Super Bowl XLVII is being dubbed as the "Harbowl" because of brothers John and Jim Harbaugh being the head coaches of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers respectively. While this is a good storyline, it won't exactly determine who will win this game. These two teams played last season on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore and the Ravens won 16-6. Both teams are similar to those teams from 2011 but, there are still many differences. In this game, the key will be winning the battle of the trenches.
1. Offensive Line
The biggest reason the Ravens are in the Super Bowl, in my opinion, is the offensive line. You can argue other things like the defense stepping up, Ray Lewis announcing his retirement, and Joe Flacco but, without the offensive line, Flacco wouldn't be playing as good as he has. Without Flacco, the Ravens wouldn't have made it this far so, the offensive line is a big deal.
Throughout the postseason, the offensive line has given up only four sacks in three games. In the regular season, they allowed thirty-eight sacks in sixteen games. This comes out to 2.38 sacks per game. Sacks isn't the whole story though, as the line was allowing constant pressure during some games which gave Flacco no chance to complete was pass. In fact, in the game against the Denver Broncos in week 15, the line allowed eighteen hurries, ten knockdowns, and three sacks (not counted as knockdowns) on forty pass attempts. In their matchup in the Divisional Playoffs, the Broncos only had one sack and never had much pressure.
The reason for this sudden change was a change in the line itself. Starting LG Jah Reid was injured for the Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts. This forced a complete reshuffling of the line. Normal LT Michael Oher went to RT, normal RT Kelechi Osemele went to LG, and backup Bryant McKinnie went to LT. McKinnie started at LT last season but was forced to the bench when the Ravens drafted Osemele. Before the next game, against the Broncos, the Ravens placed Reid on injured reserve which locked in this lineup for the rest of the playoffs.
On to Super Bowl XLVII, the line will face a tough matchup with the 49ers who finished the regular season 3rd in total yards allowed and 2nd in points per game. The biggest challenge will be for the left side of the offensive line. Left tackle McKinnie will go up against Defensive Player of the Year candidate Aldon Smith who has 19.5 sacks this season. Right guard Marshal Yanda will face All-Pro DE Justin Smith. One stat in favor of the Ravens is that neither has recorded a sack since week 14 against the Miami Dolphins. The reason for this is Justin Smith then missed some time with a triceps injury. This shows that without Justin Smith, Aldon Smith is an "average" pass rusher. Even in their two playoff games, Aldon Smith has no sacks and Justin Smith has been playing injured in those two games.
Since Yanda is an All-Pro guard, the Ravens will hope he can handle Justin Smith one-on-one. This then allows more attention to go to Aldon Smith with McKinnie probably getting some help from a tight end or a running back. If Yanda can handle Justin Smith, it frees up the whole offensive line. It means on run plays C Matt Birk and LG Kelechi Osemele could double team NT Isaac Sopoaga and lets FB Vonta Leach get to the second level and take out one of the 49ers All-Pro ILBs in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
The key for the Ravens offensive line is to stop Justin Smith. If they can do this with just Marshal Yanda then it will free up other lineman to block linebackers and the rest of the defensive line. Anytime you can get offensive lineman on linebackers in the run game, it is good. In the passing game, if the line can hold up, Flacco should play similar to how he has so far in the playoffs.
2. Joe Flacco
Speaking of Flacco, he has big responsibilities in the game. This is his chance to show the world that he is an elite quarterback like he said before the season. So far this postseason, he has been elite going 51-of-93 for 853 yards with 8 TDs, 0 INTs, and a QB rating of 114.7. His passing yards, touchdowns, interceptions, and QB rating are all the best for QBs in this postseason.
Beyond the stats, he has gone into Denver and beat MVP candidate Peyton Manning and went into New England and beat Tom Brady. Not only did he beat both, he outperformed them and now he finds himself in New Orleans for the Super Bowl while they watch from home.
The best part of Flacco's game this postseason has been the deep passing game. On passes to wide receivers Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, Flacco is averaging 16.7 yards per completion. During the regular season, the 49ers were good at stopping the deep pass but, in the playoffs, they have regressed and quarterbacks are 10-of-15 for 264 yards with 3 TDs, 1 INT, and a QBR of 100. If you want to see a full chart for this click here.
Expect the Ravens to come out passing against the 49ers. Against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, they came out running and it didn't work. In the second half, they started to pass the ball and this second half performance won the game for them. Don't expect the Ravens to abandon the run game though as they will need it for play-action passes and the Ravens always seem to lose when they don't run the ball. As always, they will use Smith to take the top off the defense and then use Boldin and TE Dennis Pitta across the middle of the field.
3. Stopping the Run
When the 49ers played the Green Bay Packers in the Divisional Playoffs, the Packers couldn't stop QB Colin Kaepernick or RB Frank Gore. In the NFC Championship Game against the Atlanta Falcons, the Falcons were able to stop Kaepernick from running but couldn't stop Gore. If the Ravens want to win, they will have to at least contain both of them.
Coming into this game, the Ravens defense is on fire. They have given up 14 points per game in the playoffs and have only allowed four touchdowns. Despite the Ravens not having played a good running teams in the playoffs, they have a few advantages over the Packers and the Falcons in stopping the 49ers run game.
The best defense to run for stopping the option, which the 49ers will run, is the 3-4, which the Packers use but not the Falcons. However, the Packers defense has consistently been awful over the last few years. The Ravens run the 3-4 defense and, they have the right personnel to stop the outside runs.
Rookie outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw has been one of the best run defenders at his position all season long. Therefore, expect him to play a little bit more than usual on Sunday. When you think of Terrell Suggs, you think of a pass rusher, not a run defender. However, Suggs has become a good run defender over the last few years and it has become the most evident this year. Due to all of his injuries limiting his pass rushing ability, Suggs has become a better run defender. Paul Kruger also will play at OLB for the Ravens but he is mainly a pass rusher so he won't be talked about here.
The outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are the most important players in stopping outside runs, which is mainly what Kaepernick does. Since the Ravens have a pair of good outside linebackers, the should be ok in this part of the run game. They also showed this in their week 14 matchup against the Washington Redskins. While the Ravens lost, they were able to limit QB Robert Griffin III to 34 yards on 7 rushes before he was hampered by a knee injury. Therefore, it is Gore that the Ravens will have to really worry about.
The outside linebackers will have to set the edge for runs and probably will be assigned to Kaepernick on the option plays. This means that the rest of the front seven will be responsible for stopping Gore. This is what the Falcons couldn't do and the Ravens could fall in the same boat. The nose tackle position has been very inconsistent for the Ravens this year with not very good production. This allows lineman to get blocks on the linebackers which can spring the running backs free. This is never good for a run defense as it allows constant runs of five yards or more.
A way to fix this is putting normal DE Haloti Ngata at NT but this all but eliminates him from rushing the passer which he is so good at. Therefore, the Ravens will have to stick with Ma'ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody at NT. Them, along with DEs Ngata, Arthur Jones, and Pernell McPhee will need to get push and take on blockers to disrupt the runs and allow the linebackers to run free and make tackles.
Expect the Ravens to have schemed up a decent way to stop this high powered run game of the 49ers. However, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are great offensive minds which means they also will have schemed up something. This means it will come down to execution and who can make plays.
4. Pass Rush
Containing Kaepernick isn't the only thing the Ravens outside linebackers will have to do, they will also have to generate a pass rush when the 49ers pass it. It will be a tough challenge for the Ravens pass rushers as the 49ers line has only given up two sacks this postseason but, they did give up forty-one sacks in the regular season which ranks tied for 23rd best in the NFL.
The Ravens, on the other hand, recorded thirty-seven sacks in the regular season, tied for 15th best, and have six sacks in the postseason. In the game against the Patriots, they recorded no sacks but were able to have constant pressure. Rushing the passer isn't all about sacks, most of it is getting enough pressure to force the ball out of the quarterback's hands before he wants to throw it.
Playing the 49ers, the biggest problem with getting pressure is the threat of Kaepernick to scramble and pick up chunks of yards. Therefore, don't be surprised if the Ravens have either a linebacker in the middle of the field spy Kaepernick or just tell the edge pass rusher to contain on certain plays. This should limit the scrambling ability of Kaepernick on pass plays.
On to specific players, OLB Paul Kruger had been quite a tear since week ten against the Oakland Raiders. He had a total of ten sacks in nine games starting with that game. His streak finished after a 2.5 sack performance against the Colts in their Wild Card game. He has been shut out in the last two playoff games though. The Ravens will need Kruger to regain his late season form to get pressure on Kaepernick and disrupt the 49ers passing game.
On the other side of the line will the Terrell Suggs. Suggs has overcome a torn achilles and a torn biceps to be able to play this season. In the regular season, Suggs was only able to record two sacks in eight games. In the postseason, however, Suggs has two sacks, both against the Broncos. Suggs will need to be in top form as the 49ers have a great offensive line, plus he will have big responsibilities in the run game.
While Kruger and Suggs will rush from the outside, Haloti Ngata, Arthur Jones, and Pernell McPhee will rush Kaepernick from the inside. Of those three, McPhee has turned his game on recently. Against the Patriots he batted down two passes including one that resulted for an interception. In the previous game, he had a strip sack of Peyton Manning. McPhee had been limited by injuries all year but now, he seems to be back in form. Jones had 4.5 sacks in weeks 12-14 but has no others on the season. Ngata, has been a force inside when healthy and, he seems to be in good health right now.
As stated above, who ever wins in the trenches will win the game. So, it might not be as fun to watch as a high powered passing offense, like the Patriots, but the battle in the trenches will be great to watch as there will be some great matchups and, most importantly, it will determine the game.