Didinger's Super Bowl XLVII scouting report

Didinger's Super Bowl XLVII scouting report
February 1, 2013, 9:30 am
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Each playing in their first Super Bowl, Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick will square off on Sunday. (USA Today Images)

Sizing up Sunday’s Super Bowl XLVII between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans:

When the Ravens have the ball
What makes the Baltimore offense effective is its balance. It is not just the balance of run and pass but the balance within the balance. It is how offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell uses all of his personnel.

On the ground, Caldwell has expanded the role of rookie Bernard Pierce. Buried behind Ray Rice early in the season, Pierce has seen more playing time since Caldwell took over as coordinator in December. The result: a different look in the run game. Pierce, a third-round pick from Temple, is a more physical back. Rice is quicker and shiftier. They pose very different challenges to a defense.

In the last five games, Rice averaged 18 carries, Pierce 13 carries. In the AFC title game against New England, Pierce was very effective (nine carries, 52 yards), but against the more physical 49ers front, Caldwell will probably lean more on Rice. He will try to get the ball to Rice in space where he can use his speed and elusiveness.

In the passing game, the Ravens can attack on all three levels -- short, intermediate and deep. Quarterback Joe Flacco can throw screens to Rice, he can work the middle of the field to Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta and he can go deep to Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones. It is very hard for a defense to take all of that away for four quarters. Sooner or later, someone will break down and the result is usually a big play (example, the 70-yard bomb to Jones that tied the playoff game in Denver).

Flacco has played brilliantly this postseason (eight touchdown passes, no interceptions). He defeated two future Hall of Famers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, both on the road to get here, so he won’t be fazed by the Super Bowl hoopla. Flacco is unflappable by nature and his confidence is at an all-time high. His passer rating for the postseason is 114.7. That is 27 points higher than his rating in the regular season.

The key for the 49ers will be getting pressure on Flacco. He has limited mobility and can be thrown off rhythm if he is forced to move, reset and throw. The defense doesn’t have to get a lot of sacks. If it gets consistent pressure that is often enough.

In Week 2 against the Eagles, Flacco attempted 42 passes. The Eagles sacked him just twice but they were buzzing around him all day, forcing him to throw off-balance. Flacco completed just 8 of 25 passes in the second half and the Ravens lost the game, 24-23.

The Ravens' offensive line has done a good job protecting Flacco. He has been sacked only four times in three postseason wins. The 49ers need linebacker Aldon Smith to regain his mojo for this game. Smith had 19.5 sacks in the regular season but he has been sackless the last five games. They need his pressure off the edge if they hope to cool off Flacco.

When the 49ers have the ball
The Ravens are a traditional pro offense with a good running game and classic drop-back passer. The 49ers are different. They combine power and speed with the trickery of a carnival shell game. Just when you think you have them figured out, uh-oh, they hit you with something else.

It is a dynamic offense that revolves around Colin Kaepernick, the gifted second-year quarterback who was installed as the starter after Alex Smith suffered a concussion at mid-season. It was a gutsy call by coach Jim Harbaugh to stay with Kaepernick because Smith was playing well (104.1 passer rating), but there were things Harbaugh wanted to implement in the offense that he felt Kaepernick could execute better than Smith.

The fact that the 49ers are back in the Super Bowl for the first time in almost 20 years proves Harbaugh was right. Sunday’s game will be Kaepernick’s 10th NFL start, which isn’t much of a resume when compared to Flacco, who has been to the playoffs in each of his five seasons. But like Flacco, Kaepernick does not seem awed. The fact that he led the 49ers back from a 17-point hole in the NFC title game indicates he has a maturity beyond his years.

The 49ers have some cool stuff in their playbook and Harbaugh knows how to use it. They have the Pistol formation, which is a shallow shotgun formation with the tailback lined up behind the quarterback. From this set, they run the option with the quarterback reading the last defender on the line and either keeping the ball himself or handing off to the tailback. It all depends on what that defender does. If he protects the outside, then the quarterback hands off to the tailback who cuts it inside. If the defender squeezes the gap, the quarterback keeps the ball and turns the corner.

If the 49ers execute it properly, it is almost impossible for the defense to be right. They have proven that in their two postseason wins. Against Green Bay, Kaepernick ran 16 times for 181 yards, the most ever by an NFL quarterback in a single game. In the title game, the Atlanta defense keyed on Kaepernick, so he handed off to Frank Gore and he gashed them inside. Kaepernick only carried the ball twice and one of those was a scramble off a broken pass play.

So if you are Dean Pees, Baltimore’s defensive coordinator, what do you do? Even with two weeks to prepare, what do you prepare for? You can hope the 49ers make mistakes, but they rarely do. They had just 16 turnovers during the regular season.

We haven’t even talked about the passing game, which is very potent. Michael Crabtree has blossomed into a big-time player (85 receptions, nine touchdowns). Tight end Vernon Davis was quiet (seven catches in seven games) until the last game when Atlanta tried to cover him with a linebacker and he burned them for five catches and 106 yards. The 49ers also have Randy Moss, who still stretches the field (15.5 yards per catch), and Kaepernick has the arm to reach him.

The 49ers have rebuilt their team with smart drafts, including two first-round picks that start on the offensive line: tackle Anthony Davis and guard Mike Iupati. This is a tough, highly-skilled unit that is physical and equally adept at run blocking and pass protection.

Special teams
Ex-Eagle David Akers is the most scrutinized individual on either team. That is because he comes into this game in the worst slump of his 14-year career. He led all kickers with 13 missed field goals this season, including four in the fourth quarter or overtime.

Akers was in such a funk that his coach brought in Billy Cundiff for a tryout last month. According to Harbaugh, Akers outkicked Cundiff in practice so he kept the job, but Akers missed a 38-yard field goal in Atlanta and returned to the bench with his head down. “He doesn’t look real confident right now,” FOX TV analyst Troy Aikman said.

Harbaugh is sticking with Akers for the Super Bowl. He cites Akers’ history of previous postseason success, converting 19 consecutive field goals, a postseason record, while a member of the Eagles. But that seems like a long time ago.

If the game comes down to a big kick in the fourth quarter or overtime, 49er fans will have their eyes closed and fingers crossed. The Ravens will have more confidence in cool-as-ice rookie Justin Tucker. He was 30 for 33 on field goals this season and he kicked three game-winners, including a 47-yarder to win the divisional playoff in Denver.

Both punters -- Andy Lee of the 49ers and Sam Koch of the Ravens -- are very good. Ted Ginn Jr. of the 49ers and Jacoby Jones of the Ravens are explosive returners. Jones had three kick returns for touchdowns in the regular season.

Intangibles
The storyline of the Harbaugh brothers has been beaten to death, but it still is worth discussion. John, the former Eagles assistant, has led the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his five seasons as head coach. Jim has taken the 49ers to the playoffs the last two seasons. Both have excellent staffs. These are two very well-coached teams.

Neither franchise has lost a Super Bowl. The 49ers are 5-0 in the big game and the Ravens won their only previous appearance, but we are going back generations in the case of the 49ers and more than decade for the Ravens, so I don’t know how much the history matters. Kaepernick wasn’t even born when Joe Montana led the 49ers to their first Super Bowl.

The Ravens are riding the emotional coattails of Ray Lewis, the 37-year-old linebacker who is retiring after the game. Lewis returned from a torn triceps muscle to lift a defense that ranked 24th at one point this season to a unit capable of shutting down the Patriots in the AFC title game. Many fans are sick of it, but the “Win it for Ray” thing is a very real motivational force for the Ravens.

Players to watch
Patrick Willis, 49ers -- He will be the other No. 52 on the field Sunday. Indeed, he wears the number because Lewis is his football idol. But Willis has supplanted the aging Lewis as the best middle linebacker in the game. He had 171 tackles this season and anchors the 49ers' run defense.

Anquan Boldin, Ravens -- Fearless receiver who plays big in big games. He had eight catches for 84 yards in Super Bowl XLIII with Arizona. In his last five postseason games with Baltimore, he has 26 catches for 450 yards and four touchdowns. He will be Flacco’s go-to guy in the red zone.

Prediction
These are two old-school football teams that advanced in the playoffs by outhitting their opponents. The 49ers wore down the Falcons, and the Ravens just beat up on the Patriots. This will be a bruising game that should be close throughout.

Some people are calling the Ravens a team of destiny, but I’m impressed with what I’ve seen from the 49ers. They had so many chances to fold in the game at Atlanta -- falling behind 17-0, Crabtree fumbling at the goal line, Akers missing the chip-shot field goal -- but they just kept punching until, finally, they took control of the game. That is the kind of mental toughness that wins championships and Super Bowls.

49ers 30, Ravens 27

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