While the head-coaching bloodlines may have been the focus entering Super Bowl XLVII, the attention will finally shift to the teams on Sunday when the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers face off in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome at 6:30 p.m. ET on CBS. As tantalizing as the Harbaugh brothers coaching matchup may be, there are plenty of storylines on both teams to go around. The one that will matter most come late Sunday night, however, is which team will be on the podium when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell presents the Lombardi Trophy to the newest world champions.
San Francisco is looking for a record-tying sixth Super Bowl victory in as many tries, while Baltimore would like to pair its Super Bowl XXXV trophy with another. This will be the 10th Super Bowl played in New Orleans and the seventh in what used to be called the Louisiana Superdome. The NFC champion currently holds a 4-2 edge in Super Bowls played in the Superdome, including San Francisco’s 55-10 victory over Denver in Super Bowl XXIV on Jan. 28, 1990. That game remains as the largest rout in Super Bowl history.
Super Bowl XLVII Breakdown
When the Baltimore Ravens run:
Even though Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco and the passing game have been instrumental in the Ravens’ playoff run, this offense is at its best when it can run the ball. The Ravens averaged less than 119 yards rushing per game during the regular season, but have picked up the production in the postseason. In wins over Indianapolis, Denver and New England, Baltimore is averaging nearly 150 yards on the ground.
Running back Ray Rice is the key to the Ravens’ running game and he leads all players this postseason in both attempts (64) and rushing yards (247). Bernard Pierce has averaged more than six yards per carry in the playoffs, and the extended break between the AFC Championship Game and Super Bowl should have allowed his knee (bone bruise) to fully heal. Another key cog of the Ravens’ running game is All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach, who will be called on to open up holes and clear lanes for his backfield mates.
San Francisco’s defense was one of the stingiest against the run in the regular season and the unit has maintained its production thus far. The 49ers finished fourth in the NFL in rushing defense during the regular season, allowing less than 95 yards rushing per game, and they have given up a total of 185 yards (92.5 ypg) in their wins over Green Bay and Atlanta. The key to success for San Francisco’s base 3-4 alignment is the depth of its talent, especially at linebacker, and the personnel’s ability to get the job done against the run and in pass coverage.
Up front, starting ends Ray McDonald and Justin Smith take care of their assignments, which allows linebackers NaVorro Bowman, Ahmad Brooks, Aldon Smith and Patrick Willis to hit the gaps and either make plays in the backfield or drop the running back for a loss. All four 49er starting linebackers were named to the Associated Press’ All-Pro team this season with Bowman, Smith and Willis making first team and Brooks named to the second team.
One thing to watch on Sunday is the effectiveness of Justin Smith, who said earlier in the week that he thinks his left triceps tendon is at least 50 percent torn. Smith, who earned second-team All-Pro honors, sustained the injury in Week 15 against New England. The good news is he has been able to play through the injury during the playoffs after missing the final two regular-season games. It’s worth noting, however, that four of the 49ers’ worst defensive performances of the season, in terms of yards allowed, have been over their past five games, or back to when Smith was injured against the Patriots.
When the Ravens pass:
No one has come up bigger in the postseason for Baltimore than Joe Flacco, who leads all quarterbacks with 853 yards passing, eight touchdowns and a 114.7 passer rating. The only quarterback in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of the first five seasons of his career, Flacco has yet to throw an interception this postseason either.
Flacco’s main targets in the passing game are wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. Boldin is the reliable veteran leads all receivers with 276 yards and three touchdown catches. Smith is the Ravens’ main vertical threat (22 ypc in playoffs), while fellow wideout Jacoby Jones also is capable of making the big play, as he did when he caught the game-tying 70-yard touchdown against Denver late in the fourth quarter.
Rice is another reliable receiving option out of the backfield, but the key for the Ravens’ passing game will be attacking the 49ers’ secondary. The wide receivers in particular are the ones to watch as Boldin, Smith and Jones would like nothing more than to duplicate the success that Atlanta’s Julio Jones (11 rec., 182 yds., 2 TDs) and Roddy White (7, 100) had against the 49ers in the NFC Championship game.
Statistically speaking, San Francisco’s defense has fared very well against the pass, but that doesn’t mean plays can’t be made on the 49ers through the air. The 49ers ended the regular season ranked fourth in passing defense (200 ypg), but both (Aaron Rodgers (248 yards passing) and Matt Ryan (396) put up solid numbers against them in their respective playoff matchups.
The 49ers’ don’t have the most productive pass rush in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. Aldon Smith is the team’s sack specialist, a role he excels in (19.5 sacks in regular season), as the 49ers primarily rely on their front three and Smith to generate the pressure. They don’t blitz that much, which allows linebackers Bowman, Brooks and Willis the freedom to make plays and support the secondary in pass coverage.
Baltimore’s offensive line went through a bit of an overhaul late in the regular season and to this point, the changes up front have worked. Flacco is playing the best football of his career this postseason and a big reason for that is his “new” offensive line has allowed just four sacks in the Ravens’ three playoff wins.
When the San Francisco 49ers run:
Following head coach Jim Harbaugh’s “old school” approach, San Francisco’s offense is built around its ability to run the football, something the 49ers do quite well. Fourth in the regular season with 155.7 yards rushing per game, the 49ers have increased that t0 a total of 472 yards on the ground in its two playoff wins.
As a team, the 49ers are averaging 6.6 yards per carry and have scored seven rushing touchdowns already. And while a big chunk of the damage has been done by quarterback Colin Kaepernick (NFL quarterback record 181 vs. Green Bay), it has not been a one-man show.
For one, running back Frank Gore has rushed for 209 yards and three touchdowns in two games, while backups LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon have also scored. Kaepernick’s ability to pick up big gains with his legs (11.2 ypc in the playoffs) certainly makes the 49ers’ rushing attack that much more dangerous, but as he showed in the NFC Championship game, he doesn’t have to run the ball to be effective either.
Even though Kaepernick had just 21 yards rushing against the Falcons, the 49ers as a team piled up 149 yards. Kaepernick had just two of the team’s 29 carries, even though the 49ers used the read option 13 times. On the plays when Kaepernick handed off rather than keeping it himself, the running backs averaged 5.2 yards per attempt and scored three touchdowns.
Regardless of whether it’s Kaepernick getting loose for a big gain or Gore busting it up the middle, the real key to the success of the 49ers’ running game is the offensive line. One of the best in the entire NFL, the starting five of Alex Boone, Anthony Davis, Jonathan Goodwin, Mike Iupati (first team All-Pro) and Joe Staley (second team) excel in run-blocking as they function as a disciplined, physical cohesive unit.
Baltimore’s rush defense has been fairly consistent throughout the season. The Ravens gave up less than 123 yards rushing per game during the regular season and are allowing a little more than 128 on the ground during the playoffs.
Like San Francisco, Baltimore’s base defensive package is a 3-4. One of the keys to Baltimore’s run defense is end Haloti Ngata, who was named second team All-Pro. Ngata is the best run defender the Ravens have up front and he will he need to be effective in some fashion against San Francisco’s staunch offensive line if the Ravens want to slow down the 49ers’ ground game.
Ray Lewis may be leading all players in the postseason in tackles, but he won’t be able to stop the 49ers by himself. He will need younger linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dannell Ellerbe to continue their strong play against the run. Safety Bernard Pollard is a big hitter who is not afraid to come up to the line and play the run, but the Ravens miss the presence of cornerback Lardarius Webb, who was lost early in the season due to injury.
When the 49ers pass:
San Francisco may not throw the ball as much as some other teams do, but that doesn’t mean the 49ers aren’t productive when they do. Colin Kaepernick has posted a 105.9 passer rating in his first two career playoffs games, having completed 33 of 52 passes for 496 yards, three touchdowns and an interception.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree has emerged as Kaepernick’s go-to target and he should be able to find some space working against the Ravens’ secondary. Remember, the Ravens are without the services of Webb, their top coverage guy. As good as safety Ed Reed has been over the years, his effectiveness has slipped some this season.
Another potential matchup San Francisco may be able to exploit is tight end Vernon Davis. After not getting many looks when Kaepernick first took over the starting quarterback job, Davis (5 rec., 106 yds., TD) played a pivotal role in the 49ers’ second-half comeback in the NFC Championship game.
While not nearly as productive as Crabtree or Davis, veteran wide receiver Randy Moss always seems to thrive playing on the big stage and tight end Delanie Walker has made some key plays when called on.
Baltimore’s pass defense may be allowing nearly 290 yards passing during the playoffs, but the Ravens have made teams work for every yard gained through the air. The Ravens’ road to New Orleans has been anything but easy, especially when you look at the quarterbacks they have defeated.
Not only have they already defeated Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the latter two victories coming on the road, the Ravens have held the trio to a combined 56.2 completion percentage and four touchdown passes, while forcing seven (5 INTs, 2 fumbles) turnovers. Luck’s Colts were unable to find the end zone in their Wild Card loss, while the Ravens completely shut out Brady and the Patriots in the second half of the AFC Championship game.
The pass rush has helped with this effort, as the Ravens sacked Luck and Manning three times each, and as good as the 49ers’ offensive line is, it also allowed 41 sacks during the regular season. Kaepernick has gone down just twice so far this postseason, so the Ravens will have their work cut out for them if they want to pressure him and, more importantly, bring him down before he can escape the pocket.
Baltimore kick returner Jacoby Jones could be a huge factor on Sunday. Jones was named first-team All-Pro this season after averaging 30.7 yards per kickoff return and scoring three (two kickoffs, one punt) return touchdowns. Not only did the Ravens lead the NFL in kickoff return average (27.3 ypr), San Francisco allowed the second-most (26.9) yards per kickoff return. That could be a recipe for trouble for the 49ers’ kick coverage unit.
That does not mean, however, that the 49ers don’t have their own special teams weapon. A first-team All-Pro in his own right, punter Andy Lee tied for the league lead in net punting (43.2 ypg) and placed more than half (36 of 67) of his punts inside the 20-yard line during the regular season. Opponents averaged less than seven yards per return on Lee’s punts, and he had just four touchbacks.
It’s a good thing the 49ers have Lee since they seem to have very little, if any, confidence in kicker David Akers right now. Akers, a 14-year veteran, finished with the second-lowest success rate (69 percent) on field goals during the regular season and missed his only attempt in the NFC Championship game.
Contrast Akers’ issues with that of his counterpart, rookie Justin Tucker. The Ravens’ kicker is a perfect 14-of-14 in the postseason (12 PATs, 2 FGs) and he missed only three of his 33 field goal attempts during the regular season. It’s no reach to say that Tucker truly does have a leg up on Akers entering the big game.
Much has been made about Jim and John Harbaugh becoming the first brothers to ever coach against one other in a championship game. Familial ties aside for one moment, what really should be lauded is the key coaching decision each made that had direct ramifications on their teams’ respective paths to this Super Bowl.
For Jim, it was his decision to stick with Colin Kaepernick as his starting quarterback even after Alex Smith was cleared to return to the field following his concussion. Kaepernick has started the past nine games under center and in those games the 49ers have averaged 28.6 points per game, which is 4.9 more points than they averaged in the previous nine games that Smith started.
Kaepernick also has some history on his side, as he will become the fifth first- or second-year quarterback to start the Super Bowl. Of the previous four, three (Kurt Warner in Super Bowl XXXIV, Tom Brady in XXXVI , Ben Roethlisberger in XL) led their team to victory and two (Warner, Brady) were named the game’s MVP. The only quarterback that lost was Dan Marino in Super Bowl XIX.
For the Ravens, older brother John’s pivotal decision wasn’t related to a player change, it was a change on his coaching staff. With three games left in the regular season, Harbaugh decided to relieve offensive coordinator Cam Cameron of his duties and turn the play-calling over to quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell.
Even though Baltimore lost two of those final three games, the impact Caldwell has had on the offense, particularly the passing game, is indisputable. Since Caldwell has been running the offense, Flacco has thrown 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions in six total games, including the playoffs, while posting a 111.5 passer rating.
While there’s little doubt the quarterbacks will play a big part in deciding the winner on Sunday, I think another key aspect to watch will be which team is able to run the ball with more success. The 49ers rely heavily on the run to fuel their offense and control the clock, while the Ravens use the ground game to open things up for their aerial attack. If either offense is forced to be more one-dimensional in its game plan, it very likely could sway things in the respective defense’s favor.
Can San Francisco make it a perfect six-for-six in the Super Bowl and tie Pittsburgh for the most Lombardi Trophies? Or will Baltimore write the perfect ending to its fairy tale season?
Athlon’s editors make their pick for Super Bowl XLVII:
BAL 20, SF 17
SF 28, BAL 21
SF 20, BAL 17
SF 27, BAL 24
SF 24, BAL 17
SF 24, BAL 17
SF 35, BAL 31
SF 27, BAL 23
BAL 23, SF 17
Check out Athlon Sports' special Super Bowl section for more coverage on the Ravens vs. 49ers and the history of the big game.