Setting the Edge: Super Bowl XLVII – 49ers On Offense
Ben Stockwell completes his two-part Super Bowl preview by analyzing the battle between the 49ers' offense and the Ravens' defense -- how important will the running QB prove?
Setting the Edge: Super Bowl XLVII – 49ers On Offense
In Part 2 of our Super Bowl preview — you can see Part 1 here — we’re setting out which team we think has the edge in five key aspects of the game when the San Francisco offense is on the field. The 49ers have topped 25 points in four of their past five games, while the Ravens’ defense has allowed only two of their past six opponents to exceed that mark (the Broncos twice).
However, in this breakdown we’ll be digging much deeper than just points scored. We’re going to take a look at which team has the edge in each particular the area of the field, and in both the run and passing games. Who has the edge when the 49ers look to run between the tackles? Who has the edge when the 49ers try to go deep in the passing game? Can the 49ers’ nickel-and-dime the Ravens down the field with their short passing game? These are the questions we’ll be looking to answer in this article. And though the edge one team enjoys in a particular area may be slender, in a Super Bowl environment that edge can be exploited for large dividends — a Lombardi Trophy-sized dividend.
49ers on Offense: Inside Running
It seems fitting, with two teams famed for their “old school” football mentality, to start off with the inside running game, and if you simply look at the personnel involved this is a fairly mouthwatering matchup. For the 49ers’ offense you have arguably the league’s best interior offensive line, spearheaded by the formidable guard pairing of Mike Iupati and Alex Boone, going up against a Ravens interior defense featuring such talents as Haloti Ngata and some big bodies like Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody.
When you look at the statistics that these two teams have put forth this season, the matchup gets even better. The 49ers bring arguably the league’s best inside running game to the table on the weight of the full season, collecting a staggering 5.23 yards per carry on rushes between the tackle on their 18-game run to the Super Bowl. Since Week 15, however, their inside running game is closer to the league average, 4.37 yards per carry. The Ravens’ interior run defense, meanwhile, has really tightened up over that same time period, conceding only 3.68 yards per carry and missing only four tackles on the 90 inside carries they have defended in their past six games.
The wildcard here though, is the 49ers’ option running game. Atlanta gave a textbook display two weeks ago on how to over-commit to one part of the option and consequently get eaten up by the other one. When the option is working well you either suffer the slow death as Atlanta did, or the fast death that Green Bay fell victim to. Finding a balanced way to shutdown the option will be crucial for Baltimore to show off their improved interior run defense against equal numbers.
49ers on Offense: Outside Running
On rushes outside the tackles, including wide receiver runs, we have a similar story to the interior defense. The Ravens look good, but the 49ers look even better. Again the 49ers are averaging 5+ yards per carry to the outside, though they have maintained that form in the last month of the season unlike running inside, and they have collected a league high six rushing touchdowns on rushes outside the tackles since Week 15. As with the interior running game, this is shaping up to be a titanic battle on the outside with an improved Baltimore run defense. In six games dating back to Week 16 the Ravens have yielded only 3.86 yards per carry outside the tackles and, crucially, have missed only nine tackles on 74 carries (8.22 carries per MT), having missed 29 tackles on 138 carries (4.76) from Weeks 1 to 14.
The key differentiator once again though is the read option, which is something the Ravens have seen only a limited amount of this season — in fact, just 14 snaps of it. On those limited plays they yielded 6.6 yards per carry and missed five tackles. The personnel the 49ers are able to isolate against the option will be crucial as to whether they are able to get any big plays to the outside. While Paul Kruger has been prone to blowing contain on occasion this season, though it has never led to a jailbreak big play, Courtney Upshaw has been a Jarrett Johnson-esque wall in contain on the edge. The 49ers form and consistency again gives them the edge, but if the Ravens can work their personnel effectively then they can tip the balance in this running matchup as well.
49ers on Offense: Pass Rush vs. Pass Protection
Having ranked as the No. 1 offensive line in the NFL this season, it should come as no surprise to see the 49ers given the edge in this area of the game. While players like Anthony Davis gave glimpses of their past weaknesses at times this season, and Mike Iupati had a letdown in the NFC championship game, the 49ers’ offensive line has been a consistent calming factor in front of whichever quarterback they have been protecting this season.
What further tips the balance in favor of the 49ers’ pass protectors here is the running threat of Colin Kaepernick. Simply put, the Ravens’ pass rushers cannot afford to ‘sell out’ on their pass rushes and risk getting caught out of their lanes. Do that and you risk the treatment Kaepernick gave the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs (5 scrambles, 75 yards, 1 touchdown). Combine this need for caution with a Ravens’ pass rush that has far from set the world alight in the playoffs, save for Paul Kruger’s effort against Indianapolis, and you have a clear advantage for the 49ers.
49ers on Offense: Short Passing
The more I think about this matchup, the more it becomes a matter of strength against strength and, quite astonishingly, I’m giving the edge to the defense this time, despite it facing a short-passing game that has a simply astonishing 14:1 touchdown to interception ratio this season. Colin Kaepernick may not immediately come to mind as an accurate, short-passing, chain-moving quarterback, but he has maintained a relative efficiency for the 49ers when they do look short — although, that isn’t often. Dating back to Week 15, the 49ers are completing 65.3% of their short targets, and are collecting around 8.7 yards per completion, roughly in line with the league average.
However, they are going up against a short-passing defense that is one of the few in the league that, over the course of the season, has picked up more interceptions than it has yielded touchdowns, which is a testament to their red-zone and goal-to-go pass defense. Since Week 15, the Ravens have allowed a miserly 60.7% of passes to be completed and only 4.37 yards per attempt on short targets. They have also maintained their form by taking more interceptions from their opponents (four) than they have allowed touchdowns (three). The 49ers will presumably look to open the underneath by stretching the Ravens’ passing defense vertically, but if they can’t do that then this is a clear advantage to the Ravens.
49ers on Offense: Intermediate Passing
Passes targeted between 10 and 19 yards downfield is not a strong suit for either quarterback in this game, and on recent form Colin Kaepernick only just edges Joe Flacco in the matchup. However, this is a matchup against the Ravens’ pass defense, not the Ravens’ signal-caller, and the Ravens’ relative weakness in this area of the field makes this arguably the key battle ground for each unit. On form the Ravens are giving up a subpar 59% completion percentage on intermediate targets, but what they are doing well is limiting those gains, giving up fewer than 15 yards per completion on intermediate targets since Week 15, which is among the league’s Top 10.
This is a key area for the 49ers to get Vernon Davis involved in the game, as the Ravens do a good job of limiting big plays to tight ends (two touchdowns allowed, six interceptions claimed on targets to tight ends this season), but give up a fairly healthy completion percentage (66.0% since Week 15). In terms of an athletic matchup, Vernon Davis has the edge over the Ravens’ inside linebackers and if he is able to bring that advantage to bear, and draw Bernard Pollard down to cover him, then that could open up the deep passing game. However, if Kaepernick can’t hit the intermediate targets, perhaps even despite the Ravens opening it up by looking to take away the deep ball, then this key battleground will have been won by the Ravens.
49ers on Offense: Deep Passing
The theme of strength vs. strength continues on the deep ball, where the Ravens’ formidable deep-pass defense (yielding only seven deep completions on 27 targets since Week 15) comes up against the 49ers’ astonishingly efficient (16/32, 5 touchdowns) deep passing game. As this is another area where neither team has a clear advantage, this time due to strength rather than relative weakness, it could well be decided by what is opened up elsewhere. Just as the option is a wildcard in the running game, so it is here as the 49ers look to open up the deep ball by drawing the Ravens up to stop the run.
The Ravens’ wildcard is the seemingly dormant Ed Reed — he has failed to snag an interception since Week 13, and has only two since way back in Week 3. Is Reed past it, a non-factor that teams have learned to take out of the game? Well, if they have then with two weeks planning the 49ers will surely reinforce that by finding ways to make plays deep without bringing him into the game — which should sternly test Kaepernick’s ability to look players off down the field.
On form, the Ravens have the defense to take away the 49ers’ deep passing game, but this battle ground will likely be won in the trenches. If the Ravens can at least limit the 49ers’ ground game without needing to bring players up into the box, or have DBs cheat to take away the outside, then they can stop this San Francisco deep game. If not, then it will take a herculean effort from the Baltimore secondary to take away the deep ball.
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Ben Stockwell | Director of Analysis
Ben joined Pro Football Focus in 2007, and has since been in charge of the company’s analysis process. He also contributes to PFF’s weekly NFL podcast.