Setting the Edge: SB XLVII – Ravens On Offense
Ben Stockwell begins his Super Bowl XLVII analysis by taking a look at how the Raven's offense stacks up against the 49ers' defense -- could it all hinge on the ...
Setting the Edge: SB XLVII – Ravens On Offense
In a game featuring two teams coached by siblings, it’s fitting they mimic each other in the key areas each needs to win if they are to be hoisting a Lombardi Trophy on Bourbon Street come Sunday night.
Much like the 49ers’, the Ravens’ offense (although with a different way of going about it) is all about winning with the ground game and using it to get over the top of defenses with the deep ball. Baltimore has a good offensive line, some extremely talented tailbacks and a quarterback who has lit up the deep game on their run to the Super Bowl. In a typically old-school style, the Ravens pull no punches about the key areas of their offense, and against a very straight-laced defense like the 49ers’ they can be fairly confident about the looks they’re going to get, and how they can try to exploit them. The encounter between the Ravens’ offense and the 49ers’ defense is going to be all about execution and winning your matchups.
Here’s our look at who has the edge going into Sunday’s game.
Ravens on Offense: Inside Running
The Ravens’ personnel usage will be a fascinating variable when they try to run the ball inside. Since Jim Caldwell took over the play-calling duties from the jettisoned Cam Cameron in Week 15, the Ravens have used ’11’ and ’12’ personnel for more than 75% of their offensive snaps. However. their play-calling tendencies in those formations are very predictable. In ’11’ personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) the Ravens’ run the ball less than 25% of the time, while in ’21’ personnel (2RB, 1 TE, 2 WR) they run the ball 66% of the time — clearly they aren’t concerned about showing their hand.
The variable this brings into play is that ’21’ personnel will almost certainly bring the 49ers into their base defense, with Isaac Sopoaga on the field at nose tackle. Sopoaga has graded poorly as a run defender this season (-5.6) and the 49ers have done well to limit him to 357 snaps, but the Ravens could really expose this weakness at the heart of the 49ers’ run defense by sticking with their base personnel. That is unless they fancy their chances better with more space in a three-wide set, which takes the nose tackle out of the equation and leaves more room, in theory, inside to split the 49ers’ end pairing of Justin Smith and Ray McDonald. Since returning from injury in the playoffs, Smith has been in excellent form (+4.5) against the run, and whichever set they are in, keeping him quiet will be crucial to the Ravens’ making use of their quality on the inside.
Ravens on Offense: Outside Running
The Ravens don’t look to run outside terribly often — 75 outside runs compared to 117 inside runs since Week 15 — but against a 49ers’ run defense that has shown a weakness against outside runs in recent weeks that tactic may change. Since Week 15, keyed by 78 yards given up outside the tackles in Seattle, the 49ers have yielded 5.5 yards per carry to the outside, and are missing a tackle once every five carries to the outside. The Ravens’ ballcarriers have matched this output, collecting 17 forced missed tackles on those 75 outside runs in their past six games. Baltimore would be well served to kick the tires on this apparent weakness early on to try to open up the interior of the 49ers’ run defense.
Going inside is running into the proverbial hornet’s nest, and exposing yourself to the likes of Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and NaVorro Bowman. If the Ravens can pick up consistent gains, and maybe even break off a long run, this will force the 49ers to turn their attention outside and give Ray Rice more room to work inside. With an offense that is so predictable this will be hard work for the Ravens, but they have proven to be up to the task in recent weeks, and have sprung key runs when they were needed.
Ravens on Offense: Pass Rush vs. Pass Protection
For a team that looks to set up the deep passing game as an integral part of their offense, giving Joe Flacco the time to look deep will be pivotal for the Ravens’ success in New Orleans. Fortunately for Flacco his re-jigged offensive line has hit a purple patch in the playoffs and is coming up against a San Francisco pass rush that has not been the same since Justin Smith went down, temporarily, with a triceps injury. While Smith has returned and been a force as a run defender, he has been a non-factor as a pass rusher. On his outside, Aldon Smith has not been the same since Justin went down, although he finally showed his ability with a much improved game against Atlanta last weekend. This is a key area for the 49ers to potentially cut down the Ravens’ passing game before it can take flight, but they would need to buck their recent trend of poor form. The key to San Francisco getting pressure may be in getting creative with where Aldon Smith lines up, and trying to get him some more favorable matchups than just looking to get around Bryant McKinnie on every single snap.
Ravens on Offense: Short Passing
Neither quarterback in this game is a nickel-and-dime chain mover, as neither has the accuracy or the patience to consistently keep their offense rolling down the field with the short passing game. However, Flacco is a level below Colin Kaepernick in that regard, and, with a completion percentage of 63.3% on short passes in recent weeks, the Ravens are barely pushing average in terms of efficiency. However, what they do well is maximize the opportunities they get, having collected more than 9 yards per completion and five touchdown passes on short targets since Week 15.
The 49ers similarly aren’t pulling up any trees in terms of limiting completions, but they do limit gains very well on short passes — they are tied with Baltimore for third-best with 7.19 yards per completion on short targets since Week 15. The Ravens’ lack of overpowering efficiency tips the balance in favor of the 49ers, but the short passing game is likely to be a matchup of key situations rather than consistency, as neither team leans on it to drive their offense. With that in mind, it will be all about whether the 49ers can close and make tackles to prevent the Ravens’ receivers from turning short catches into intermediate and long gains.
Ravens on Offense: Intermediate Passing
This is an area of relative weakness for the 49ers’ defense but, fortunately for them — and it’s the reason they have the edge — on current form the Ravens are simply not cut out to take advantage. For the season the Ravens are completing only 48.3% of their intermediate targets, and on form over the past six weeks they are actually even less efficient in terms of completion percentage and yards per attempt. The 49ers aren’t even average statistically at defending intermediate passes, but Flacco and the Ravens have been so poor in this region that the 49ers still hold the edge for no other reason than you need to be able to hit these passes to exploit the weakness that the defense is giving you.
There will be windows for Flacco and the Ravens to hit here, so this becomes a question of whether they can do so. Even on his current playoff run Flacco is completing only 40% of his intermediate passes. The real battle ground for the Ravens’ passing game will be the deep ball, but if they can hit on some of their intermediate targets in front of the safeties and corners things will really open up downfield.
Ravens on Offense: Deep Passing
The deep ball has been the story of the Ravens’ passing game and Flacco’s numbers on the deep ball, 12/24, 416 yards, 4 TDs, 0 INTs, are what is driving both his stat line and the his team’s unlikely Super Bowl run. That ratio extends to the whole season as well, with Flacco sporting a startling 15:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio on deep balls. The Ravens’ deep passing game may not be as astonishingly efficient as that of Kaepernick and the 49ers, but it has come up with many of the plays that have got Baltimore to this point.
To make the Ravens and Flacco feel even better about their chances of making plays down the field in this game, they are coming up against a 49er defense that has struggled against the deep ball late on in the season. Though for the season the 49ers’ deep coverage was among the league’s best (27.5% completion percentage allowed, 9.4 yards per attempt, six interceptions versus five touchdowns allowed) their current form puts them among the league’s worst. Since Week 15 they have allowed a completion percentage of 46.4%, and four of their five deep touchdowns allowed this season have come in that five game spell. Is this simply a case of teams not hitting on the deep ball in the majority of the regular season, or the 49ers’ defenders hitting a wall in terms of their ability to defend the deep ball?
One thing is for sure, they are facing a Ravens’ deep passing game that is coming in red hot. The 49ers’ season-long résumé shows they are capable of taking the edge off the Ravens’ deep passing game, but Baltimore will be sure to give them a stern test as to whether this recent deep pass defense is the real San Francisco. If it is, then this one area of weakness could undo the 49ers’ overall edge in the Super Bowl.
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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.