The pass rush isn't the only aspect of the San Francisco 49ers defense that the Baltimore Ravens will have to fight against in Sunday's Super Bowl—they'll also need to break through that front seven if they want to run the ball.
For the Ravens to be successful in the passing game, and for the offense to simply not become one-dimensional, running well will be key. Balance is what wins championships, but properly executing that balanced approach is necessary. And it's certainly going to be difficult on Sunday.
On the season, the Niners defense ranked third against the run, allowing an average of 94 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per rush. And rushing touchdowns? The Niners are near the top of the pack, just giving up a mere seven of them over the course of the regular season.
It's not as though the Ravens are any stranger to strong run defenses. In the divisional round of the playoffs, for example, they met the Denver Broncos and their fourth-overall ranked run defense and managed 155 yards on the ground on 39 total runs, with Ray Rice leading the way with 131 yards and a score on 30 carries. Clearly, running well against a top defense can be done, even in high-stakes games like the playoffs and Super Bowl.
It all comes down to approach. The Ravens can be successful running either up the middle or on the outside, they just need to know what they're looking at when it comes to the Niners defense and how best to exploit it.
As Ben Stockwell of Pro Football Focus points out, the Ravens are fairly transparent when it comes to the personnel on the field dictating whether they run or pass the ball.
He notes that the Ravens, under offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, run the ball just 25 percent of the time when in 11 personnel—one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers—while they do so 66 percent of the time in 21 personnel—two running backs, one tight end and two receivers. He also points out that the 21 personnel would force the 49ers to work out of their base defense, which sets up the Ravens perfectly to run up the middle successfully.
For the 49ers, that base defense means a traditional 3-4 alignment, with Isaac Sopoaga in the role of the nose tackle. While Sopoaga is an integral part of their pass rush—his ability to push back offensive linemen and create holes for their rushing linebackers is a huge plus—he's a bit more of a liability against the run.
Sopoaga isn't on the field all that much—he played but 335 snaps in the regular season and just 22 in the post season, but the majority of both have been against the run. Though he performed fairly well against the run in the playoffs, he has a negative grade in run-stopping over the course of the year and notched a defensive stop on 6.5 percent of his run-defense snaps.
Conveniently enough, Rice's best work on the ground this year has been up the middle. Of Rice's total 321 carries and 1,392 yards (playoffs included), the majority of both his carries and yards—71 for 280—have come from him running up between left guard and center. He also had 197 additional rushing yards on 59 carries between right guard and center.
If the Ravens want to go after Sopoaga, therefore, then they need to send Rice right at him. Considering how well the Ravens offensive line has performed during the postseason—their combined 446 rushing yards over the past three games aren't on the backs alone, of course—and this could certainly prove to be a successful maneuver.
The point is to limit how involved Niners defensive end Justin Smith is in the run-stopping business. Though his triceps tear has had some effect on how well the defensive front has been able to rush the passer, he's been invaluable to their run defense, particularly in the playoffs. Over the course of the year, Smith has become the league's seventh-ranked 3-4 defensive end against the run, notching stops 12.4 percent of the time on his 323 run snaps. In the postseason, that percentage jumped to 17.6 percent on 34 run snaps.
Whether the Ravens choose to run out of their typical 21 personnel or in the 11—which keeps Smith even further to the outside—up-the-middle runs by Rice need to be a major part of their arsenal on Sunday. That doesn't mean, however, that they cannot run to the outside, regardless of how well the Niners have set the edge this year.
In fact, the Niners' run defense on the outside is one of their lesser-known weaknesses. Stockwell notes that since Week 15 and through the postseason, the 49ers have been giving up an average of 5.5 yards per carry to the outside and are missing one tackle for every five they make on the outside. This is certainly something that Rice and more-than-just-a-backup Bernard Pierce can take advantage of on Sunday.
Though Rice has been most valuable in up-the-middle runs, he's also been successful on the outside, especially in the postseason. He's netted 28 yards off of his two runs on the right end and 47 on his seven rushes between the left tackle and left tight end. But the real star on the outside is Pierce, a player who could prove to be quite the secret weapon for the Ravens in the Super Bowl.
Over the course of the year (postseason included), Pierce has 701 total yards on 135 rushes, with those carries almost evenly split between every on-field direction. However, he's performed best on the outside, particularly on the right end, where his 19 carries have netted 103 total yards and resulted in eight missed tackles. In the playoffs alone, Pierce has averaged 5.3 yards per carry outside of the right tackle and 4.2 yards per carry outside of the right fullback or tight end.
Pierce is at his best when running off-guard or further outside, while Rice's biggest strength is north-south runs up the middle of the line, however both can do either job quite well. This is exactly the one-two punch teams need to run well against a defensive front like San Francisco's.
Also helping the Ravens' cause is their fullback, Vonta Leach. Leach himself gets carries—he's had 13 rushes for 46 yards and two touchdowns this year, including four carries for 14 yards and a score in the postseason—as well as passes thrown his way, but his greatest asset is his lead blocking skills, which have resulted in him being the highest-ranked fullback in the league.
In fact, the Niners haven't seen a team this year that employs a fullback in the run game so effectively. Though the offensive line itself has been a huge part of why the Ravens have been successful running the ball this year—even in the dark days of the Cam Cameron offense which seemed to regard the run game as a undesired necessity—Leach's blocking has helped create holes against defensive fronts that otherwise don't give up many yards. He'll be busy on Sunday.
Over the course of the postseason—and in the final weeks of the regular season, when Cameron gave way to Caldwell—the Ravens have been dedicated to being an offensively balanced team, with the number of runs staying close to Joe Flacco pass attempts.
Even in games in which the Ravens eventually had themselves a commanding lead and thus ended up with more runs than passes—like against the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round, in which they ran 32 times to 23 pass attempts—the games started out with offensive balance, with Flacco throwing 12 first-half passes in that game to 16 total first-half Ravens runs.
While the big story of the Ravens' postseason has been the exceptional quarterback play from Flacco, none of it would have been possible without the run game humming along equally as well.
This will need to continue on Sunday against the 49ers, but considering the Ravens' offensive line, their amazing fullback, their one-two running back punch of Pierce and Rice and the very real, though hard to exploit, weaknesses the Niners have in their run defense, it's quite possible they pull it off. It's about having the right personnel on the field to do the job and knowing when up-the-middle will net the biggest gains and when it's time to head outside the tackles.