The Glass Eye: Super Bowl Preview

Say, I heard there’s a big football game this weekend – and I’m not sure if you heard, but the teams’ head coaches are brothers! Of course, that’s been the dominant storyline this week; but let’s analyze each team position-by-position and determine which team has the overall advantage.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Baltimore has outstanding nose tackle Haloti Ngata, but their ends, while young, have not shown themselves to be more than average players to this point. The Ravens historically have been known for suffocating defense, but this unit allowed the teams’ most points since 2007 and the most yards since 2002. The line accumulated 9.5 sacks, but Ngata had five of those and they were average against the rush.

San Francisco’s line is anchored by DE Justin Smith, but Smith was injured a month ago and is still not 100%. The rest of the line is below-average against the pass but effective against the run. Due to Smith’s injury, I’m calling this an EVEN matchup.

LINEBACKERS

Baltimore used to be the class of the NFL at LB, but Ray Lewis is a shell of his All-Pro self, Terrell Suggs is now basically a pass-rushing specialist and the depth is lacking. Paul Kruger had a fine season, leading the Ravens in sacks, but the fact that his nine sacks led the team (no one else had more than five!) shows just how far the Ravens have fallen in terms of QB pressure.

San Francisco boasts the best quartet of linebackers in the NFL. Aldon Smith recorded 19.5 sacks, Ahmad Brooks chipped in 6.5 on the other side, and inside ‘backers Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman are as athletic as any LBs in the game. EDGE: 49ers, and it isn’t really that close.

SECONDARY

FS Ed Reed has long been the face of the Ravens’ secondary, and he still makes his share of plays, but age has begun to take its toll on his game. The real strength of this group are their corners – even with top corner Ladarius Webb out for the year, they easily go 3-deep with Cary Williams, Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith. The secondary struggled early in the season (300+ passing yards allowed in four of their first eight games), but they have improved markedly since November – only Brady eclipsed 300 yards against them since Week 9, and many of those yards were after the Ravens were well ahead.

Defending the pass is San Francisco’s hidden weakness – superficially their numbers appear strong, only 59% completion % against, less than 3500 passing yards, 14 INTs…but they gave up yards in huge chunks to the Pats, Packers and Falcons late in the season. Atlanta passed for just under 400 yards last week, and Baltimore has similar weapons (two good WRs and a reliable TE). If the front seven cannot generate pressure, San Francisco will give up some big plays through the air. EDGE: Ravens.

OFFENSIVE LINE

It can be very hard to separate offensive line play from RB/QB play – for example, Ben Roethlisberger would likely take sacks behind ANY line because he holds the ball so long, while Peyton Manning’s quick release would make any line’s sack totals look superficially great. If you take Joe Flacco’s ‘rushes’ out of the equation (he averaged 0.7 yards on 32 carries), the Ravens averaged 4.56 yards per carry and allowed sacks on 6.2% of their pass attempts. The 4.56 average is very good, and the fact that both Ray Rice and rookie Bernard Pierce averaged over 4.4 yards per carry indicates that the line is above-average when it comes to run blocking. I consider the line average in pass protection based on what I’ve seen over the years, but I might be under-selling them – Baltimore likes to run a lot of deep pass plays, and those necessarily will require longer pass blocks. In that light, a 6.2% sack rate looks a lot better.

San Francisco is also extremely effective at run blocking – as a team they averaged 5.1 yards per rush, and even if we take Colin Kaepernick out of the equation (he averaged 6.6 per rush), both Frank Gore and backup Kendall hunter averaged 4.7 or better. I’m less sold on this line when pass blocking – Alex Smith was sacked on a whopping 10% of his dropbacks! Kaepernick’s sack % is much lower at 6.8%, but it’s pretty clear that much of that has to do with his speed and elusiveness as opposed to improved line play. Overall I’d give the 49ers the advantage while rushing but the Ravens the edge in pass protection – making this EVEN overall.

RUNNING BACKS

Baltimore has one of the most versatile backs in the NFL in Ray Rice – he rushed for 1143 yards, but he also caught 61 passes, second-most on the team. His backup, 3rd-round pick Bernard Pierce, was a revelation, as he averaged almost five yards per carry in 2012. FB Vonta Leach is still an effective blocker at 31, and a moderate threat as a pass receiver.

San Francisco also boasts a great RB tandem in Gore and Hunter – as mentioned above, both averaged over 4.7 yards per carry on the season. The big difference is that neither was a real threat in the passing game, as Gore caught only 28 passes all season and Hunter added nine. I actually think Gore and Hunter are slightly better rushing, but Rice’s versatility gives the slight EDGE to the Ravens.

TIGHT ENDS

Baltimore’s Dennis Pitta is the prototypical ‘solid’ NFL tight end: He is a decent blocker, he caught 61 passes and scored seven TDs. Backup Ed Dickson is largely in the same mold.

San Francisco has one of the best TE’s in football in Vernon Davis, both blocking and receiving – but he was woefully underutilized in the passing game much of the season. After recording 35 catches through 10 games, Davis had only six in the team’s last six regular-season contests and only one against the Packers as well. He broke out against the Falcons, though, with five catches for 106 yards and a TD. Backup Delanie Walker is also a threat, as he averaged over 16 yards on his 21 receptions.

Davis is the 9ers’ second-best threat in the passing game – he causes huge matchup problems against almost any team, and none of the Ravens’ LBs stand a chance in man coverage against him. If he’s used in the passing game, this is a big EDGE for the 49ers.

WIDE RECEIVERS

The Ravens have a great tandem in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin. Smith is the deep threat, with game-changing speed – he averaged 17.4 yards per catch and scored eight TDs despite only catching 49 passes.  Boldin isn’t nearly as fast, especially at age 32, but he’s a consummate route-runner and has some of the best hands in the game. Third WR Jacoby Jones isn’t used much, but also has elite speed.

San Francisco has the most complete WR on either team in Michael Crabtree – he caught 85 passes for over 1000 yards, and he’s just coming into his own. The problem is, SF doesn’t have a consistent threat on the other side of the field – Randy Moss has done more than I expected but he only caught 28 passes, while Mario Manningham is out for the season after a decent start. No other WR on the roster caught more than 12 passes.

Crabtree is an All-Pro in the making, but the lack of a second receiver has made it easy for teams to double him. Baltimore has far more depth, so the EDGE goes to the RAVENS here.

QUARTERBACKS

Steeler fans know all about Joe Flacco – he’s the prototypical ‘average QB’ in many ways. He’s a pocket passer, he completes about 60% of his passes, throws 20 TDs per year, and usually throws 10-13 INTs. Only his INT rate is significantly above average. Now, he’s done a nice job in the last three playoff seasons, this year in particular, but I don’t believe he (or anyone) magically elevates his game in the clutch – I do think, however, that he is rather impervious to postseason pressure. He does get rattled (like most QBs) when he gets hit a lot, which is definitely a key for the 49ers.

Colin Kaepernick is almost the anti-Flacco – he’s anything but a pocket passer, he averages over six yards per rush. He is inexperienced but thus far has shown no penchant for turning the ball over (only four INTS in nine starts thus far). His completion % is higher than Flacco’s already, but he also operates a short-pass offense. I rate them fairly equal as passers, but Kaepernick’s elusiveness and rushing ability (he set an NFL record against the Packers with 181 rushing yards) really sets him apart.

I frankly don’t expect either QB to struggle – Flacco has proven he can handle the spotlight, and Kaepernick has yet to crumple under pressure either. I give the 49ers the EDGE because of Kaep’s legs, and also because in case of injury the 49ers have a proven backup, while I’d bet you don’t even know who Baltimore’s backup is (it’s Tyrod Taylor).

SPECIAL TEAMS

Baltimore has a rookie kicker (Justin Tucker) who only missed three of 33 kicks all year and showed impressive range, while SF has a veteran kicker (David Akers) who struggled all year and missed more FGs than anyone in the league. Both teams have excellent punters and both cover punts very well, but the Ravens have an advantage in kickoff returns – Jacoby Jones averaged over 30 yards per return and the 49ers were average defending kicks. The return stats can be pretty random, but Akers’ struggles loom large here – in a close game, his confidence is definitely an open question and his inconsistency is enough for me to give the RAVENS the edge here.

COACHING

You might have heard…they’re brothers. Both have proven themselves on the big stage. EDGE: EVEN

OUTLOOK:

Super Bowls are often won or lost on turnovers and contributions from lesser-known players. San Francisco forced a turnover in 16 of 18 games thus far, but on the other hand they are 0-4 when they lose the turnover battle (13-0-1 when they are even or force more turnovers). Baltimore’s defense just isn’t that good anymore, but they force turnovers at the same rate as San Francisco and they should be able to defend Crabtree effectively.

I think the key players in this game are Vernon Davis and Torrey Smith. Davis HAS to provide a secondary threat for the 49ers, or Crabtree might see some triple-coverage. Smith has to catch a deep ball or two to keep the 49ers from completely stacking the box to stop the run.

I think the 49ers will run the ball more effectively than the Ravens, but I think the Ravens will make two or three big plays in the passing game to keep it close.  I think this has all the makings of a classic Super Bowl…however, I think Kaepernick is the x-factor, and I think the 49ers have JUST enough to win, 28-24.

Dave Glass can be reached at buggyracer@verizon.net.

 

 

 

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