News Column

Super Bowl 2013: Seven Things to Watch

Feb. 3, 2013

Jim Thomas

Super Bowl 47

Feb. 03--Seven things to watch when the San Francisco 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl 47:


In the NFC semifinals, Green Bay's defense played liked it hadn't seen any game film of Colin Kaepernick. The Packers frequently turned their backs on him in coverage, and failed to close off the perimeter. In the NFC title game, Atlanta overemphasized shadowing Kaepernick on the option read to the point where they forgot about Frank Gore, who pounded them between the tackles. So what does Baltimore do? For starters, maintain rush lanes up front, and make sure their outside LBs get to the edge quickly. It's that simple.


For all the great things Kaepernick has accomplished, few QBs in league history have played as well as Baltimore's Joe Flacco this postseason. To wit, a 114.7 passer rating, eight TDs, and no interceptions against Indianapolis, Denver, and New England -- with the last two contests on the road. He has not thrown an INT since Game 14 of the regular-season, encompassing 162 passes, and has developed into one of the game's better deep throwers. But if he really wants respect as a top-tier QB, he must win the big one.


All but overlooked in the Super Bowl buildup are Pro Bowl running backs Frank Gore of the 49ers and Ray Rice of the Ravens. These remain run-oriented teams that like to play muscle ball. Both teams have rushed the ball more than they've thrown it in the playoffs, and the 49ers have more first downs rushing than passing. Gore has been averaging nearly a yard more per carry than Rice (4.8 to 3.9) in the playoffs, but there are few backs in the league as effective in the passing game as Rice, especially on screens.


The Ravens and 49ers have been practically unstoppable in the red zone during the postseason. Combined, they have scored touchdowns on 15 of 19 possessions inside the opponent's 20. Baltimore has TDs on eight straight red zone trips after missing out on their first two (fumble, field goal) against Indy in the wild-card round. For the 49ers, the mobility of Kaepernick, the lower-body strength of Frank Gore, and the size of receivers Vernon Davis, Michael Crabtree and Randy Moss puts a lot of stress on defenses.


Aldon Smith was right. There are so many good-to-great linebackers in this contest, it's the Linebacker Bowl as much as the Super Bowl. There's Smith, Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, and Ahmad Brooks for San Francisco; and Ray Lewis, Terrell Suggs, Paul Kruger, and Dannell Ellerbe for Baltimore. The most underrated of the bunch is the 49ers' Bowman, a hard-hitting tackling machine from Penn State. He has led the team in tackles in both of his NFL seasons -- quite a feat considering he lines up next to Willis.


One thing to keep in mind when the 49ers are on defense: neither of the formidable Smiths -- the unrelated Aldon Smith and Justin Smith of Missouri -- is healthy. Aldon, who has been bothered by a shoulder injury, had 19 1/2 sacks through 13 games of the regular season, but is now on a five-game sack-less streak. Not coincidentally, the streak began just about the time Justin suffered a torn triceps muscle in Game 14; he needs offseason surgery. The two play so well off each other, but haven't been the same since.


In part because of a double-overtime win at Denver, the veteran Ravens defense has been on the field a lot during their playoff run. All told, we're talking 256 defensive plays -- or more than 85 a game. In contrast, San Francisco's defense has been on the field less than half that much -- 122 postseason plays -- playing only two games because of a first-round bye. San Francisco has a time of possession edge of six minutes per game in the playoffs. If the 49ers establish some ball-control, will the Ravens wear down late?


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