Super Bowl XLVII: Biggest Concerns for Both 49ers and Ravens
Super Bowl XLVII storylines have been repeated at length, and matchups between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers have been determined and analyzed. But what about the potential worries for each team?
The Niners might be worried about Aldon Smith's lack of productivity lately—not to mention kicker David Akers' missteps. The Ravens need to take a look at how their speed matches up with the 49ers offense. They also might be wondering how Flacco will perform under pressure at the line of scrimmage.
Will one of these worries make the difference in Super Bowl XLVII?
49ers: Aldon Smith's Disappearance?
Aldon Smith has deflected questions about his lack of sacks over the last five games, but his disappearance on the right side of the 49ers defense is somewhat over-exaggerated.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Smith has actually tallied three quarterback hits and nine hurries in two playoff games. Zero sacks is the number most focus their attention on, but his impact in the pressure package is still being felt.
That said, the 49ers need Smith to get Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on the ground Sunday.
Flacco has been mostly untouched in these playoffs. In three games, opponents have just one sack and one hurry on Flacco, and just 27 of his 99 dropbacks have faced pressure. That kind of protection has helped pave the way for Flacco's blazing run through the postseason.
However, Smith is the kind of lean and explosive pass-rusher who could give Ravens left tackle Bryant McKinnie trouble. The 49ers simply can't afford for Smith to lose the majority of those matchups in Super Bowl XLVII.
Ravens: Speed of the Pistol
While the Ravens have Hall of Fame-caliber players at every level of their defense, this is not a unit built on speed from sideline to sideline.
The 49ers have the players to beat Baltimore with speed on the edges.
The much-discussed pistol formation gives quarterback Colin Kaepernick the ability to get the 49ers to the edges, whether it's handing off to Frank Gore or LaMichael James, or tucking and running when the defensive end crashes down.
At that point, important questions arise: Are the Ravens athletic enough in the front seven to handle San Francisco's speed? Is there enough left in the tank for Ray Lewis to make pursuit plays?
On Sunday, Lewis is going to be tested laterally like he hasn't been all season. It will be interesting to see how the veteran handles the constant chase of Kaepernick, Gore and James on the perimeter.
49ers: Containing Terrell Suggs
Roughly 14 months ago, Terrell Suggs put together one of the most dominating individual performances of recent memory against the 49ers.
With Alex Smith under center, the Ravens pass-rusher tallied three sacks, two quarterback hits and two other tackles for losses in a comfortable Baltimore win. The 49ers scored just six points.
While a game played over a season ago might not mean much now, it does give the 49ers a glimpse of life when Suggs takes over a game. It wasn't pretty, as the Ravens sacked Smith nine times and allowed just 96 passing yards.
Expect San Francisco to have a better plan for limiting Suggs, who is still banged up after several injuries this season. The addition of Kaepernick to the lineup should help solve a problem or two in the sack department as well.
However, if there's one player on the Ravens defense who can single-handedly disrupt what the 49ers want to do in the Super Bowl, it's probably Suggs. He's priority No. 1 for the San Francisco offensive line.
Ravens: Which Cary Williams Shows Up?
Figuring out Ravens cornerback Cary Williams requires a study of his performance in both the regular season and playoffs.
For most of the first 16 games, Williams was a liability in coverage. He allowed 938 passing yards (fourth-most among NFL cornerbacks) and an opposing passer rating of 98.4 during the regular season, according to PFF.
However, Williams has become a more dependable player in these playoffs.
While he has still allowed 18 receptions and 140 yards in three games, Williams has also intercepted two passes and kept a number of top receivers (Reggie Wayne, Eric Decker, Brandon Lloyd) out of the end zone. Quarterbacks also have a passer rating under 50.0 when targeting Williams this postseason.
The Ravens now need the playoff version of Williams to show up in the Super Bowl. If he's more like the player he was in the regular season—when he had eight games with a passer rating against him over 95.0—the 49ers could have a field day throwing the football.
49ers: Chris Culliver Getting Exposed
The 49ers have their own worries in the secondary.
While Chris Culliver made waves with his anti-gay remarks (via Yahoo! Sports), 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio will be just as worried about how Culliver can handle his coverage duties Sunday.
Over his last five games, Culliver has allowed 364 passing yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating over 110.0. The New England Patriots, Green Bay Packers and Arizona Cardinals each attacked Culliver in their respective game plans, and only an interception against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game salvaged what was another dismal performance in coverage (five catches, 65 yards allowed).
Jim Caldwell and the Ravens have now had two weeks to formulate a game plan that should include getting their playmakers matched up with Culliver. The 49ers can't afford to have another sloppy performance from a cornerback who averages almost 44 snaps a game.
Ravens: Flacco's Last Step
Few quarterbacks can claim the kind of postseason run Flacco is currently on. Three wins, eight touchdowns, zero interceptions and back-to-back road takedowns of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady bring Flacco's 2013 playoffs within one step short of immortality.
However, that last step will likely be the most difficult of the bunch.
The 49ers possess a defense that the Ravens have yet to see in these playoffs—one that can consistently win at the line of scrimmage, get pressure with four or less players and sit back in coverage. It's a physical defense that features top players at every level.
The 49ers' formula is trouble for any quarterback, and Flacco has been especially awful against defenses that have pulled off the blueprint. Road games at Kansas City (Flacco: 187 yards, one interception) and Houston (147 yards, two INT) come to mind.
Momentum is a difficult thing to gauge from game to game, but it's clear that Flacco has some on his side. However, momentum won't mean much for Flacco on Sunday if the 49ers are whipping the Ravens at the line of scrimmage and sending seven or eight players into coverage.
Flacco needs to have his most impressive performance of these playoffs for the Ravens to win.
49ers: David Akers in a Clutch Situation
To their credit, the 49ers have made the struggles of kicker David Akers a non-factor in their run to the Super Bowl.
Despite missing 14 kicks in 44 tries this season, Akers has yet to cost the 49ers a game on this journey. He came close in Atlanta, but the 49ers overcame his clank on a game-tying kick.
That said, the inability of Akers to consistently hit on makeable kicks must be a knock on San Francisco's chances of winning Super Bowl XLVII.
A strong, confident kicker is obviously very important in a close game, and recent history suggests Sunday will be close: Four of the last five Super Bowls have been decided by six or less points.
Maybe Akers has a say in the game, maybe he doesn't. But it appears clear heading into Super Bowl XLVII that the Ravens have a decided advantage in the kicking department.