Game time will be here soon, all the two week nonsense will be a distant memory. For three hours, Jim and John Harbaugh will be competitors, and brotherly love will be set aside. Two teams, three notable inside linebackers (let’s not forget Navorro Bowman among Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis talk), two teams full of defensive stars, and two big armed quarterbacks.
A lot of excellent stuff has been written, and we all throw our predictions out there. Specific predictions are often at the mercy of special teams plays, bounces of the ball, and big events. Here are what I think will be the keys, whether it turns out in one team’s favor or the other.
Colin Kaepernick Making Big Plays When the Coverage Dictates It, Whether Running or Passing
According to Football Outsiders, the 49ers averaged 3.8 yards per carry facing eight man fronts, but 5.8 yards per carry against fewer in the box. Now, obviously, the more defenders committed to a certain aspect, the less successful it should be. In San Francisco’s case, though, the numbers are telling because of the use of Colin Kaepernick in the running game, and how the extra defender is mandatory to defend it.
Chris Brown has a great breakdown of the how Baltimore might defend that, and it involves heavy use of a single high safety with Bernard Pollard coming down near the line frequently. A team cannot use just one predominant strategy, though, because San Francisco is diverse enough to counter. If a team sells out to stop the run and it is predictable, I trust that Kaepernick will make big plays against favorable coverages. Similarly, as we saw with Atlanta, if the strategy is to take away Kaepernick from running directly without numerical advantages at the line, Gore will have success.
Baltimore cannot just let San Francisco chew them up on the ground, and Pollard will play a key role in that. They also cannot be predictable, or Kaepernick will find big plays in the air. As a result, the old veteran Ed Reed will be a key in this game, for better or worse.
Joe Flacco Avoiding Pressure to Make Big Plays/San Francisco Creating It
San Francisco has not been creating sacks at the same rate since Justin Smith injured his triceps, and Aldon Smith has not had a sack since then. Meanwhile, while the Ravens are calling the same plays with Caldwell, Flacco’s sack rate has dropped since the change, while he is making more downfield throws. We saw the 49ers give up some big pass plays to Julio Jones in the first half of the NFC Championship Game, something that had been a rarity before then. If they do not force Flacco to pass uncomfortably, the Ravens will be in this one, even if Kaepernick has a big game.
I know that those are simplistic, but true. Look for the pressure (or lack thereof) on Flacco, and whether he has time to let vertical routes develop, and look to who wins the strategy game of San Francisco offense vs. Baltimore defense when it comes to taking downfield shots to Crabtree and Vernon Davis when the Ravens drop eight in the box, and whether the 49ers catch and diagnose the Ravens on the occasions they do not, and run effectively.
I’ll be honest with you, from a tactics standpoint, this is about as exciting as it gets for a Super Bowl. I’ll go with San Francisco 29, Baltimore 24.
[photo via USA Today Sports Images]