The 49ers’ secondary has been a stout unit for most of the season, and the Ravens’ passing game has taken off in the postseason. Pressure will be a key to slowing down QB Joe Flacco, who has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs. The Ravens are not afraid to max protect and call seven-step drops to take advantage of what might be Flacco’s best physical skill: his deep arm and touch downfield.
If the 49ers can’t pressure – and their pass rush has been less than stellar lately – they could struggle. It heated up slightly in the second half of the NFC title game against the Falcons, but it resulted in more pressure than sacks. Ryan was moved off his spots at times and had defenders bearing down on him, but rarely did it affect his throws. The Ravens’ offensive line handled a recent injury to OLG Jah Reid well and kept rolling despite the personnel change. Its pass protection roundly has been strong of late.
The Ravens have targets on all three levels, with the backs and tight ends doing most of the work short and intermediate. WR Anquan Boldin contributes to both areas as well, and he’s the Ravens’ best physical marvel. 49ers CB Carlos Rogers said Boldin is tough to handle because of his strength.
“He uses it to his advantage,” Rogers said. “You can’t let him extend his arms and get into you.”
The deep options are Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. Smith is the primary field-tilter, and the chemistry has grown with Flacco and Smith as the season has worn on.
“They’ve developed that relationship between receiver and quarterback,” WR coach Jim Hostler said. “Sometimes it’s tough in our offense; we run the ball a lot, so the passing opportunities aren’t always there for these guys. They might see six passes (thrown their way) in a game, so they know they have to make the most of them.”
Smith’s speed will be a weapon. Stopping the Ravens’ run game and handling Smith on seven- and nine-routes is a tough chore.
“Torrey Smith is extremely fast, probably top five in the National Football League as far as pure, straight-line speed,” 49ers S Donte Whitner said. “And that’s his deep throw. When he wants to go deep, he’s going to Torrey Smith. He can run other routes, but his specialty is going deep.”
Whitner and the 49ers have been strong against the deep pass most of the season but struggled early in the Falcons game with WR Julio Jones. Whitner chalked it up to “communication problems” that the DBs and coaches worked out on the sideline. Ryan still burned them throughout the game, but there were fewer glaring coverage woes.
The 49ers defense isn't easy to run against, but the addition of Bryant McKinnie at left tackle and the injury to defensive lineman Justin Smith gives the Ravens reason to believe they can keep the ball rolling. If they can, it will help them avoid exposing some bad matchups in pass protection (Michael Oher vs. Ahmad Brooks, Justin and Aldon Smith against McKinnie and guard Kelechi Osemele).
The 49ers will play man on the outside, something wide receiver Torrey Smith struggled with against New England. Anquan Boldin thrived, however, and getting the run going would open up the play-action shots down the field that Baltimore enjoys taking.
Smith was bottled up in the most recent matchup against the Patriots with two-man coverage, but if the 49ers take the same approach (as they often do), Boldin could help open things up. Rogers is their top cover man, and he might be one of the five or six best man corners in the NFL. Tarell Brown, however, can be vulnerable on the other side. He was picked on early against the Falcons. Nickel CB Chris Culliver is solid but can be beat on two-way routes.