Super Bowl XLVII preview: 49ers primed to hoist Lombardi Trophy for a sixth time

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

Super Bowl XLVII
Baltimore Ravens at San Francisco 49ers
6 p.m. ET, Sunday, Feb. 3
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana

When the Ravens have the ball: During the regular season, the Ravens were right in the middle of pack offensively, ranking 16th in total offense, 11th in rushing and 15th in passing and were 29th in time of possession. The Ravens fared no better in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, ranking 13th in offensive DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) with their rushing offense (seventh) outpacing their passing offense (15th).

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The Ravens offense began to flounder late in the season, resulting in Harbaugh making a change at offensive coordinator. The team fired Cam Cameron and promoted quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, even though the former Indianapolis Colts head coach had no play-calling experience at the professional or major college levels.

"It wasn’t like we made many significant changes in terms of what we’re doing from a schematic standpoint, because we were too far down he road for that," Caldwell said on Wednesday. "What we did was, do the things that we knew how to do well and try to crystalize it. I also want to make sure that you understand that there is no way that I take credit for any of that. We have players that are very good players and have been in the system for four or five years that are maturing and getting better as time goes on. It just so happened that towards the end of the season things were really starting to come together. We’d shown flashes all through the year, but we just had some ups and downs a little bit here and there.

"Obviously, we’ve played a little more consistently since we’ve been in the playoffs and that’s worked well for us."

The Ravens have been better in the post-season, averaging just under 425 yards of total offense per game and 30 points per game, the latter figure reflective of an 80 percent success rate in the red zone.

Baltimore's offense runs through quarterback Joe Flacco, who, despite an average completion percentage, has thrown for 853 yards and eight touchdowns this postseason. Most importantly, Flacco has largely played turnover-free football, losing just one fumble during their run to Super Bowl XLVII with zero interceptions. Flacco's preferred target this postseason has been Anquan Boldin, who has 16 receptions (on a team-high 26 targets) for 276 and three touchdowns, including two in their AFC championship game win over the New England Patriots. The Ravens like to move Boldin around before the snap to create mismatches and will likely be trying to find nickel cornerback Chris Culliver, whose homophobic comments served as a distraction during the team's preparations this week and could have him off-balance on Sunday night. No. 2 receiver Torrey Smith has just nine receptions this postseason, but is the team's deep threat and has the talent and skill-level to go off at any time. Quiet in the wild-card win over the Indianapolis Colts, Smith had three receptions for 98 yards in the double overtime win over the Denver Broncos, including two long touchdowns against future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey.

Tight end Dennis Pitta has caught 10 passes for 137 yards and two touchdowns this postseason and has caught the attention of the 49ers' secondary.

"Pitta is starting to emerge as a top guy for them," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. "He’s getting behind the defense, he’s scoring in the red zone, and he’s becoming just a reliable, all-around guy for them. Developing into a top tight end in the National Football League. It’s hard to jam him, so we’ll have to be physical with him. He’s pretty good."

The Ravens are expected to involve running back Ray Rice more in the passing game, though that will be difficult against a 49ers defense that, according to Football Outsiders, ranked eighth defending opposing running backs in the passing game and have allowed opposing running backs to catch three passes for 16 yards this postseason.

A 1,629-pound factor in Flacco's success is an offensive line that was reshuffled at the start of the postseason. The Ravens moved left tackle Michael Oher back to right tackle, 2012 second-round pick Kelechi Osomele was shifted from right tackle to left guard and veteran Bryant McKinnie stepped in at left tackle after playing in just 11.73 percent of the offensive snaps during the regular season. This reshuffled unit has allowed just four sacks of Flacco this postseason and will face a 49ers' pass rush that has cooled over the last few weeks. Over their last four regular and postseason games, the 49ers have just five sacks and outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who had 19.5 sacks in the regular season and was voted the team's MVP, has been held without a sack since Dec. 9.

Rice handles the bulk of the duties in a running game that has averaged 175.2 yards per game over the last five regular and postseason games. Rice has received around 21 carries per game this postseason, gaining 247 yards and two touchdowns, but is not the only team's only option. 2012 fifth-round pick Bernard Pierce has the speed to pick up big gains if he's able to get outside the tackles and turn up the field. The Ravens' production in the ground game has decreased the last two games when they faced Broncos and Patriots defenses that were solid against the run throughout the season. The Ravens may run into more trouble against the 49ers, who were the NFL's No. 2-ranked run defense, according to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics as Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman may be the two best inside linebackers in the entire NFL.

When the 49ers have the ball: The 49ers ranked 11th in the NFL in total offense this season – fourth in rushing offense and 23rd in passing offense, but were third in both rushing and passing yards per play. It is worth mentioning that the 49ers played in the same division as some of the top defenses in the NFL – Seattle, Arizona and St. Louis were Top 10 defenses, according to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics – which helped the 49ers rank fifth in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted team offense DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

The key to the 49ers' offense is quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who took over for a concussed Alex Smith to pass for over 1,800 yards with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions to go along with 415 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. The 2011 second-round pick out of Nevada has taken his game to the next level in the postseason, completing 33-of-52 pass attempts for 496 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. Kaepernick has also rushed for 202 yards and two touchdowns, though much of that production came when he ran for 181 yards in the divisional playoff win over the Green Bay Packers, setting an NFL single-game record for rushing yards by a quarterback.

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At 6-foot-5 and 233 pounds, Kaepernick presents a unique "run-pass" challenge to opposing defenses when operating out of the pistol formation, which he ran in college at Nevada.

"It can force a defense to play certain ways that they might not play," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of the pistol this week. "If that is the case, so be it. I just think it is another way to get first downs. That is what we are trying to do.

"Colin obviously has some background in it and he is a unique and rare athlete. Anytime you have a rare athlete you are going to want to have that athlete impact the game any way that you can. The difference between us and Carolina (Panthers), for example, is we are only going to do it so much. It is an adjunct to what we normally do. It is not the crux of what we do."

The last time the Ravens defense (which is not aging, as is often suggested. They're just older at certain positions) faced a threat like Kaepernick was on Dec. 9 against Robert Griffin and the Washington Redskins. Griffin led the Redskins on a pair of 80-yard touchdown drives at the start of the game as the Redskins racked up 423 yards of total offense, including 179 yards on the ground, as the Ravens lost, 31-28. Redskins rookie running back Alfred Morris accounted for 129 rushing yards and a touchdown on his way to ranking fifth in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric.

Who ranked fourth in FO's DYAR rankings this season? Frank Gore.

Gore ran for over 1,200 yards during the regular season and has ramped up his production this postseason. Through two games, Gore has 44 carries for 209 yards and three touchdowns. Gore has always used his lack of height (he's a shade over 5-foot-9) to hide behind the 49ers' massive offensive line and the read-option plays, and defenses having to watch Kaepernick, and monster-sized pulling guards Mike Iupati (6-foot-5, 331 pounds) and Alex Boone (6-foot-8, 300 pounds) has added another dimension to the 49ers running game.

"The option pistol stuff that they’re running, I know Washington runs it some, but it’s a little different," Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said on Thursday. "Everyone talks about No. 7 (Kaepernick), but 21 (Gore) can beat you just as easy as 7 can and he’s still, to me, the main focus."

Second-round running back LaMichael James could not get a jersey on the first 12 Sundays of the 2012 season, but has provided some explosive plays in the running game in limited duty over the last six games, including a 15-yard touchdown run in the NFC championship game win over the Atlanta Falcons. Between Gore's size, James' speed Kaepernick's, well, everything, and a 49ers offensive line that has uses two pulling guards – Pro Bowler Mike Iupati and first-year starter Alex Boone - a Ravens defense that, according to Football Outsiders' advanced metrics, ranked 26th against the run will have their hands full on Sunday night.

When Kaepernick does put the ball in the air, fourth-year receiver Michael Crabtree has emerged as his top target. Crabtree had a somewhat frosty relationship with Alex Smith and caught 56 passes for 771 yards and seven touchdowns since Kaepernick stepped into the huddle. Crabtree has benefited from playing opposite Randy Moss, who still garners considerable attention from opposing defenses. Both could have good days against a Ravens defense that ranked 20th against opposing No. 1 receivers and 30th against No. 2 receivers, according to Football Outsiders. The Ravens were good when defending opponents' tight ends and running backs this season, which could help them shut down Gore and Vernon Davis, who emerged from a lengthy hibernation to catch five passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in the NFC championship game.

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How it could go: On paper, the 49ers appear to be the superior team. Kaepernick is a dual-threat quarterback, giving the team three options in the running game that benefits from an offensive line that is one of the best in the league. Michael Crabtree has blossomed into a legitimate No. 1 receiver, Vernon Davis showed what he's capable of in the NFC championship game and Randy Moss may not be the greatest receiver of all-time, but he was the most-feared and remains a player opposing defenses have to account for. The 49ers defensive front is as physical as any in the league, the secondary is solid and would benefit if a once potent pass rush regains its edge on Sunday.

The Ravens may have the edge when it comes to emotion – in case you hadn't heard, Super Bowl XLVII will be Ray Lewis' final game in the NFL (unless he changes his mind) – and are arguably the more battle-tested team having played 12 playoff games in John Harbaugh's five seasons as head coach. This postseason, the Ravens went on the road and knocked out Peyton Manning and the No. 1 seed Broncos before going up to Foxboro, Massachusetts and sending Tom Brady and the Patriots to the offseason. In the process, Flacco has looked like a top-flight (we're not going to use the "E" word) quarterback with Jim Caldwell calling the plays on offense. The defense has overcome the loss of No. 1 cornerback Lardarius Webb and has benefited from productive seasons from Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe, Cary Williams and Ed Reed, four players who are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents in March. The Ravens also have a special teams edge over the 49ers, ranking first in Football Outsiders' special teams DVOA while the 49ers dipped from second in 2011 to 20th in 2012. In his annual rankings of special teams units, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News had the Ravens ranked third and the 49ers ranked 16th in the 2012 regular season.

Special teams are always a factor, but in Super Bowl XLVII, we anticipate the 49ers' running game, offensive line and their front seven to control the flow of the game and secure a record-tying sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Prediction: 49ers 27, Ravens 23

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