by Andy Benoit
The 2011 Thanksgiving contest between these two teams -- the last time they got together -- is virtually irrelevant. The Niners had three days to prepare for last year’s game, not 13. They were facing a slightly younger, much healthier Ravens defense. And, of course, their quarterback was Alex Smith, not Colin Kaepernick. San Francisco’s game plan that night was cautious, if not reactionary. This time around, Jim Harbaugh’s game plan will be aimed at making Baltimore be the reactionary team.
1. 49ers run game
People tend to forget that even before Kaepernick and the read-option lightning struck this offense, the 49ers were a legitimate Super Bowl contender on the strength of a bruising run game alone. By now, you know what makes this run game special: a gigantic and gifted offensive line, Frank Gore’s professionalism as a runner, and the array of different formations that Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman utilize.
Kaepernick’s read-options are most valuable for augmenting San Francisco’s already-stupendous rushing attack. As we saw with the Falcons in the NFC Championship, you can eliminate Kaepernick as a runner by selling out against him. But what we also saw was that this approach can leave you vulnerable against Gore.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
Stopping San Francisco's run game hinges largely on the simple idea of winning in the trenches. All five Niners linemen weigh over 315 and move well as run-blockers, especially Joe Staley and Mike Iupati on the left side. It’s a very well-coached, synchronized unit. On a good day, the Ravens defensive front is one of the few in football that’s capable of competing with this group. Haloti Ngata –- who presumably benefited from last week’s bye –- is as dominating as they come when healthy. Terrence Cody, who has lost snaps to surprising veteran Ma'ake Kemoeatu, has been more consistent against double-teams. Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger are both fantastic athletes who have enough strength to set the edge. And, with Ray Lewis back, Baltimore’s linebackers have been much sharper at diagnosing run designs. A lot of Sunday’s action on the ground will simply come down to which team executes the best.
2. 49ers pass game
Expect the Niners to throw a lot on first down. That’s when Harbaugh prefers to take deep shots -– almost always off play-action out of either two-receiver or one-receiver sets. (Randy Moss is the lone wideout in the one sets, but tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker are just as likely to be the target.) Two weeks ago, the Niners frequently threw smoke screens and quick strikes to Michael Crabtree on first-and-10. Don’t expect to see that kind of aerial run game extension Sunday night. It was likely a game-plan wrinkle aimed specifically at exploiting the off-coverage and meager tackling of Atlanta’s Asante Samuel. Ravens corners Cary Williams and Corey Graham are much more physical near the line than Samuel. Also, Kaepernick hasn’t looked very comfortable in the quick-strike game.
What you will see is San Francisco throwing out of unbalanced formations. They love to put two receivers to the wide side of the field and close the formation on the other side with two tight ends. They do a great job creating matchup problems by motioning and shifting from these sets. This sometimes has the added bonus of defining reads for Kaepernick, which limits his responsibilities in the pre-snap phase. (You’ll notice the Niners don’t give Kaepernick a lot of pre-snap responsibilities on pass plays. When Kaepernick does make adjustments at the line, 99 times out of 100, it’s a run play. And of those 99, about 98 of them are some form of read-option.)
3. Baltimore’s response
As we’ve highlighted multiple times in recent weeks, the Ravens love to play quarters coverage. (We ran a graphic in Week 16 and again in the Wild Card round that explained quarters coverage. If you aren’t familiar with it, click here for a quick look. It’s likely the Ravens will stay with quarters this Sunday. It’s a great coverage for disguising looks and capitalizing on the range of Ed Reed. Also, it allows the linebackers to play zone principles underneath, which is what an aging Lewis needs.
Quarters is also a relatively safe way to defend the run -– specifically the read option. In quarters, the safeties, though lined up 12 or so yards off the ball, are technically responsible for the outside run gaps. Thus, they’re naturally aggressive downhill. Their gap discipline is pivotal against the read-option. If Kaepernick keeps the ball, it’s on Bernard Pollard and Reed to quickly fill at the second-level seams. If the Ravens have outside guys Suggs and Kruger sell out against Kaepernick the way Atlanta did, Pollard and Reed must be ready to fill inside when Lewis and Dannell Ellerbe get caught in the wash. (Which, even on any linebacker’s good days, will inevitably happen at least a few times.)
It’s possible the Ravens will invite Kaepernick to run early on in order to lay a few big licks on the youngster. As the Ravens reminded us in the AFC Championship, strategy and scheme are important for a defense, but exerting fundamentally-sound violence is more important. The Ravens beat the Patriots by smashing them. That could be a simple approach to beating Kaepernick, who, as a fleet-footed, upright runner, leaves himself awfully exposed at times. No one has had a chance to find out just how electrifying Kaepernick is after he takes two or three big shots.
Just because big hits can trump strategy doesn’t mean a defense can get away with being ill-prepared. The Ravens must be ready for when the Niners unveil unique formation and play designs tailored for beating quarters coverage. The Packers learned this lesson the hard way in the Divisional Round.
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
This is just one of many ways an offense can attack quarters coverage. Earlier in the year, we broke down a play where the Browns ate up Baltimore’s quarters coverage with a great two-receiver route combination. This particular play applies to the Super Bowl matchup as well, since it is a route combination involving two wideouts on the same side of the field. (The Ravens responded to it that week by putting two corners on that side of the field.)
|Graphics by Matt Glickman|
4. Another Baltimore response
It wouldn’t be a big surprise to see the Ravens use a lot of man-free lurk coverage. With the exception of Crabtree, none of San Francisco’s wideouts are great at separating from press-man coverage. (And most of Crabtree’s separation comes horizontally, not vertically. He’s an intriguing and improving player, but he’s not much of a downfield threat.) Man-free lurk would keep a safety roaming over the top and a lurker acting essentially as a spy against Kaepernick. That’s vital for preventing the long scrambles.
What’s more, man-free lurk is a coverage that can be disguised easily. It’s a great way to eliminate seam routes, which the Niners love to throw for Davis. You can run man-free lurk from any defensive look and, because of the man-to-man element, it works behind any blitz.
The Ravens are certainly capable of also playing zone (either single-high or Cover-2) and relying on their back defenders to jump routes and deliver big hits. That’d be a safe way to keep Kaepernick in the pocket. The problem is a zone approach would allow the receivers and tight ends to run most of their routes unobstructed, which means Jim Harbaugh’s play designs would have every chance to work. Baltimore’s pass rush has been tepid at times, so they can't rely on that to bail them out in zone looks. That would be playing to San Francisco's strengths -– even if this Ravens defense is full of smart veterans who can readily identify play designs. By playing man or quarters (which can be considered a zone coverage with a lot of man concepts), the Ravens make the aerial game a battle of execution rather than design. Baltimore’s secondary is not elite, but John Harbaugh should like his men’s chances against a good-but-far-from-great Niners receiving corps.