Super Bowl Sunday: What to Watch for

Matthew Cummings

This Sunday the 49ers will take on the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII. The Bark takes a look at some of the key matchups. Also check out our staff predictions.

A FLAG IS STRETCHED across the field at Candelstick Park before the NFC Divisional Round playoff game between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.
A FLAG IS STRETCHED across the field at Candelstick Park before the NFC Divisional Round playoff game between the 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.

…When the Ravens pass the ball
Explosive 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith should be able to wreak havoc on the Ravens’ slow-footed left tackle Bryant McKinnie, forcing Baltimore to use running back Ray Rice in pass protection more often than usual. It also should restrict the Ravens from using backup Bernard Pierce, who is not nearly the pass blocker that Rice is.

The 49ers should be happy to keep Rice from slipping into the flat or across the middle of the field as a receiver. According to Pro Football Focus’s charting statistics, Rice produces the 13th-most yards per route run of all running backs in the league. Rice will largely be covered by All-Pro 49ers linebacker Navorro Bowman, who is very good in coverage.

Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta is a key part of the passing attack but will have to contend with All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis in the Super Bowl.

Torrey Smith torched the Broncos defense a few weeks ago, but he was relatively quiet against the Patriots and will likely find it difficult to get open downfield against 49ers’ secondary. With Dashon Goldson, the Niners are well-prepared to give safety help over the top.

…When the Ravens run the ball
In the run game, Willis and Bowman will have to deal with Ravens All-Pros right guard Marshal Yanda and fullback Vonta Leach. Baltimore generates the fifth-most Adjusted Line Yards in the league on runs toward the middle of the line. This is largely a result of Yanda and center Matt Birk. The 49ers are weakest at run defense against runs to the middle of the field.

The Ravens are weak at running the ball to the left side of the line, producing only 2.82 yards per attempt to that side. They only run that way 11 percent of the time, which is not a bad thing because against the Niners, running to the left side would mean running into Justin and Aldon Smith.

A three-time Pro Bowler, Rice is a fantastic running back, a shifty runner capable of carving up defenses at the second level.

…When the 49ers pass the ball
The Ravens will play a zone coverage called “quarters.” It involves four defensive players playing deep down the field, and then picking up receivers as they come into the zone. Three defenders are employed in underneath zones, covering areas closer to the line of scrimmage.

When the Ravens use this defensive setup, they will have to generate pressure on the quarterback with just four pass rushers. Luckily, two of those pass rushers will be All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and last year’s Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs.

However, the Ravens will be reluctant to send Suggs and fellow outside rusher Paul Kruger aggressively around the edges of the line because that could allow Kaepernick to run wild.

The 49ers have a tremendous offensive line, but Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Sack Rate statistic actually places them at 29th in the league in pass protection. Pro Football Focus has the line ranked 10th in pass blocking.

Kaepernick throws deep more than any other quarterback in the league, according to Football Outsiders. His biggest deep threat is tight end Vernon Davis. According to Football Outsiders, Davis was the seventh-most productive tight end this year. Although he was quieted for much of the second half of the year, Davis could be extremely effective against the quarters coverage if the 49ers gameplan to let him attack the seams between defenders.

Throughout the playoffs, Michael Crabtree has established himself as a star receiver. He was the ninth-most productive wide receiver in the NFL this year, as measured by Football Outsiders. He also produced the fourth-most yards per route run of all wide receivers, according to Pro Football Focus.

 …When the 49ers run the ball
Ravens outside linebackers Suggs and Paul Kruger will have to deal with the 49ers option run game. Most of Kaepernick’s rushing yards against the Packers came out of the pistol formation, in which running back Frank Gore lines up by quarterback Colin Kaepernick in the shotgun and Kaepernick chooses whether to hand the ball off or keep it and run.

So Kruger and Suggs will have to show restraint in the way that they attack the Niners off the edges. If they can set a distinct edge and prevent Kaepernick from bursting through running lanes, they will have done their job. However, if offensive tackles Joe Staley and Anthony Davis can force Kruger and Suggs to rush far up the field, Kaepernick will have massive holes to exploit.

The 49ers have the league’s best run-blocking offensive line, according to Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus.
Ngata is a dominant run defender, but Baltimore ranked 26th in the league in rush defense as a whole. In contrast, the Niners had the league’s third-best rushing offense.

 …On special teams
Baltimore has the league’s best special teams unit, according to Football Outsiders’ advanced statistics. Special teams is relatively random on a game-to-game basis, but if the game comes down to a field goal, the Ravens have the edge.