In medias res (USAT)
For the last decade or so, Michael Salfino and Scott Pianowski have been putting together an email exchange centered around (but not limited to) the NFL. You might enjoy listening to them haggle. You might prefer a swift kick into the stomach. The Table isn't for everyone; we hope some of you enjoy it.
From: Michael Salfino
Date: Tue, Jan 29, 2013 at 9:31 AM
Subject: Super Breakfast
To: scott pianowski
We're just days away from the big day where the question the nation is asking will finally be answered: Will Jay-Z appear at halftime with Beyonce?
And there's a game, too, I guess. I did not expect a Ravens vs. 49ers Super Bowl, by any stretch. Not after San Francisco was hammered by the Seahawks and even pushed in Week 17 for a while by the Cardinals. And not when the Ravens were just spiraling out of control in December. I mean, this as a defense that couldn't figure out a way to stop Charlie Batch and Kirk Cousins.
I have to say I was wrong about the Colin Kaepernick gambit by Jim Harbaugh. There's no denying he gives them explosiveness without sacrificing much consistency. He hasn't been boom and bust like most running quarterbacks. But there are ways to stop him. You just have to go to the Seahawks tape. Of course, you need corners who can play press coverage and provide run support. Does Baltimore fit that bill? Yes, Kaepernick throws it well, too. But if you take away the easy reads/big plays by containing his run option, he struggles to move the chains. The Rams bottled him up pretty well, too.
And what about the 49ers defense? Do that have what is needed to stop the suddenly hot Joe Flacco? I thought the San Francisco pass defense looked pretty abysmal against the Falcons and the Ravens have similar personnel, though everyone (quarterback, wide receivers, tight end) is a little worse. The Baltimore backs are much better however. And the Ravens made a key change, too, in firing their offensive coordinator. Big moves like this are unheard of from a Super Bowl team. And here we have two teams who made them and who also had very little (if any) late season momentum. But they both have their mojo working now. Let's break this sucker down. Super Bowl Breakfast is served.
From: scott pianowski
Date: Thu, Jan 31, 2013 at 7:37 AM
Subject: straight cash, homey
To: Michael Salfino
I'm having some trouble getting up for the game. I guess that's not a big deal, I don't have to tackle anyone or run past anyone. I've done a good job tuning out the media week. (And please don't give me any Manti Te'o or Miami Biogenesis here, or seriously, I will not respond.)
I don't tax the Niners for their finish as much as you do. Getting stomped at Seattle is an excused absence for anyone, and San Francisco still had a firm grasp on the division (a home game with Arizona is a gimme - okay, not for New England). The Week 17 win over the Cardinals wasn't close - it's a 27-10 game before Brian Hoyer hit on a Hail Mary to grab the cover.
The way we were (SI Vault)
I'm pretty sure I'm picking the Niners. They're faster, for one thing, and a very difficult team to prepare for if you haven't faced them recently. It's not a coincidence that the in-division foes (well, the Rams and Seahawks) played them the best. I also see more winning paths for San Francisco, a key factor. And I'm more confident in the Niners forcing Joe Flacco mistakes than I am the Ravens forcing Colin Kaepernick errors. Maybe I'm seeing what I want to see, only, I really don't have a stake in all this. I'll just be watching as an emotionally-unengaged fan.
Is the Niners pass rush healthy? That's a big key to this, too. Does the extra week off help anyone in particular? If you had to draft a Harbaugh to run your team, who's the pick?
Baltimore's 2012 finish is another data point to suggest that a team's finishing kick in the regular season has no relationship to what happens in January. The Giants, obviously, have played this song a few times. That said, let's not go too far the other direction and suggest that it's a good thing to play poorly on the eve of the playoffs. Plenty of teams hit the second season in a good way and kept their play up. More than any other league, the NFL is prone to attribution error after the fact - the overwhelming need to identify why teams and players win and lose. No one wants to put "randomness" or "variance" on a pennant, I guess.
From: Michael Salfino
Date: Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 1:28 AM
Subject: Re: straight cash, homey
To: scott pianowski
My point with the Niners-Cardinals game wasn't the final score but rather that they were losing 6-0 with a minute left in the first half. That's a bad game, period. I don't care about the ultimate result.
And the Seahawks and Rams showed how you can really slow down the Niners offense. The Cardinals actually did the same thing, too. You press their receivers at the line of scrimmage and play one middle safety so that the corners can be involved in run support while you also have eight in the box. You don't have to worry about the Niners receivers getting past you anyway. So this is the way to go -- if your corners are big and tough enough to play run support. Here's a screenshot of the Seahawks from the last game. The Niners were forced to pass on that play. Notice also how they are more oriented to defending a run to Kaepernick's right since he's not going to have any run/pass option running left as a righty thrower. This is sound defensive scheming.
To see how tough the Niners make it for a defense, look what happened in the NFC championship game to the poor defensive end who was told all week not to let that happen to him. Here we are right after the snap and see the Atlanta end doing everything he's been told perfectly. Kaepernick is not getting outside of him, no way. But Kaepernick handed the ball off -- and not to an inside runner but to an outside runner. So now, who has outside containment on the running back? No one, that's who. So, murder she wrote.
We need to know how the Ravens played the pistol against the Redskins. Did they trust their corners in press coverage and take away the run? No, they did not. They tried to bottle up the Redskins running game with their linemen and backers but that's never going to work. You have to think too much. You get caught in no-man's land. Here's the pre-snap look on the first play of the game. Morris ended up racing around right end for 29 yards. Later, they go soft again and give up a 21-yard pass anyway. The Ravens were beaten badly all day. They mostly contained RGIII before hurting him, but Alfred Morris had a 129 yards and Washington piled up over 400 yards of offense and 31 points. So, if this is their Pistol plan, I think they are in very big trouble. They are a different team now, one can argue; but not on defense, right?
I don't want to say that this is a random variation with the Ravens because they did change coordinators, which is a big deal. And they are a downfield passing team now, which is Flacco's strength. Flacco seems comfortable now. He has 12 TDs and one pick since the change. I like the WR tandem of Boldin and Smith a lot. That's speed and possession right there and Smith has decent size and versatility, too. I think Pitta is very good, a true hybrid with everything right now you need from a tight end except the big-name reputation, I guess. Ray Rice, of course, is an elite player, too. Plus they have another quality back in Bernard Pierce. So I have no doubt that the Ravens' offense will have a lot of big moments against a very overrated 49ers pass defense, to my eye this postseason at least. Remember, too, that San Francisco has a lot of trouble with the deep ball, suddenly Baltimore's bread and butter.
So I think this game is going to be a lot of fun. I like the over for sure. But picking a winner is tough for me. I know the 49ers have better players. They have done better against winning teams. But Baltimore has been more impressive in the postseason considering the quality of opponents. Give me Baltimore with the points. And if I'm going to take a team getting so few to cover, I may as well pick them to win. I think that if Kaepernick is forced to pass in the fourth quarter, he will make a big mistake to Ed Reed. Or maybe David Akers just blows it. Except for Mason Crosby this year, no playoff kicker since 2000 (when field goals pretty much started being taken for granted) has a worse percentage than Akers's 68.2% (including playoffs). That's also eighth worst since 2000 for kickers who played in 16 regular-season games. Baltimore 28, San Francisco 27.
From: scott pianowski
Date: Fri, Feb 1, 2013 at 4:20 PM
Subject: rabbit at rest
To: Michael Salfino
Making a fine point on the Cardinals-Niners first half (or most of the first half) seems a little silly to me. The Niners made adjustments and eventually blew the Cardinals off the field. We can say anything we want with tiny or cherry-picked samples.
One problem with any man-to-man concept against the Niners: you'll have defenders with their backs to Kaepernick most of the time, and that makes you vulnerable to splash plays from his running ability (hat tip to my Y! amigo Doug Farrar, all over this point). Maybe that's not a big deal. Maybe you pick your poison and you can live with that. Obviously if you play zone in the middle of the field, you make a lot of things easier for the quarterback. I think the Ravens will have to play more zone than they want to account for Kaepernick's athleticism and the way he forces you to defend the entire field horizontally.
I know Jim Harbaugh hasn't used Vernon Davis like we want him to (hell, like everyone outsider wants him to), but I see Davis as a huge player in this game. Maybe even Delanie Walker, too, for a few targets here and there. You can exploit the Ravens linebackers in coverage, and Bernard Pollard too. The Patriots would have been ideally suited to exploit this had Gronkowski been 100 percent and on the field (even before the Houston injury, he didn't look right). Manning couldn't do it, maybe because of the cold, maybe because Tamme and Dreessen aren't that good. I don't know.
I have a ton of respect for Jim Harbaugh, maybe too much. It took major cojones to swap out Alex Smith for Kaepernick when he did. The Niners went low on the read option in Weeks 16-17, then unleashed it like an unfed tiger on the Packers in the Wild Card round. This is a fast team, a physical team, and a *multiple* team - they challenge your mind as much as they challenge you physically. And even if you win the chess match and have the right call or right decisions made, the Niners have enough playmakers on either side where they can still win the play.
Man with the plan (USAT)
(I'm not knocking Eli, he's good. But he's never, long haul, been with Rodgers, Brees, Manning, Brady, no matter how many rings he's won. I'd like to think we can all accept that. But there is nothing wrong with being a very good QB with two rings. And maybe Flacco will be a very good QB with one ring, three days from now.)
There's no right place to bring this up, but I also want to salute Anquan Boldin, who's made a living out of making catches when he's not really open. I can't think of a better contested-pass receiver in recent times, someone who never had the pure speed or size to physically dominate people. As trite as it sounds, he beats people with concentration, technique and desire. If he has a monster game that sparks a Baltimore victory, perhaps Boldin enters the Hall of Fame discussion. I've seldom been in a position to root for him, but he's earned my full and unwavering respect.
Back to Caldwell, remember the Ravens tried to ground-and-pound the first half of the New England game, two backs, a tight end, and let's run it down their throats, keep it out of Flacco's hands. Then in the second half the Ravens dramatically shifted the strategy, picked up the tempo, added a third receiver, and voila - the Patriots couldn't cover or get off the field. Some of that was the Talib injury, a spillover effect we don't completely agree on. But with respect to Caldwell, do we praise the adjustment, or flag the game plan he tried in the first half? Maybe this is all splitting hairs and doesn't matter much. (And yes, I know it seems like I'm using a sliding scale with respect to Jim Harbaugh vs. Jim Caldwell. I'm not going to deny it, one of them has a ton of cred with me, one of them doesn't.)
I agree that any QB forced to throw in the fourth quarter of this game is probably in trouble - the defenses are too good, to the point that being one-dimensional will come with a price. You always want to play from a lead, be it the National Football League or the Swamp League. The lead dog is the only one with the good view. But will Caldwell have the stones to be aggressive early in the game? Will Jim Harbaugh get frisky with the early play calling, or try to over-manage Kaepernick to the point that it suffocates the offense?
In a roundabout way I suppose I'm positing that getting ahead in this game might mean more than usual. And my sense is that the Niners are wired to be more aggressive and creative early. Their running game is multiple and confusing, it really makes the opponent think more than it wants to. Anytime you can get defenders to question their first instinct, you're doing a wonderful thing. And look out for possible misdirection or even a gadget play or two early from Jim Harbaugh, knowing Kaepernick is basically a magician, begging you to look at one hand while he hides your watch with the other one.
Maybe that's too much hokus-pokus and voodoo for everyone, but that's how I make the sausage. Niners 27, Ravens 23. It should be a good game. I just see more potential paths for the Niners.
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