After all the bets and the hype, it's time to break down the game and decide who will raise the Lombardi Trophy
The last time a Super Bowl vaguely resembled the pregame plan was in February of 2007, when the Colts faded a kickoff return on the opening play of the game from the best return man in the history of football and rode their huge quarterback advantage to a win. Otherwise, for about a 10-year stretch now, Super Bowl previews have borne no resemblance to the game that's actually played out on the field. Nobody saw the Patriots' game plan coming to knock down Marshall Faulk in 2002. Presumably, no scribes suggested that Raiders head coach Bill Callahan was going to deliberately try to throw the Super Bowl the following year. Even when the favorite has covered the spread, the game has had some major quirk corrupt things. Ben Roethlisberger's two-pick, 29.3–passer rating game against the Seahawks. The injuries to Charles Woodson and Sam Shields tearing the Green Bay pass defense apart against those same Steelers years later (with Green Bay still holding up to win).
Of course, that's not stopping anybody from writing or reading Super Bowl previews. I don't know that there's something innately different about the Super Bowl, that pregame trends and levels of performance get muddied amid the pressure of the biggest game in most players' lives and produce a contest that bears little resemblance to expectations, but I can see the argument. Maybe if you took the Monday Night Football game from Week 9 each year and compared it to how each of those teams did over the remainder of the year, it would stand out as odd in the same way that these last dozen Super Bowls or so have stood out. Somebody like me would point out that the 10 Super Bowls at the end of the last century roughly amounted to chalk; outside of the one major upset (Broncos-Packers) and one minor one (Giants-Bills), the favorites cleaned up and the Super Bowl had a very boring decade.
The only thing I'm really confident about heading into Sunday is that Harbaugh Bowl II won't look much like Harbaugh Bowl I. That game was 14 months ago, but both the 49ers and Ravens have undergone fundamental shifts in terms of their personnel and style of play in the meantime. Baltimore evolved after injuries threatened their viability; San Francisco evolved by using an injury as an excuse to try to become a better long-term team. They each have an impressive blowout and an even more impressive comeback on their résumé this postseason, but to win a Super Bowl, they'll have to do the one thing nobody's done during these playoffs: beat a Harbaugh.
Back to Basics
As important as it is to win after the ball's snapped, teams can do a lot of good for themselves by dictating matchups and personnel sets that are in their favor before plays even begin. During this postseason, the Ravens have had to contend with the Broncos and Patriots — teams who try to create mismatches against tired defenses by running different sorts of no-huddle attacks. Baltimore has been able to withstand those attacks by staying in a Nickel defense that has done a good job of matching up against the sorts of personnel sets the Broncos and Patriots tend to run. In the Super Bowl, don't be surprised if the 49ers try to attack the Ravens with a seemingly counterintuitive strategy: forcing them back into their traditional 3-4 alignment.
Grantland on Super Bowl XLVII
My estimate is that the Ravens have had five defensive backs out in the familiar Nickel package on about 76 percent of their defensive snaps this postseason. At this point, the Nickel might actually be their best personnel package by virtue of playing to many of its players' strengths. It allows Terrell Suggs and Paul Kruger to focus on rushing the passer and moves the somewhat undersized Corey Graham into the slot, where he's done great work this postseason. When Baltimore moves into the 3-4, they swap out a cornerback — usually Chykie Brown — for a nose tackle, either Terrence Cody or Ma'ake Kemoeatu, while moving Graham to the outside. To tell the truth, Brown has been better at corner this year than Cody or Kemoeatu have been up front. Haloti Ngata also hasn't been at 100 percent for months now, and the 3-4 virtually requires him to be present for the Ravens.
While the Broncos and Patriots often like to stretch defenses by adding receivers, the 49ers are likely to show off just about every sort of offensive personnel set you can imagine over the course of a game. Like the Broncos and Patriots, they have a pair of talented athletes at tight end who are capable of lining up at any spot in the formation and exploiting a mismatch. And after Vernon Davis finally got involved in the offense for the first time in weeks during the NFC Championship Game, the Ravens might actually have to respect the presence of the player who dominated during the 2011 postseason.
Where the 49ers will really test the Ravens is when they go into run-heavy sets that bring on six or seven offensive linemen. They've gone with extra offensive linemen four to six times per game during the postseason, and it's not a gimmick for short yardage; the 49ers have quick offensive linemen who can get to the second level and create big plays out of those sets. And lest you think the Ravens can just bring on extra linemen themselves and sell out against the run when they see backup linemen Leonard Davis and Daniel Kilgore come onto the field alongside defensive tackle Will Tukuafu, think again; the 49ers are perfectly capable of calling for Kaepernick to throw a bomb up the seam to Vernon Davis or Delanie Walker out of that very alignment.
As Chris Brown noted in his Thursday breakdown of how the Ravens will try to stop the 49ers, the 49ers get you with their diversity. They're innovative, in part, by bringing back the past. The best way to stop any sort of running play, whether that play made its debut in 1962 or 2012, is by winning at the line of scrimmage. If the likes of Cody and Ngata get swallowed up at the point of attack, the 49ers will get to dictate their terms all evening.
How to Stop a Superhero
At the end of Brown's piece, he points out that the Ravens will probably have to blitz Kaepernick to try to force him into making the mistakes that come with inexperience; specifically, that the Ravens will try to get defenders into throwing lanes off of zone blitzes. It's a tactic that former Ravens defensive coordinator and current Falcons DC Mike Nolan tried against Kaepernick last week, and it nearly produced an interception by defensive tackle Corey Peters that might have sealed the game in the first quarter.
Assuming that Baltimore does spend a lot of time in their base 3-4 defense, the key player in stopping Kaepernick as a runner while possibly forcing an interception by stepping into a throwing lane will likely be Paul Kruger. At this point, Kruger is the most explosive, athletic player Baltimore has in its front seven, and he's arguably Baltimore's best bet in terms of having somebody who can actually physically motor his way into the path of a Kaepernick hot route before the ball gets there.
Before his breakout stretch during the second half of the 2012 season, Kruger's most famous play as a Ravens defender actually came on exactly the sort of play I'm describing. It was even against Dennis Dixon — a relatively inexperienced quarterback who had experience employing read option techniques (although it's unfair to compare Kaepernick to Dixon). The interception (on video here) came in overtime of a Steelers-Ravens game in 2009, and it was exactly the sort of process the Ravens would hope to get an interception out of on Sunday.
The Ravens line up on the play with four down linemen and six men in the box, so it's not their base defense, but they do execute a zone blitz on the play. The two interior defensive linemen and a linebacker rush the passer up the middle, while both ends drop back into coverage as a cornerback blitzes. Kruger sells his rush well, actually taking a full step in toward the right tackle before bailing and getting into a likely passing lane for Dixon.
Pittsburgh is likely calling for a quick throw to the sticks from Dixon on third-and-5 anyway, but the zone blitz and pressure up the middle only further encourages Dixon to get the ball out and try to hit what's most likely his hot read, the slant to Santonio Holmes. The throw looks open, since the cornerback on Holmes blitzes at the snap and Ed Reed looks slow to get over, but Dixon never even sees Kruger drop back into the path of the slant.
If you're a 49ers fan, you're noting that Kaepernick is a much better player than Dennis Dixon, and you're right. He probably doesn't panic under that sort of impending pressure and makes a more intelligent throw, or he scrambles out of the pressure and avoids the blitz altogether. Every quarterback makes mistakes, and the Ravens have to find ways to exploit the few weaknesses that Kaepernick has with the best possible defensive techniques they can come up with. For a player as accurate and efficient as Kaepernick, that might involve preying on the one thing he lacks: experience.
If any single player has taken over these playoffs, of course, it's Joe Flacco. While Colin Kaepernick has been thrilling to watch, there's a reason Flacco was listed at the top of last week's playoff stock watch; not only is Flacco winning and producing at the highest level, he's doing it in the run-in period for a new contract. Dot-com billionaires gaze in awe at Joe Flacco's timing.
It's always a dangerous game to try to draw conclusions from three-game samples, but the Flacco ascension really intrigues me. Is there something Flacco is doing that he wasn't pulling off a year or two ago? For a player who has always had his measures of value adulterated by his win totals, I wonder whether we're perceiving some sort of change in Flacco's performance solely because the Ravens are in the Super Bowl.
That's really interesting. Obviously, the 2008-09 Flacco was something truly dreadful, but that hardly seems relevant now. That guy with those numbers still managed to go 3-2, which should tell you a lot about my prior skepticism. The 2010-11 Flacco, though, played almost as well in a four-game stretch as the 2012 Flacco has during his three-game run to the Super Bowl! It was a totally different sort of performance, as the 2010-11 Flacco was more conservative and checked down more frequently than the 2012 version.1
(article excerpt for demonstration purpose)