Super Bowl XLVII: By The Grades

Which Super Bowl team is entering the game in better shape? Sam Monson looks at the PFF grades for each over the course of the season and in recent weeks ...

| 4 years ago

Super Bowl XLVII: By The Grades

It’s Super Bowl week once more, which means a whole host of content up on PFF previewing the biggest game of the season using the most in-depth data out there. Where else to begin but with a look at how each team stacks up when it comes to grading.

If you’re a newcomer to PFF, or simply not a PFF Premium member (Really, why not? Take a look at what’s on offer here), you might not be familiar with PFF’s bedrock: the grading. We grade every player on every play in every game of the NFL season either side of 0.0, and the numbers we present at the end are the best single measure of a player’s performance anywhere. It is the only number out there that takes every single snap into account and removes the distortion that the base stats can have — a great throw is a great throw, even if a receiver lets it bounce off his hands and into the arms of a defender for an interception.

So what do these grades tell us about our Super Bowl participants, and where does the advantage lie?


You’ll hear a lot this week about defense still winning championships, and how this game marks a throwback to some tough old days of football. That might be true for the 49ers, who have one of the league’s most intimidating and dominant defenses. However, the Ravens have not made this run because of their defense, rather its due to the improved play of Joe Flacco.

The 49ers, over the course of the season, hold a clear and distinct advantage when it comes to PFF grades, and have had a far better defense than the Ravens the majority of the year. They have several players selected to PFF Pro Bowl rosters (AFC here with NFC here) and All-Pro teams and few weak links. Their two lowest-graded players have combined for a total of 546 snaps, or fewer than 50% of the defensive snaps this season, so they have been able to minimize any negatives they did have.

By contrast, the Ravens have had definite struggles in most areas. From the defensive line to the secondary each unit has had at least one weak link consistently throughout the season. Though Haloti Ngata remained their best defensive lineman even in a relative down season for him, the play of Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Terrence Cody up the middle has been a problem.

However, the team that will suit up on Super Bowl Sunday is not the same Baltimore Ravens squad that stumbled their way into the playoffs backward by virtue of an ugly collapse at the end of the regular season. So, are they a more formidable outfit if we look just at which side comes into the game with the better form? If we start our look at both teams beginning in Week 15 (discounting Baltimore’s Week 17 farce when they had nothing to play for and we saw backups all over the field), we have an equal number of games for each side and we see a far different picture.

In this scenario the Ravens actually take the edge when it comes to run defense and pass rush, and narrow the gap significantly in most other areas. The return of Ray Lewis may not have had a massive impact on the team from his play (he has yet to grade positively since his comeback, despite racking up tackles) but he has had a clear and quantifiable effect on the play of those around him. The 49ers have had the better defensive unit over the season, but on form going into this game it is almost a dead heat.


On offense things are far more complex. Looking at the full-season picture for both teams is almost misleading, since half of San Francisco’s data comes with Alex Smith under center, and the Ravens have fluctuated so much in form. That being said, we can clearly see the strength of the 49ers’ offense — led by the league’s most dominant O-line — in their edge overall and in the running game.

When we apply the same form filter we used before, we get to see each unit more reflective of how they come into this game. Joe Flacco has eliminated the mistakes that hurt his grade during the season and, despite the outstanding performance from Colin Kaepernick, the Ravens maintain an advantage in the passing game. The 49ers again run away with things when it comes to the run game, aided by the added dimension from the option wrinkles they have incorporated and expanded upon since they made the switch under center.

Baltimore has been able to keep Flacco upright, but the performance of their running game hasn’t been quite as spectacular as some of the numbers may suggest. Even Ray Rice’s 131-yard day against the Broncos took 30 carries and came with just one touchdown on the ground. The Ravens don’t have the luxury of the read-option to help them break open a defense and need instead to do things the old fashioned way. They have been able to generate the yardage in this playoff run, but it has been tougher sledding than San Francisco has had.

The Bottom Line?

When you look at the PFF grading you see a clear and definitive edge to the 49ers on both sides of the ball. They didn’t have any obvious weak links dragging down the performance of their units in all three phases of the game. However, there is a clear impact if we look at the Baltimore team on form, rather than on their full season. If we look at Baltimore since they began to play better, and especially on defense since the return of Ray Lewis and the announcement that this would be his final season in the league, we see a far different team. The Ravens team that enters the Super Bowl does so on a run of form that far outstrips their baseline for the season, and makes them a much closer rival for the 49ers.

On form, San Francisco maintains its edge on both offense and defense, but it’s suddenly a much closer race. Don’t discount the Ravens because of what you saw them do earlier in the season. They enter this game on a much higher plane of performance.


Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Matt

    It’s true Flacco is what put the Ravens over the top and into the Super Bowl.  But I don’t think these stats are a good measure of what’s going to happen on Sunday.  The Ravens are a different team than they were at any point during the season.  Even in the playoffs, they have improved each game.  The D in particular.  Sure they have obvious weaknesses.  But when put Ed Reed and Ray Lewis on the field together, who needs a DC.  Lewis may have lost a little in his step, but he’s at his all time best right now, at winning the chess match with the QB.  Lewis can figure the other teams audible, adjustment and other signals by the end of the 1st qtr.   They already know what plays a team runs coming into a game, save for the wrinkles that are thrown in for each game.  As the game unfolds Lewis takes the QB signals he’s hearing/seeing, what play unfolds, cross references against his film study on the team, and he pretty much is in their playbook at that point.  He then starts calling his own audibles and adjustments to counter the QBs.  When they reached this point in all 3 playoff game it became very hard for the other team to put up points.  Against the Colts Lewis had the signals down seemingly within the first 2-3 drives.  Against the Broncos, the Ravens D only allowed 7 pts in the final 54:18 of the game.  From 7:26 left in the 2nd qtr through 1:52 into the 2nd overtime when the game ended.  Against the Pats, they shut them out the entire 2nd half.  NE had 6 2nd half drives…punt, punt, fumble, downs, int, int.  Out of their 12 total drives in the game, 9 ended in a punt, fumble, downs or int.  2 more were red zone stands, where a FG was forced once NE got in the red zone.  Also the running game is on the upswing as well.  vs Colts: 32-170, 5.3; vs Broncos: 39-155, 4.0; vs Pats: 33-121, 3.7.  In all 3 games combined they only had 3 runs for for a loss losing only 3 yards.  Forget the 3.7 avg vs NE. They just went through 3 straight games, against playoff teams, and rushed 30+ in each game, and only had 3 negative plays.  Not only is it impressive but, it also shows how consistent the running game is.  They aren’t getting big plays from it.  But they are gaining yards every time they run it. They are forcing the D to have to stop the run first, which is setting up some great passing from Flacco.  And over the 3 playoff games rushing they are 104-446, 4.3, 3 TDs, 19 First Downs, 3 negative runs, 2 fumbles lost.  They are avg per game, 35-149, 1 TD, 6 1st downs, 1 negative run, .67 fumbles.  So right now they are running the ball like a top 5 run attack.  The only red flag is Ray Rice’s 2 fumbles against the Colts.  They definitely have to protect the ball.  I just think the matchups are in the Ravens favor in this game.  They are playing at a very heightened level.  SF can cause problems if they get the between the tackles run game going. ANd then Kap can win the game from the pocket. But the Ravens have seen the read option already, they have a good strategy.  They did give up some yards but they contained it pretty well.  They sealed the ends and forced the run back inside, and anytime they close enough to hit the QB (like right after he pitches it) the did.  This was against Washington.  They also contained long runs on the back end.  Always leaving one safety valve deep to stop breakaways.  I think they match up well with the WRs and TEs too.  It’s really a matter of them keeping the SF line from moving the LOS, which they do very well.  And they have to get a consistent run attack, and take those deep shots.  I think they win this with persistent running inside and deep balls on the outside.  But this article is still right in the sense that the game rest on Flacco.  Even if they set the table for him, he has to find and hit those big plays like he’s been doing. 

    • Adam

      Ravens saw the run option by RGIII who had 4.9 yards per carry and threw for 242 while injured mostly.  Sorry, while a stud, RGIII didn’t play at the level that Kap is playing at right now and Washington runs a far weaker variety of the Run Option.  Ravens are here on a busted, pee-weefootball, mistake by Denver.  Ravens haven’t played a great defense like the 49ers this post-season and not since Steelers in Week 13 (Flacco 24 QBR/62 QB Rating that game).  Lastly, when they face a team with rushing attack, they tire out like when Alfred Morris gashed them for 130 yards (5.6 yards per carry)?  Certainly zero rushing ‘attack’ this post-season: Denver 16th and Indy 22nd rushing in the league. While NE is higher, lets chalk that up to 4th Quarter running out the clock in the easiest division in football, the AFC East (Buff, Miami, NYJ… lol).  

      Maybe the antler ointment will give Ray Lewis speed to run sideline-to-sideline catching Kap, Gore, and LaMichael James.

      • Adam

        he wasn’t injured until the end