This is it. The big one. The granddaddy of them all. There is no bigger sporting event in North America than the Super Bowl. The 47th edition of the Roman Numeral extravaganza has the Baltimore Ravens facing the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
The Ravens got to the dance, by winning the AFC North division, then followed up with playoff wins over Indianapolis, Denver and New England. The 49ers won the NFC West title, then scored playoff victories over Green Bay and Atlanta.
The big storyline coming into the game is the battle of the Harbaugh brothers. Jim Harbaugh coaches the 49ers, John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens. This is the first time in NFL history that brothers will be on opposite sidelines, coaching their teams.
The other main storyline heading into Sunday, is Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis playing his final NFL game. Lewis will be going into the Hall of Fame, but as usual, there is controversy surrounding the All-Pro. Back in Super Bowl XXXV, Lewis was coming off a murder charge, in which he walked away a free man. (Lewis did plead guilty of obstruction of justice.) This year, it is the case of the “deer antler spray.” Allegedly, Lewis used this substance that contains IGF-1, a growth hormone that helped him heal faster from a torn triceps injury that sidelined him for most of the season. Lewis categorically denies the accusation, citing “the trick of the devil.” We shall see on that.
When The 49ers Have The Ball:
The read-option offense is the new trend in the NFL. You can thank the San Francisco 49ers for that. While the Washington Redskins also ran the read-option to considerable success, the 49ers are in the Super Bowl, thanks to the latest fad. Colin Kaepernick is the master of the read-option. Most football fans know Kaepernick’s story by now. The second round pick out of Nevada replaced Alex Smith in Week 10 as the 49ers starting quarterback who suffered a concussion. Since then Kaepernick has taken over leadership of the team, going 5-2 as the starting quarterback. Kaepernick was simply brilliant in the Niners playoff win over Green Bay, rushing for 181 yards, while throwing for 263 yards. Kaepernick continued his stellar play in the NFC Championship game versus Atlanta, leading the 49ers from a 17 point deficit, to knock off the Falcons. Kaepernick completed 16 out of 21 pass attempts for 233 yards and a touchdown.
Kaepernick is the perfect quarterback to run the read-option. His mobility combined with his ability to read opposing defenses, gives the 49ers a dual threat at the quarterback position. He uses ball fakes, sleight of hand and an uncanny sense of timing to run the offense to perfection. There are some that are waiting for Kaepernick to fail because of his inexperience, but those critics might leave New Orleans disappointed.
The read-option is even more effective thanks to the strong running of Frank Gore. The bruising back has elevated his game in the playoffs, gaining 119 yards on 23 carries versus Green Bay, then going for 90 yards on 21 carries against Atlanta. Gore is superb at exposing the holes up the middle, while Kaepernick forces defenders to the outside. Another element in the running game is LaMichael James. The rookie out of Oregon hasn’t seen much playing time, but was vital in the NFC Championship game. James gained 34 yards on 5 carries while scoring his first NFL touchdown. While Gore brings power, James brings lights out speed. His quickness at hitting the hole is a terrific change-of-pace, that defenses must be aware of.
Just because the read-option is a run-first offense, it doesn’t mean the 49ers don’t throw the football. Kaepernick is an efficient, accurate passer who sees the field very well. Michael Crabtree is another player who has elevated his play in the playoffs. Against Green Bay, Crabtree had 9 receptions for 119 yards and 2 touchdowns. While his numbers were down against Atlanta, Crabtree still recorded 6 receptions for 57 yards. Look for Vernon Davis to be an integral part of the offense. The seventh year tight end, only had one reception against Green Bay, but had a huge game against Atlanta, making 5 catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. Davis can either go outside and use the sidelines, or go up the middle to find holes in the defense. The read-option allows Davis to either find the opening down the field, or fall back to block on the run. Randy Moss created a stir this week, saying he was the greatest receiver of all time. While that statement is totally false, Moss is still a deep threat the Ravens must contend with. His ability to stretch the defense does leave opening for Crabtree and Davis underneath. This will force the safeties either to stay back and double team Moss, or move up to watch the underneath routes, leaving Moss with man coverage to deal with.
What really make the read-option work is the powerful offensive line that reminds people of 5 bulldozers charging forward. Left tackle Joe Staley, left guard Mike Iupati, centre Jonathan Goodwin, right guard Alex Boone and right tackle Anthony Davis are a massive, physical group who do an excellent job at keeping track of the audibles and improvisations, the read-option provides.
The Ravens defense has been the strength of the team for the last 15 years, and continues to be the strength of the team. However, they haven’t face a physical team like the 49ers in the playoffs. They also haven’t face the read-option since Week 14 against Washington, a game the Ravens lost 31-28 in overtime. While most people will talk about Ray Lewis, the key player just might be Terrell Suggs. The 10 year linebacker out of Arizona State is more of a pass rushing specialist, but he will need to take heed of the running game. It will be Suggs responsibility to take care of the outside lane that Kaepernick likes to run to. The problem is Suggs tends to overpersue his lane, and look for the sack. Suggs will have to remain disciplined, and not get caught up in trying to get sacks. Containment will be the key. Lewis will be the spy in the middle, as he will try to contain Gore. Haloti Ngata will go be a difficult matchup for the 49ers interior line. That could be the most fascinating matchup in the Super Bowl. If Ngata can get penetration into the Niners backfield, Baltimore could very well put a halt into the 49ers running game. Ed Reed is motivated and desperately wants to win his first Super Bowl. Reed will be watching Vernon Davis like a hawk, but he must be aware of the deep threat that is Randy Moss.
When The Ravens Have The Ball:
There has been much discussion about who is an elite quarterback. In fact, the discussion has turned into hyperbole. Elite is a word that has been thrown around too much. Joe Flacco is the reason why. After last year’s AFC Championship loss to New England, Flacco deemed himself an elite quarterback, as he did have a superb performance, despite losing the game. Many observers questioned that comment, saying Flacco has never won the big game. Flacco has a chance to prove his critics wrong. He was efficient against Indianapolis, but was simply spectacular against Denver in the divisional round. His 70 yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones to force overtime is the stuff that legends are made of. Flacco capped off his playoff run by gaining revenge against New England, completing 21 out of 36 pass attempts for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns. Flacco has a strong throwing arm, and isn’t afraid to throw the deep ball. What might be the most impressive aspect of Flacco’s playoff performance is that he hasn’t thrown an interception in the three playoff games. He has done a terrific job at managing the football, and making proper decisions in the pocket.
To be successful in the passing game, the Ravens must run the ball effectively. That won’t be easy against a physical 49er defense. Ray Rice will need to be a force in order for the Ravens to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy. Rice did have a huge game against Denver, but saw his carries and yardage drop against New England two weeks ago. After a 30 carry, 191 yard performance versus the Broncos, Rice only had 19 touches for 48 yards against the Patriots. Granted, Rice did split the running duties with Bernard Pierce who did gain 52 yards on only 9 touches. Don’t be surprised if the Ravens use both backs, but Rice is the key to the running game.
The passing game has been bolstered, thanks to Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith. Boldin is the big physical target, who isn’t afraid to go over the middle. His two touchdown catches against New England showcased his strength and his willingness to win the ball in the air. Smith is the deep threat of the receiving corps. While he hasn’t put up big numbers in the postseason, Smith does stretch defenses and forces safeties into making difficult decisions. Smith has averaged 22.23 yards per reception in the postseason and could be the deciding factor in this year’s Super Bowl.
The offensive line is underrated, but very strong. Led by centre Matt Birk and bookend tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher, the O-Line is a smart, physical group who can either run block or pass protect. The one problem is that Oher does tend to take false start penalties. While crowd noise usually isn’t a factor in the Super Bowl as it is a neutral site, Oher must block out all distractions and remain focused on the snap count, while knowing his blocking assignments.
One thing the Ravens haven’t faced in these playoffs is a physical defense. The Colts, Broncos and Patriots all use finesse and scheme to try to stop you. The 49ers use force and sheer will to stop offenses. This is a group that won’t be intimidated. Linebacker Patrick Willis is the leader of the 49er defense. He idolized Ray Lewis growing up, and now will go against him for the Super Bowl. Willis is a supreme run stopper with blazing sideline-to-sideline pursuit. If he stays healthy, Willis will be the pre-eminent linebacker in the NFL for the next decade. A concern for the 49ers is the health of defensive end Aldon Smith. The second year pro out of Missouri is listed as questionable, due to a shoulder injury. Smith was second in the NFL with 19.5 sacks, has yet to record a sack in the postseason. There are questions on how effective Smith can be against a physical Ravens team. Free safety Dashon Goldson is the key in the secondary. The former University of Washington Husky, will be asked to either roll over to double up on Torrey Smith, or move up into the box, to help stop the run. Goldson is better against the pass, but is a jarring hitter that both receiver and running backs must beware of.
This should be a beauty. Both teams play physical, tough football and both sides have players with big play capabilities. The Ravens do have the Ray Lewis magic on their side. The 49ers probably have more depth on their side. While 49er kicker David Akers has had a miserable season, I have a gut feeling he might be the difference in this one. Plus I can’t cheer for the Ravens. So going with my heart here. San Francisco wins 27-24.
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