In a game that pitted brother against brother with Baltimore Ravens' head coach John Harbaugh facing off against San Francisco 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Ravens proved that they had the better coach and were the better team—at least for one day—with their 16-6 win over the 49ers.
There were so many good storylines flying around in this game with the Harbaughs facing off against each other on one of the biggest family holidays, Thanksgiving, but to the football fan, that shouldn’t overshadow the fact that two of the best football teams in the country were also facing off.
The 49ers, who posted a 6-10 record and fired their head coach only last season, came into the game as one of the most surprising teams this year. Not many people would have predicted that they would have been able to be 9-1 after 10 games or that Jim Harbaugh would have been as successful as he has been.
The 49ers may be a surprising team, but unlike many teams that overachieve, they are not pretenders. They are a very good football team and can do everything that it takes to win games in the NFL very well.
First and foremost, they run the ball and stop the run, and that keeps them in every game. Second, they do not make many mistakes and force teams to beat them at their best. Those two factors alone overshadow many of the real weaknesses that they do have.
Against the Ravens, the 49ers’ game-plan was no different. Even though their offense was struggling, they continued to play to their defense, which was very good at limiting the Ravens' offense for the most part. There’s no question that the 49ers were in the game until the very end.
The Ravens and the 49ers are two similar and well-matched teams and were basically tied for most of the game as the teams were basically exchanging field goals.
The real turning point didn’t happen until the fourth quarter when Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco threw a touchdown, the only one of the game. That touchdown ultimately forced the 49ers to press their offense and ultimately tipped the game in the Ravens' favor.
There wasn’t much to dislike about this game for football fans, and for Ravens' fans, a win in a solid showing makes it even better.
The Ravens were able to build on their victory from last week and continued to fix many of the problems and issues that they’ve been dealing with all season. This may have been the Ravens' best and most complete game so far, so let’s take a look at what we learned from Baltimore’s win.
John Harbaugh likes to talk about how his players are "mighty men" and how his football team is a "hard-nosed" football team, and against the 49ers, the Ravens certainly lived up to that billing. They were able to out-physical the 49ers on almost every level.
The Ravens' offensive line was excellent at protecting Joe Flacco, who was not sacked and rarely pressured all game, and the defensive line was nothing short of dominant. That’s really where it starts for the Ravens—up front in the trenches.
That’s not saying the Ravens have the most physical offensive line—or even defensive line—in the league because there are teams that will find success against both units.
What the Ravens do better than any other team in the league is bring an overall physical mindset. There are teams that may be more physical here or there, but there isn’t a team in the league that can match the Ravens' overall physicality as a team.
That’s ultimately why the Ravens usually win games against teams that try to play like they do. When a team tries to go head-to-head with the Ravens and beat them physically, they will almost always lose. The Ravens are just too tough as a team.
The type of players that the Ravens have on the roster is a big part of that toughness and physicality, but John Harbaugh deserves some credit as well because that’s the mentality that he’s ingrained into the team.
This may be the biggest story of the game, because after 11 games, the Ravens' offense has finally found the balance that Ravens' fans have been clamoring for.
It’s hard to imagine the Ravens playing any better against the 49ers' defense, and Cam Cameron’s play-calling, which has been suspect so far, was very good outside of a bad play-call on 2nd-and-1 from the 49ers’ 1-yard line which probably cost them a touchdown.
The first thing that we should realize is that this game-plan isn’t entirely new. The game-plan that the Ravens used against the 49ers is the same game-plan that they’ve been using off-and-on all season and the same one that they used last week against the Cincinnati Bengals.
There’s little doubt that the Ravens have found a way to successfully move the ball on offense.
The biggest question is why it took them so long to get the offense moving if they’ve had this game-plan all along. There are many different reasons why the offense has drastically improved over the last two weeks, but perhaps the two biggest reasons are the return of left guard Ben Grubbs and the emergence of wide receiver Torrey Smith.
Not many people realize just how good Ben Grubbs is or how important he is to the Ravens' offense. Since Ben Grubbs returned to the starting lineup, things have become much easier for the offense, and the difference in pass protection has been dramatic.
It’s very hard to make midseason offensive adjustments in the NFL and it is nearly impossible to make them when the offense cannot protect the quarterback. That’s been one of the biggest problems for the Ravens' offense.
The Ravens had Grubbs in their first game and obviously had success against the Steelers, but for the next six games, they would be without their best offensive lineman. Once Grubbs went down, they Ravens' offense had a very hard time to say the least. They had legitimate weaknesses exposed and exploited, and with all of the pressure that opposing defenses were able to get on Flacco, the offense had a hard time finding answers or solving their problems on the fly.
That’s really what Grubbs has given the Ravens. He has basically given them the time and opportunity to redefine themselves as an offense and find the balance that they desperately needed, because there isn’t an offense in the league that can make great adjustments if they cannot protect their quarterback.
The other factor that the offense has going for it now is surprising play and speed of Torrey Smith. Smith has become one of the best deep threats in the league in his first season, and the 49ers' defensive backs were clearly respecting his speed as they were playing off of him in coverage and turning their hips to run down the field before Smith was anywhere near them.
Smith didn’t have a fantastic day statistically, but it was clear that the 49ers were rolling coverage his way. That opened up things over the middle for Anquan Boldin, who was the Ravens' leading receiver, and that ability has a big impact on what the offense is capable of doing.
Going into the game, Smith led all NFL receivers in yards per catch, and that deep-threat ability will need to be respected by every team that the Ravens play going forward. The Ravens need to continue to exploit that advantage either with deep throws to Smith or with throws over the middle after Smith has cleared out the coverage.
With Grubbs in the lineup and Smith threatening opposing defenses, the Ravens have officially found their balance on offense. That should be a huge relief to Ravens' fans and a huge worry for AFC teams. With a balanced offense, the Ravens are officially the team to beat in the AFC.
Forget about the games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets...This was the best defensive performance that the Ravens have put together all season.
This was not the best performance because the defense singlehandedly won the game like they did against the Jets, but rather because they overcame all of their weaknesses against a great opponent.
The biggest factor in this game was obviously the pass-rush. The Ravens were able to get a tremendous amount of pressure on 49ers' quarterback Alex Smith all game long and actually tied a franchise record with nine sacks. There’s no question that the pass-rush was the biggest factor in the Ravens' victory.
Just like the offensive game plan, the defensive game plan was also not entirely new. We only saw a taste of their capabilities last week against the Bengals when the Ravens used defensive end Pernell McPhee and outside linebacker Paul Kruger on passing downs and more and more on regular downs.
McPhee and Kruger have been sensational as pass-rushers and have even proved to be good every down players over the last two weeks. They have absolutely been the biggest reason behind the Ravens' rediscovered pass-rush and have definitely earned themselves more playing time.
Going forward, offenses will need to start game-planning the Ravens' four man rush with Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, McPhee and Kruger.
When the Ravens can bring the kind of pressure that the did against a good 49ers' offensive line with only four pass-rushers, they are nearly unbeatable on defense—and that’s not an exaggeration.
Quarterbacks simple do not have the time to find open receivers, and since the defense is only blitzing four players, that leaves seven in coverage—which makes things even tougher.
The Ravens probably won’t have as much success as they did against the 49ers against most other teams because that game was their coming out party and they caught the 49ers unprepared. Teams will start to game-plan for the Ravens' pass rush, but even that bodes well for them.
Even if teams start keeping more players in to pass block, that only makes things easier since there will be less receivers to cover.
Being able to get consistent, quick pressure on opposing quarterbacks makes the Ravens' defense truly dangerous, and it’s hard to overstate the advantage that gives them if they can keep it up.
Ravens' fans should be excited about the emergence of McPhee and Kruger and the potential that this defense has.
Everyone who watched the game now knows just about everything that they need to know about the Harbaugh family. Obviously, they are a close, football family, and it really was a great storyline.
Beyond the brother versus brother storyline, the fact is that both men, John and Jim, are excellent football coaches. Trying to determine who is better is just silly.
Both coaches are good in their own ways, and there are many differences between them. Jim may be more of a players coach while John may be the better administrator, but the fact is that both coaches are good for football.
They’re good for football because they preach the ideals and values that make football a great sport and they encourage the players to play the game for the same reasons that made them love the game as boys.
To the Harbaughs, football isn’t just about winning games—although both men are extremely competitive—it’s truly about becoming better men. They both sincerely believe that the competition and struggle of football shapes men and allows them to achieve true greatness.
To many of us, much of what the Harbaughs preach might come across as meaningless platitudes, but to the men playing the game of football, it’s a great inspiration.
The fact is that most non-athletes don’t know what it’s like to play a professional sport.
Many of us will write off their physical struggles because of their high salaries, but we should remember that they’re all human. In the moments when they’re pushing through pain or laying it all on the line to win a game, they aren’t thinking about their fat bank accounts. They’re thinking about the pain and trying to find a way to push through it and focus.
That’s where the Harbaughs’ message rings through the loudest. Beyond the money, these guys are just human beings trying to do a job, and we all know that all humans work harder when they are inspired and truly believe in what they are doing. The Harbaugh brothers tap into that in a football sense and help their players to look past the money and fame to the kind of men that they truly are.
That’s why the Harbaughs are great for football, and the NFL could use more coaches like them.
That’s not saying that their way is the best or only way. There are many successful coaching methods, but coaches that encourage their players to become better men, not just to win games, but because they honestly believe in the values of the game and the character of their players, are rare in this era.
That type of passionate sincerity is good for the integrity of the game and is what inspires everyone—players and fans—to watch and play football.