
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